Since COVID-19 has shut down sporting events in North America and many parts of the world, sports fans are desperately trying to find anything to watch. In North America, the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League had to suspend their seasons indefinitely, NCAA March Madness was cancelled, and Major League Baseball, which was set to start the season at the end of March, has not yet decided on a potential date to open the 2020 season despite creative contingent plans being floated around by league officials. With no baseball games on the schedule in North America, baseball enthusiasts can turn to Taiwan, where its professional baseball league started the season on April 11. To abide by social distancing policies of Taiwan, no fans are allowed in stadiums, but robot spectators fill the bleachers in lieu of actual people.
How can baseball be played in Taiwan under a global health crisis when almost every other league in the world has cancelled or postponed their seasons? Thanks to early and effective governmental measures to combat and contain the virus, along with an affordable and quality centralized health care system, Taiwan has received international praise for its success in mitigating the spread of the virus. Taiwan has managed to do this despite its exclusion from the World Health Organization (WHO) as well as its proximity to mainland China, where the virus originated. As of April 24, more than three months after Taiwan’s first reported COVID-19 case, there were only 428 total confirmed cases and 6 deaths in Taiwan. Everyday life has been minimally disrupted in Taiwan without large-scale closures or shutdowns. Restaurants and most businesses remain open. Social distancing policies were implemented by the government in early April, but with the level of risk lower than most other countries, baseball has returned to action.
Taiwan’s professional baseball league, the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL), has typically received little attention outside of Taiwan. Established in 1989, the CPBL currently includes four teams (CTBC Brothers, Uni-President Lions, Fubon Guardians, and Rakuten Monkeys) with a fifth team (Wei Chuan Dragons) expected to officially join the league in 2021. During the first weeks of the 2020 season, the international attention and media coverage were unprecedented in the league’s history. In response to the unexpected attention from the English-speaking world, the league soon arranged for English-language broadcasts alongside traditional broadcasts in Mandarin Chinese, and most games are streamed online for free. Such conditions provide a gateway for baseball fans around the world to be introduced to the island-nation’s rich and robust baseball culture.
Baseball was introduced to Taiwan by Japanese colonizers in the late 19th century, and the sport continued to thrive after the Japanese left. Since its introduction, baseball has been intertwined with the island’s geopolitical context as well as the national identities of Taiwanese people. Perhaps Taiwan’s most discussed success in sports was its domination of Little League Baseball from the 1970s through early 1990s, which was directly linked to strong governmental involvement by the Chinese Nationalist Party (or Kuomintang, KMT) which fled to Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War to the Chinese Communist Party in 1949. For the “Republic of China,” the KMT-controlled government in Taiwan, youth baseball had become an important venue for promoting Chinese nationalism in Taiwan and abroad. In the 1970s, the KMT government continued to claim that it was the only legitimate regime in mainland China, despite losing most of its support from the international community. Thus, Little League Baseball became one of the few arenas where the authoritarian regime could “win” its political and ideological battle.
After Taiwan went through a process of democratization in the 1990s, the cultural meaning of baseball also changed. The KMT was no longer the only powerful political party, and the ideology of Chinese nationalism gradually gave way to increased Taiwanese nationalism. Before the 1990s, people in Taiwan largely identified themselves as Chinese or both Chinese and Taiwanese, but citizens have increasingly started to embrace an exclusive Taiwanese national identity since the turn of the century when the KMT lost the presidential election in 2000. To put it simply, an important element of Taiwanese nationalism is an emphasis on the differentiation between being Chinese and Taiwanese. Politically, Taiwan has not been recognized as an independent country because of the constant political pressure from mainland China, but Taiwanese people argue that the distinction between China and Taiwan is obvious and significant in terms of history, culture, and political system. Under this context, baseball started to become an important cultural symbol because it was uniquely Taiwanese—it was very popular in Taiwan, but it had a marginal presence in mainland China.
During the COVID-19 crisis, baseball and Taiwanese nationalism have once again converged—Taiwan’s effective governmental measures have helped successfully prevent a widespread outbreak, which has allowed for the operation of professional baseball. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen sent several tweets during the league’s opening week, introducing this league to an international audience. Baseball players, fans, and league officials also took advantage of the surprising spotlight, and more and more information about the league was quickly made available in English. All of these efforts could be understood within the geopolitical context of Taiwan in which there has been a persistent desire to be recognized by the world, especially when actual military threats and political attacks from China remain constant.
Yet, there is a problem—the name of the league. After all, the league is called the “Chinese” Professional Baseball League, a fact that has already caused confusion among new followers from the English-speaking world. In fact, many new CPBL followers assumed that the games took place not in Taiwan but China, which could significantly undermine the essential message Taiwanese people wanted to send to the world: Taiwan is different from China. It remains to be seen how long the CPBL can enjoy this level of international attention when baseball elsewhere returns to action (the KBO, South Korea’s professional baseball, began its season in early May), but the 2020 CPBL season has already provided an example that sports can be heavily intertwined with the ongoing process of nation-making. The history of Taiwan, its complicated relationship with mainland China, and the changing and fluid national identities of Taiwanese people have made baseball more than just a cultural signifier of a nation. While it used to be a significant part of promoting a specific version of Chinese nationalism in the 1970s, baseball is now a symbol of Taiwanese nationalism which accompanies a proud effort to fight COVID-19.
Daniel Yu-Kuei Sun is a lecturer in Sport Management at Towson University. His research interests include 20th century American sport history, sport in Asian America, and sport in contemporary Taiwan.