Currently, Taiwan’s athletes must compete in Olympic and other international competitions under the banner “Chinese Taipei” under a 1979 IOC resolution.
Up until the 1970s, Taiwan competed at the Olympics under its official name, the Republic of China (ROC). That changed in 1971, with the decision by the United Nations to acknowledge Beijing as the only legitimate government of China.
Countries across the world quickly switched their diplomatic recognition of China from the government in Taipei to Beijing, leaving Taiwan isolated.
In 1976 and 1980 Taiwan boycotted the Olympic Games, after the host nations refused to allow its team to compete under the ROC moniker.
When Taiwan returned to the 1984 Olympics it was under the name “Chinese Taipei” following the 1979 agreement between the IOC and China that allowed the island to compete, but not use its own name, flag or anthem.
A referendum is unlikely to unravel that binding commitment, known as the Nagoya Resolution, which Taiwan signed in 1981.
In a statement to CNN on Thursday, the IOC said that the 1979 agreement “remains unchanged and fully applicable.”
Athletes risk losing out
Any recognition of Taiwan as a separate nation is resisted forcefully by China, which regards the island as a breakaway province, including in the world of sports. But public calls for an independent Taiwan are growing.
Spearheading the name change is the group “Team Taiwan Campaign for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics,” led by track and field Olympic medalist Chi Cheng.
Speaking at a protest earlier this year, Chi noted that Taiwan is the only member of the IOC prohibited from competing under its own name.
But other top athletes have publicly expressed opposition to the poll, wanting to ensure they keep the right to compete in future international competitions.
“Hard-working Taiwanese athletes need a stage on which to showcase their strengths so that people around the world can know that we are actually from Taiwan,” she said.
An amendment to the Referendum Act passed in January that lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 and decreased the number of signatures needed to initiate a referendum enabled those pushing for a name change to put the decision to the public.
The Olympic vote is just one of several referendums taking place on Saturday, and included in the raft of issues are votes on same-sex marriage, nuclear power and food imports from areas affected by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
To pass, a referendum now needs a quarter of eligible voters to approve it, rather than the 50% before the amendment.
The result is likely to mean more political pressure for President Tsai, whose Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will see Saturday’s local elections as a test for nationwide polls in 2020.
The name-change vote is widely seen as indicator of the depth of support among voters for the island’s independence movement. Should it pass, the DPP will be forced to choose between inflaming tensions with Beijing, or abiding by the will of the people.
Cross-strait relations have cooled under Tsai’s leadership and the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping has become more tenacious in asserting its claim over the island.
In addition to military displays of power, Beijing has ordered foreign airlines and other businesses to remove references to Taiwan as an independent entity from their websites. It has also excluded Taiwan from taking part in international forums, and pressured the island’s remaining allies to sever diplomatic relations with the territory.
James Griffiths contributed to this report.