Taiwan risks Beijing's wrath with Olympics referendum

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen: under fire from Beijing

Taiwanese campaigners Monday submitted hundreds of thousands of signatures asking for the island to compete as "Taiwan" and not "Chinese Taipei" in the next Olympics, paving the way for a referendum that will incense Beijing.

China, which still claims sovereignty over self-ruling democratic Taiwan, is particularly sensitive to the island's use of names, emblems and flags at international events.

These sensitivities -- backed up by Beijing's clout on the world stage -- mean Taiwan is forced to compete as "Chinese Taipei" at the Olympics and other international sports competitions.

An organisation called Team Taiwan Campaign for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics collected more than 520,000 signatures, many more than the 280,000 signatures needed for a petition to be put to a public vote.

If vetted and approved by the Central Election Commission, the referendum will be held to coincide with local elections on November 24.

Then, if 25 percent of around 19 million eligible voters across the island vote in favour, and providing the "yes" votes surpass "no" votes, the government must draw up a bill that reflects the results -- which then goes to a parliamentary vote.

"I hope the international community will continue to care about Taiwan's situation so we can be treated fairly," said athlete Chi Cheng, Taiwan's first female Olympic medallist who co-led the campaign.

"I hope all Taiwanese can come out (to vote) on November 24 to let Taiwan be Taiwan," added Huang Kuo-chang, chairman of the independence-leaning New Power Party, who supports the referendum.

The name-change campaign has already irked China, with Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office previously warning that Taiwan would "swallow its own bitter fruit" and sacrifice its athletes' chances to compete in international games.

Its anger over the potential referendum was blamed for the cancellation of an international youth event due to be held in Taiwan next year. The event was axed following a vote by the East Asian Olympic Committee in July.

Beijing has been stepping up pressure on Taiwan, including ramping up military drills and poaching its official diplomatic allies, since President Tsai Ing-wen came to power two years ago.

China unilaterally cut off official communication with Tsai's government after she took office because she refuses to acknowledge that the island is part of "one China."