UBC quietly changes references to Taiwan amid sensitive political climate

UBC has quietly made a significant change in the way it refers to Taiwan in its annual enrolment report.

In past reports, the university simply listed the island as “Taiwan,” but in the recent 2019/20 enrolment report, it was lengthier: “Taiwan (Province of China).”

In a written statement from Kurt Heinrich, UBC Media Relations senior communications director, he said this is because in 2018, UBC’s data governance steering committee adopted International Organization for Standardization (ISO) data standards.

The ISO, which is recognized by the United Nations, has referred to Taiwan as “Province of China” since 1974 under ISO 3166, and the UN switched its recognition of China from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China (Mainland China) in 1971.

In a later email, the university stated that the adoption of ISO standards was “necessary for the university’s successful transition to Workday,” UBC’s partner for its software overhaul that will replace aging systems. Elsewhere on UBC websites, however, the island is still referred to as “Taiwan.”

The nature of Taiwan’s sovereignty is a deeply political debate. Taiwan, which boasts its own democratically elected government, claims to be an independent nation. Mainland China, on the other hand, claims Taiwan to be an integral province of China.

“To put ‘Province of China’ after the name is to politicize the name,” said Dr. Timothy Brook, a UBC professor and an expert in Chinese history.

Many countries have switched their allegiance from Taipei to Beijing in recent decades. In 1970, Canada severed diplomatic ties with Taipei in favour of Beijing, but Canada and Taiwan maintain strong trade and informal ties.

UBC’s decision to make the change to label Taiwan as a “Province of China” came at a low point in Chinese–Canadian relations, following the arrests of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver, and the two Michaels in China, which Brook described as “political hostage taking.”

For UBC, the stakes for appeasing China are high. Huawei has granted $9.5 million in funding for research projects at UBC in recent years, which continued even after Meng’s December 2018 arrest.

Chinese students make up more than one third of all international students at UBC. In 2019/20, international student tuition made up $507 million in revenue compared to $386 million from domestic students. Rising Canadian–Chinese tensions have made UBC administrators fear potential impacts on Chinese student enrolment and funding.

In 2019, Vice-Provost International Murali Chandrashekaran sent an email to colleagues calling for a campus-wide meeting to address this, “given our significant reliance on China for students/$.”

If diplomatic tensions reach a point where China restricts students from going to UBC, as Saudi Arabia did in 2018, UBC could face a significant credit risk, according to prominent credit agency Moody’s.

Anxieties surrounding Chinese interference also exist at other Canadian universities. At McMaster University, a Chinese student group had its club status revoked after allegations it reported a talk by a Uyghur–Canadian woman to the Chinese consulate. At the University of Toronto, Chemi Lhamo, student union president and Canadian of Tibetan origins, was met with widespread backlash by Chinese students after her election win.

Yves Tiberghien, a UBC political science professor focusing on China and the Asia-Pacific Region, said he “can’t imagine” that the change in recognition of Taiwan in the recent enrolment report was due to Chinese financial influence.

“If I had to guess,” he added, the technical committee that decided this likely “did not have the full knowledge” of the sensitive political nature of the Taiwan–China relationship.

According to Brook, however, it is “entirely possible” that there were some Chinese pressures. “I wouldn’t be surprised if every Chinese consulate in Canada was going around and looking at things like universities to see how [they] refer to Taiwan, but I have no evidence of this,” he said. “It would be entirely in keeping with the kind of broader diplomatic initiatives that the [People’s Republic of China]’s been making over the last five years.”

While the university claims the decision was made for technical purposes, it did not respond to a follow-up email asking whether the committee responsible for the change was aware of the political context around the name.

“I wish they hadn’t done it,” said Tiberghien. “I don’t think it’s a good idea because it’s stepping into something that’s raw right now … the last thing you want is to step into this now.”