For decades, Taiwan, a small island sandwiched between Japan and the Philippines, has faced turmoil over its political status. From 1971, when the United Nations expelled Taiwan and replaced their seat with China, to the recent major live-fire drills surrounding the island, Taiwan’s status as an independent country is consistently challenged despite having its own passport, currency, and democratically-elected government.
However, in the freediving world, Taiwan remained largely unnoticed until Vertical Blue 2021, a prestigious world record-status competition organized by world champion freediver William Trubridge. It was the first time Taiwanese athletes participated, so William placed the Taiwanese flag on the livestream, oblivious of the situation between Taiwan and China. Only after a Chinese partner informed him that the competition livestream in China had been interrupted due to someone spotting the Taiwanese flag did he remove the flag from the livestream upon request.
“I thought we were doing the wrong thing, so I removed it,” William told DeeperBlue.com. “Then I started looking into it myself and saw that – hang on, Taiwan is a sovereign nation, it is independent, and there’s no reason why these athletes shouldn’t be able to compete under their nation’s authentic flag. So we put it back in.” And so, the Taiwanese flag reappeared on Vertical Blue 2021’s livestream on the 4th day of the competition and remained there until the final day. While this was a small victory to celebrate for Taiwanese athletes, they weren’t aware of the harsh reality that would face them only two months later.
The following is an investigation into what happened over six months, including wide-ranging interviews with those directly affected by it. We also interviewed AIDA representatives and several sources close to the events that unfolded to find out the background of the events that unfolded and why they occurred.
Erasing Taiwan: The Removal of Taiwan’s National Flag at the 27th AIDA Depth World Championship in 2021
Mia Hou, a Taiwanese freediving athlete and multiple national record holder finished her 55m (217ft) Constant Weight dive strong on September 28th, 2021, at the 27th AIDA Depth World Championship. Basking in the glory of a new national record for Taiwan, she relaxed on the boat with the other Taiwanese athletes to review her dive on the YouTube competition livestream. However, as Mia watched her dive, she saw that a broken image icon replaced the red, white, and blue Taiwanese flag next to her name. Additionally, the acronym for Taiwan, ‘TWN,’ had been changed to ‘TW.’
These missing elements were on the screen during the first six competition days. Mia felt empty as she stared at the broken image icon where her country’s flag should be during her dive, and that emptiness slowly morphed into a feeling of anger that was all too familiar to her. This was no accident. After all, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time Taiwan’s international status has been suppressed.
When asked by DeeperBlue.com about their version of the events, AIDA International – a freediving federation, competition organizer, and education system – responded by stating that they “received a request from the Chinese authorities to remove it just before the start of the streaming explaining that Taiwan is not officially recognized as a country and also that we are not respecting the AIDA rules to use the IOC as a reference for the countries represented in the competition. The decision was taken by the board members present on the spot at the critical moment and later confirmed by all the Board. The rest of the Board and the athletes from Taiwan were consulted with the first opportunity later that day.”
However, according to Mia, AIDA International did not take the initiative to consult with Taiwanese athletes. The members from Taiwan had to raise the matter themselves at the nightly meeting between the competition staff and athletes.
AIDA International President Alexandru Russu stood at the front of the group and stated that the Chinese government’s firewall automatically cut off the live broadcast for viewers in China. He later asked Taiwanese athletes whether they wanted to keep the national flag space and country name blank or use the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) term for Taiwan, ‘Chinese Taipei,’ with the IOC’s Chinese Taipei flag.
The Taiwanese team unanimously declared that they would rather have a blank space than be forced to use the IOC’s Chinese Taipei flag.
AIDA International made a short public apology to Taiwan on their official website stating, “we learn from our mistakes, and we`ll set different streams from now on to prevent this from happening again.”
This means that AIDA International considered having a livestream of the competition that included the Taiwanese flag and country name on streaming sites such as YouTube while providing an edited livestream, accessible to Chinese viewers, that does not include Taiwan’s name and flag.
