Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Taiwan on Saturday in protest over increased threats from Beijing and to demand a referendum on a formal declaration of autonomy. However, more telling and representative will be a referendum next month on whether Taiwan should compete as “Taiwan” or “Chinese Taipei” in international sporting events, as their teams are currently obliged to do so under pressure from Beijing.

Saturday’s rally in Taipei was organized by the Formosa Alliance, a political coalition founded in April and backed by two pro-independence former presidents of Taiwan, Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian. The size of the rally ranged from 50,000 to some 130,000 protesters, many of whom were advocating for a referendum for the nation to use the name Taiwan instead of Republic of China (ROC), which connotes to some that Taiwan is a part of China.  

Spokespeople for the alliance said the rally was held to protest recent actions by Beijing to isolate and suppress Taiwan internationally and in response to the growing military threat from China.

In Kaohsiung, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) held a rally drawing some 10,000 protesters with the theme “Against Chinese Annexation” – without mention of an independence referendum. The DPP and its leader, the status quo-minded President Tsai Ing-wen, face mounting pressure as Beijing pushes its claims to the self-ruling democratic island and Taiwanese political factions counter with calls for a formal declaration of autonomy.

Existing legislation under Taiwan’s Referendum Act does not allow questions on matters touching on the constitution – including proposals about changing the national territory, flag and name. Beijing has warned any official declarations by Taipei of a split could lead to the People’s Republic of China taking the island by force.

Having loosely administered the island for some 200 years (1683-1895) under the Qing Dynasty, the successive PRC still considers Taiwan as part of its sacrosanct territory, despite never having ruled the island after driving Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces off the mainland at the end of a civil war in 1949. Yet Taiwan exists today as a de facto sovereign state, with its own currency, political, military and judicial systems.  

While estimates of crowd size are notoriously difficult to agree upon, large crowds should not be indications of widespread discontent. Even using the high end of estimates, 150,000 protesters represent just a small proportion of the total population of 23.5 million. However, the turnout of peaceful protesters does pay tribute to Taiwan’s vibrant democracy, and the rights of all Taiwanese to assemble freely.

On November 24, in conjunction with the “nine-in-one” local-government elections, a referendum (one of several) will be held on the name under which Taiwan should compete in international sporting events. For any referendum to pass, at least a quarter (4.8 million) of Taiwan’s 19.2 million eligible voters must cast an affirmative vote, with the “yes” votes outnumbering the “no” votes.  

Since changes to name are not allowed under the constitution, should at least 4.8 million Taiwanese come out to vote “yes” to compete internationally as “Taiwan,” the referendum may be viewed as a more representative indication of the desire of Taiwanese for greater de facto declarations of autonomy than the rallies held last weekend, especially by those in Beijing.