Row over Taiwan plan to romanise Chinese

By Goh Sui Noi, The Straits Times, 11 October 2000

A furore has followed the Education Ministry's announcement that a locally-developed system has been adopted over the Chinese system.

TAIPEI—A new political storm appears to be brewing here over the adoption of a romanisation system for the Chinese language, even as the one over the building of a nuclear-power plant has begun to abate.

The Education Ministry's weekend announcement of the adoption of a locally-developed romanisation system, known as tongyong pinyin, or general use romanisation system, has raised a political furore.

Taiwan's opposition parties charged that the ministry's decision was politically motivated while some government ministries objected to the system on practical grounds.

The ministry's Mandarin Promotion Committee was tasked in June to look for a standard romanisation system of the Chinese language.

It decided against the hanyu pinyin system, developed in China, even though the legislature had reached a consensus to adopt it in July last year.

The committee's decision came just one week after the Economics Ministry's recommendation to stop work on a fourth nuclear-power plant precipitated the resignation of Premier Tang Fei, who favoured its completion, and plunged the island into political uncertainty.

This has led to a general sense that President Chen Shui-bian has let ideology slip into what should be professional decisions on public policies.

Part of the platform of his Democratic Progressive Party are the opposition to nuclear energy and the promotion of local culture.

The problem is compounded by the fact that members of the promotion committee, in existence since 1981, were changed when the new government came into power, a move read as deliberate, to push for the new administration's favoured system.

Mr Chen had in fact started using the tongyong system for street signs in Taipei city when he was its mayor from 1994 to 1998.

Some Taiwanese, including members of the opposition, have accused the new government of rejecting hanyu pinyin simply because it originates in China.

The conclusion to adopt the tongyong pinyin system was made for political reasons and demonstrates the new government's anxiety over unification with China, said Mr Lin Cheng-hsiou, director of the Taipei city government's Bureau of Civil Affairs.

The fear is shown in purposely disregarding the system employed in China—the hanyu pinyin system, he said.

Also, the decision flies in the face of the consensus reached last year to make use of the hanyu system in Taiwan.

He added: The new government owes the public a reasonable explanation. How come a formally agreed-upon policy could be so drastically changed within a year?

For a start, the change would mean that road signs made according to the Chinese romanisation system adopted some years ago have to be replaced.

The Transport Ministry has balked at the cost of doing so, saying it had nearly completed changing road signs based on the earlier system and replacing them would involve huge spending of public funds. Responding to the criticism, Education Minister Ovid Tseng said both the tongyong and hanyu pinyin systems would be put up to the Cabinet for consideration. A decision is expected by the end of the year.