Chinese viewers could watch the 27th AIDA World Championship’s livestream due to Chinese wetsuit company BESTDIVE sponsoring the event and coordinating the livestream in China (YouTube is banned in China), which is presumably how the Chinese government became aware of the presence of Taiwan’s national flag. AIDA International once again chose BESTDIVE to livestream this year’s 28th AIDA World Championship event to Chinese viewers.
AIDA International stated on Facebook that “the appearance of the flag on live results has cut down the live streaming for 400.000+ viewers there” as the reason for their removal of the Taiwanese flag. When asked by DeeperBlue.com how AIDA International calculated that there were 400,000 Chinese viewers, provided the screenshot below, which appears to be taken from the streaming site Huya.com.
DeeperBlue.com could not independently verify this figure as the video is no longer available on the website.
In response to DeeperBlue.com asking if AIDA International would have two separate streams in the future, they stated, “From the info we have, there is no real benefit in doing so, and for the moment, we have no such plans.” However, one could argue that two separate streams would benefit athletes like Mia Hou and thousands of other Taiwanese freedivers and their international supporters.
As Taiwan’s flag continued to be absent in the following days of the competition, the final day was a welcome surprise for Taiwanese livestream viewers and international supporters. Mia completed her Constant Weight No Fins dive to 38m (125ft) and proudly held Taiwan’s national flag up in the water in full view of the camera and the freediving world. In Mia’s words, “When I go abroad, I represent Taiwan, and I want it to be seen.” Additionally, as seen below, more than two-thirds of the competing athletes’ national flags were removed by their request to stand in solidarity and express their support for Taiwan.
These events made their way onto various news reports in Taiwan, and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen herself thanked the nations that stood in support of Taiwan. AIDA International’s official Facebook group was also flooded with outraged comments at removing the flag, while the competition livestream live chat was littered with Taiwan national flag emojis.
Brief background on China-Taiwan relations
To understand why the disappearance of the Taiwan national flag is so significant, we must look at history for understanding. While the history of China-Taiwan relations is long and complicated, the short version is that communist Mainland China (the People’s Republic of China, or ‘PRC’) views democratic Taiwan (officially known as the Republic of China, or ‘ROC’) as a breakaway province. As a result, China regularly promises to ‘unify’ Taiwan with China and repeatedly states that Taiwan is currently operating under a ‘one country, two systems’ framework while remaining a part of China’s sovereign territory, otherwise known as the ‘One China’ policy.
China has a long history of pressuring countries to adhere to this policy by refusing to establish diplomatic ties and punishing companies by removing their licenses and suspending operations unless they apologize to China and clarify that Taiwan is not an independent country. A recent, famous example of an apology some may find hard to watch is John Cena stating his regrets to Chinese citizens for calling Taiwan a country during a Fast & Furious 9 interview amidst backlash from Chinese netizens.
However, a 2021 survey conducted by Taiwan’s Focus Survey Research of 1,072 Taiwanese adults 20 years and older shows that only 11.1% support unification with China, while 46.6% support Taiwan’s independence and 26.4% desire to maintain the status quo. Furthermore, a more recent poll by the Taiwan New Constitution Foundation found that 89.9% of its citizens consider themselves Taiwanese and over 64% of Taiwanese are willing to go to war to defend their country.
The Aftermath: Events After the 27th AIDA World Championship
AIDA International’s responses on Facebook
Following the removal of Taiwan’s national flag at the World Championship, the AIDA International official Facebook group received an overwhelming amount of comments with the mass majority supporting Taiwan.
AIDA International began by posting questionable responses to some comments that were later deleted (see an example below) without any official explanation. AIDA International gave DeeperBlue.com the following reason for deletion: “Considering what we’re learning about the Taiwan issue and our lack of competence on the matter, it’s more appropriate to refrain from all social media comments and also remove the old ones.”
