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Why the world’s climate and environment NGOs trying to erase Taiwan from the map?

In recent years, Beijing has expanded its efforts to isolate Taiwan – which it considers a breakaway province, to be united with mainland China by force if necessary – on the global stage.

Taiwan has its own democratic government, currency, and passport, and has been self-governed for more than half a century. However, under its one-China policy, mainland China maintains that nations cannot have official relations with both Beijing and Taipei, resulting in the island enjoying formal diplomatic ties with just 13 sovereign states.

Taiwan and its passport-holders have been blocked from attending United Nations events – including, most notably, the World Health Assembly – and forced to compete in international sporting events such as the Olympics under the moniker “Chinese Taipei.”

Increasingly, the private sector has also been pressured. In 2018, American and European airlines and hotels began removing any mention of Taiwan as a country on their booking platforms and websites.

“It’s ridiculous to see that entities or individuals in democracy would subscribe to China’s discourse,” Yu-Jie Chen, an assistant research professor at Academia Sinica in Taiwan, told HKFP by phone. “These companies censor themselves for the sake of business, and that’s very unfortunate.”

‘We should expect more of these organisations’

But what about civil society? Analysis of 50 major Europe- and North America-based global non-profit organisations – focused on issues ranging from the environment, human rights, press freedom, poverty, and health – showed that environmental and climate groups were the most likely to include Taiwan as part of China, or exclude it altogether, in maps and reports. 

“If non-profits exclude Taiwan, it’s a form of hypocrisy,” said Chen. “We should expect more of these organisations than [we do of] businesses that are trying to make a deal in China.”

Of 21 major global environmental non-profits, 12 published maps or reports between 2018 and 2023 that included Taiwan as part of China. Most others either did not publish maps of Asia or list the countries they operated in. Only three non-profits – 350.org, the IUU Fishing Index, and Global Energy Monitor – included Taiwan as a separate entity.

The website for 350.org is one of few that shows Taiwan as a separate entity from mainland China

Taiwan was included as part of China in The Nature Conservancy’s 2022 impact report, WildAid’s 2018 Sea Turtles report, and on the websites of the Coalition of Rainforest Nations and Global Fisheries Watch. None of these groups responded to several requests to clarify their position on Taiwan, and whether they considered it part of China. 

The World Resources Institute (WRI), which has a map on its website showing Taiwan within China’s borders, responded by email saying it did “not take a position on or endorse geographical or political boundaries. The boundaries and other information on any map displayed by WRI do not imply an opinion on the legal status of any territory or endorsement or acceptance of such boundaries.”

The Worldwide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) international media department provided a similar emailed response, saying: “WWF uses UN maps… We are a non-partisan organisation and this does not imply the expression of any opinion concerning the legal status of any country, territory, or area.”

Taiwan is also missing from environmental and climate data sources released by non-profit organisations. Climate Action Tracker has no listing for Taiwan and WRI’s data platform, Resource Watch, has no data from Taiwan for numerous indicators, including climate, biodiversity, and water. 

Global Footprint Network’s data platform, which measures how many ecological resources are used, similarly has no data for Taiwan.  For I-Chan Cheng, deputy secretary-general of the Environmental Quality Protection Foundation, a Taiwan-based non-profit, this is worrying. 

“The incorporation of Taiwan data into China is not welcome, as this cannot help us understand the real situation in Taiwan,” Cheng said by email. “As the country with the 21st largest GDP in the world, Taiwan deserves to be included in the evaluation by various international organisations in various indicators.”

A spokesperson from Global Footprint Network, by email, said that they “use internationally available data from multiple datasets for all countries,” but did not respond to follow-up questions asking if they would add Taiwan if that data was provided or available.

Global Footprint Network website displays “no results found” when Taiwan is searched for

In fact, Taiwan has been recognised by groups including non-profit Open Data Watch and OpenGov Asia, a content-sharing platform, for its open data and transparency. The island’s Ministry of the Interior has also made available data on land use, protected land, and commodity production.

Data access did not appear to have been a barrier for groups like Transparency International, which ranks countries based on corruption, the Global Peace Index, or the Trans Rights Index, all of which include Taiwan as a separate entity.

Chien-Huei Wu, a research fellow at the Institute of European and American Studies in Taiwan, thinks other factors are at play.

“Environmental and climate change groups have a stake in China, so they have to care about what China might do,” Wu told HKFP by phone. “I believe the explanation is that they are tempted to comply with the demands and requirements of the Chinese government.”

Only one, Netherlands-based Solidaridad Network, explained why it included Taiwan as part of China in its annual report, saying by email that “at the request of our colleagues in China we have coloured Taiwan as part of China in order to follow the official Chinese government regulations.”

‘A difficult position’

Solidaridad has an office in mainland China, along with nine of the 12 climate and environmental non-profits that excluded Taiwan or considered it part of China. To operate in China means following its strict NGO law, which came into force in 2017. It requires foreign non-profits to register with a ministry and have their yearly plans approved by the Chinese authorities. 

“Environmental non-profits are in a difficult position, they have to protect their Chinese staff, who are a lot more vulnerable than their Western staff,” said Isaac Stone Fish, formerly a China-based journalist and now CEO of Strategy Risks, a consultancy that supports organisations operating in China. “That risk matrix really highlights the difficulty of maintaining operations in China with your values intact.”

The argument seems to be that the benefits to environmental protection and climate action of collaborating with Beijing are worth it. This is a choice that does not exist for human rights, civic, and press freedom groups, which have never been able to operate in mainland China and were the most likely to include Taiwan in their reports.

“They don’t have a market in China,” said Wu. “Because they focus on freedom, democracy and human rights, they are hated by China and they also hate China to some degree, if I put it very bluntly. So the influence of China or the possibility of being sanctioned is of little to no significance for human rights or press freedom groups.”

They are, notably, now also increasingly limited in Hong Kong, where many civil society groups have disbanded since the passage of the national security law in June 2020. The following year, Amnesty International cited concerns about the law’s impacts on its human rights advocacy when it announced the closure of its office. Other organisations, like the New School for Democracy and the Global Innovation Fund, moved to Taiwan, which had been ranked by Civicus as the place in Asia that best respects freedom of assembly, association, and expression.

Invisible environmental borders

Over the past few years, Beijing’s efforts to influence discourse in democracies have attracted increasing attention. The fact that so many US and European environmental non-profits are willing to accept the Chinese narrative on Taiwan, without protest, should be of greater concern, Chen said.

“International organisations are supposed to be impartial and objective,” said Wu. “But in practice they are more and more subject to Chinese interference, and I think this is a very serious trend. Their behaviour or their conduct has to be held accountable.”

For the Environmental Quality Protection Foundation, such interference also limits its opportunity to engage globally on core issues.

“Many Taiwanese NGOs have difficulty interacting with China and China’s allies because of their close interaction with the Taiwan government,” said Cheng. “The main annoyance is that it creates an invisible barrier to work in environmental matters, which should be the most borderless.”

Nithin Coca for HKFP

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