China stealth boycott looms for Taiwan's biggest sporting event

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during an interview in Luque, Paraguay, on June 28, 2016.
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during an interview in Luque, Paraguay, on June 28, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

TAIPEI (Bloomberg) - Next month's World University Games in Taipei have become the latest focal point of tensions between China and Taiwan, with many mainland athletes staying home.

No Chinese teams will take part in the global sporting event that begins Aug 18 - the largest ever hosted by the diplomatically isolated Taiwan. While Beijing has denied any official boycott, it's the first time in four decades that the games, also known as the Universiade, won't feature team competitors from the mainland.

In a possible sign of relief for Taiwan, at least 180 athletes from China signed up between Friday and Sunday to participate in individual competitions, as opposed to team sports. The registration deadline closes Wednesday.

The diminished Chinese delegation thrusts the collegiate competition into the middle of a flare up in one of Asia's trickiest political disputes. Chinese President Xi Jinping has been seeking to isolate Taiwanese counterpart Tsai Ing-wen over her refusal to publicly endorse the idea that Taiwan is part of China.

Since Tsai took office in May 2016, China, which considers Taiwan a province, has picked off two of the island's few remaining diplomatic partners. The government in Beijing has curbed tourist trips, pushed foreign countries to deport Taiwanese criminal suspects to the mainland and blocked the island from participating in international bodies.

'Strong Message'

"A Chinese boycott will have a very big impact," Chen Mu-min, a professor at National Chung Hsing University, said by phone. "It sends a very strong message to the Taiwanese public; cross-strait relations are bad right now. We won't support or participate in an event you have organised."

China previously informed the International University Sports Federation that it wouldn't send athletes to compete in any team events in Taipei - the first time since at least 1979. A spokesman for China's Taiwan Affairs Office told reporters in May that the schedule conflicted with the country's own national games scheduled to begin Aug 27.

  The China Post newspaper reported that Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je told reporters earlier this month that he had dismissed requests from Chinese officials to block Tsai's participation in the opening ceremony and to downgrade any references to her to Taiwan's "leader" rather than "president".

Any attempt to exert political pressure over a sporting event runs contrary to the Chinese government's oft-stated position in the run-up to the 2008 summer Olympic Games in Beijing. In the face of international criticism over press freedoms, pollution and human rights, then-President Hu Jintao urged foreign reporters not to mix politics and sports.

"China wants to show it's unhappy about the state of cross-strait relations," said Chang Ya-chung, a professor at National Taiwan University's department of political science.

"This will play on the minds of non-governmental groups organising any kind of exchanges."