ARMED WITH ONLY A PEN…

In Features /

In North Toronto’s Canada Passport Office, sour sweat infiltrates the nostrils and strangles the throat. Bodies sway, waiting for digits burned into their heads to match red numbers firing on a panel. Chi Fen Liu, 47, also waits — she’s number 97. The Eyeopener’s Diana Tseng reports.

Two hours pass. It’s 4:00 p.m. Flash. Number 97. Liu walks up to a middle-aged woman who screens her application and detects the anomaly: Taiwan.

“Please change the country to China, and put Taiwan under city,” the agent says.

“Taiwan was never a city. It’s my country,” Liu replies.

“If you write Taiwan as the country, your passport will be rejected when you enter China,” she is told in return.

***

On July 28, 2003, the Chinese government dictated that passports labelled Taiwan be changed to China. Liu, a Canadian citizen for over 10 years, wonders why China is interfering with her Canadian passport and why Canada is letting it happen.

Since WWII, Nationalist Taiwan considers itself autonomous, but China and Canada consider it a province.

Many Taiwanese-Canadians in Liu’s situation have sought out Kirk Lin, the vice president of the Taiwanese-Canadian Community Service Association in Toronto. Lin says the passport incident is one of China’s retaliations against Taiwan’s presidential elections March 20, 2004.

President Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party was re-elected advocating for Taiwan’s independence and severance of ties from mainland China. He won the elections by 29,518 votes, a difference of less than one per cent, against the Nationalist Kuomingtang party. The KMT ran pushing for eventual reunification and peaceful ties to China last summer, even with businesses and relatives there.

“This was a big community response. We’ve been insulted. Taiwan and China are enemy countries,” Lin says. Adamant that Taiwan is an autonomous country, Lin believes China has no right to mingle with Canadian passports.

“It is an internal affair,” he says. “It is our right to choose what our birthplace is. Nobody can choose for us — especially our enemy country.”

Lin joined forces with Peter Chiu, president of the Association of Taiwanese-Canadian Organizations in Toronto, to form the Taiwanese Organization Association.

In mid-July, Chiu fired letters at former prime minister Jean Chrétien, and Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham. He condemned “China’s shameful interference,” demanded disclosure of negotiations with China and insisted on apologies to Taiwanese-Canadians.

“We strongly protest the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s demonstrated incompetence on protecting the constitutional rights and travel rights of Canadians… and selling out Canada’s sovereignty to Communist china,” Chiu wrote.

Four months later, Bill Graham responded through e-mail. Graham, declared the concern of changing Taiwan to China to be unfounded. He admitted that the Chinese government had modified requirements for Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan.

“Visas will no longer be issued to Canadian passport holders whose place of birth is identified with a three-letter country code: ‘TWN’ for Taiwan, ‘HKG’ for Hong Kong, or ‘MAC’ for Macao,” Graham wrote. China is the only country in the world to deny visas to these three country codes.

***

Thirty seconds have passed in the North Toronto Passport Office. Although flanked by other numbers being screened, isolation hits Liu. She is the only one facing the cold message: relinquish her loyalty to Taiwan.

The pale face of the agent is sewn placidly, betraying no sympathy. He waits for Liu to make a choice: China or Taiwan. Taiwan or China?

“I never thought I would ever confront the Chinese government,” she says.

Suzanne Meunier, a spokesperson for the Passport Office, says that it’s impossible to please both sides.

“It’s so political,” she says. “We [passport office] want to facilitate travel for Canadians, to make their lives easier. So we stay neutral. We didn’t change the policy to please China.”

After the complaints, confusion and letter-writing campaigns of last summer, the new standard is to write Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Macao only and in full, without any country codes — a technical change to make travel possible.

“China told us they would be able to accept this,” Meunier says.

But Taiwanese-Canadians find it hard to swallow. The TOA says that Taiwan is different from Hong Kong and Macao. Sine 1997 and 1999 respectively, Hong Kong and Macao recognize themselves as parts of China. “[But] Taiwan is an independent country,” Peter Chiu says.

Inside the sterile visa office of the Chinese Consulate in Toronto, the only colour on the blank walls is grey— fingerprints streaked on by passing hands, Zhang Wentao, a visa officer, stares out from behind a panel of glass. His voice escapes through an inch of opening in the transparent casement.

“The change from Taiwan to China on the Canadian passport is only a technical issue that could be changed easily,” Zhang says, his voice mechanic. “We don’t force [Taiwanese] to write China.”

A cultural and political battle for Taiwan reduced to a technical blip for Canada and China.

“It is known that there is only one China in the world. Both Taiwan and Mainland China all belong to China,” Zhang blurts. Behind him on the wall, a pamphlet with gold writing glitters in the sunlight: “Continue to promote the reunification of China,” it reads.

“We will never allow there to be ‘two Chinas’ or ‘one China, one Taiwan’. We firmly oppose the independence of Taiwan. There are only two ways to settle the Taiwan question: one is by peaceful means and the other is by non-peaceful means.”

***

Twenty more seconds have passed. Chi Fen Liu is still standing at the screening booth in the Passport Office. She imagines China aiming missiles at Taiwan — a reality during Taiwan’s 2000 presidential elections. Pen poised, Liu needs to choose: China or Taiwan? Liu prints: T-A-I-W-A-N.

The agent stamps the form. A printer spits out a code of numbers for the new passport. Red numbers flash. Number 98 is next.

Liu marches from the agents that screen, approve, stamp, and print 800 numbers onto passports every day. She was number 97.

“I’m not a number,” she says.

That day, armed with her pen, she was a Taiwanese soldier.

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