No public acknowledgment of the deleted comments followed.
Introducing System D: AIDA International pays for marketing services
Donny Mac, a former AIDA instructor, publicly accused AIDA International of using a marketing company called System D to “censor any comments or questions that put AIDA in a bad light.” Another AIDA member asked, “We are paying to have our questions removed?” and further mentioned that he has had comments removed regarding Taiwan. AIDA International has confirmed to DeeperBlue.com that System D is managing AIDA International’s social media and that they are indeed a contractor – not a volunteer. AIDA International is well-known for asking for volunteers to complete unpaid projects.
It appears that the new admin from System D was active around May 19th, 2021, at the earliest, well before the removal of the Taiwanese flag from the 27th AIDA World Championship. When asked what the rules are that social media posts are moderated on, AIDA International said to check the rules directly on the Facebook group page. At the time of this writing, the rules are as follows: “be kind and courteous, no hate speech, bullying, or defamatory comments, stick to the topic, no spam, no advertising, respect group privacy, and contact support.” Below are examples of posts that had comments turned off or were blocked from posting.
When DeeperBlue.com asked AIDA International why AIDA Taiwan’s Facebook post regarding their standing with Ukraine was declined, AIDA International stated that it “is a purely political stand with no relation to freediving – and this is a freediving group.”
When DeeperBlue.com asked AIDA International why AIDA Taiwan’s open letter of protest post’s comments was turned off, AIDA International stated that it is “highly political and from previous experience, such public debates has high risks of consequences at the foreign relations level.”
AIDA Sweden makes an official complaint against AIDA International
AIDA Sweden made an official complaint against AIDA International under the charges of discrimination against athletes based on their nationality and accused AIDA International of acting in violation of AIDA statutes’ goals. The Disciplinary Committee (DC), which includes five individuals, rejected the charge brought by AIDA Sweden and referenced the rules regarding the AIDA World Championships, which state that “the International Olympic Committee (IOC) must recognize the country.” It should be noted that although AIDA International’s rules and regulations reference the IOC (AIDA International also follows WADA rules), the freediving federation is not recognized by nor bound to either organization. Consequently, AIDA International even asked the Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee (CTOC) to use the IOC’s Chinese Taipei flag in competition but was denied as AIDA International is not recognized by the CTOC.
When DeeperBlue.com asked AIDA International why the statutes list the IOC when AIDA International has no formal relationship with the IOC, their response was as follows: “The reference used by AIDA in the previous version of 126.96.36.199 was the United Nations (UN) and it was changed to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) a few years ago for allowing more members all by maintaining an external reference (due to AIDA’s lack of competence in the international relations). Before the flag incident from 2021, AIDA was not even aware of the difference between ‘Republic of China’ and ‘People’s Republic of China’ and the international relations remain out of the scope of our association. In this domain, we can only follow external references like our governments, UN or IOC.”
However, AIDA International does choose which IOC rules to enforce. For example, at the 27th AIDA World Championship, Russia competed under its country acronym (RUS) and with its national flag displayed, even though they were and are currently banned from participating in world championship events under the name ‘Russia’ and their corresponding national flag (they must use ‘ROC’ instead). AIDA International responded to DeeperBlue.com’s request for comment on this issue by stating, “As AIDA has no specialized department, nor competence in the international relations, before the ROC flag incident, all these subjects were simply ignored and we are just starting now to pay for this past ignorance.”
Behind the Scenes: AIDA Assembly E-mail Discussions and Facebook Messages Regarding AIDA Taiwan’s Position
DeeperBlue.com received a copy of e-mails from a source exchanged between AIDA Taiwan, the AIDA Assembly, the AIDA Board, Co-founder of AIDA and current AIDA Board member Claude Chapuis, and AIDA China representative Aolin Wang directly after the 27th AIDA World Championship dated between September 29th, 2021, to March 19th, 2022. The document also summarized private messages between AIDA International and AIDA Taiwan negotiators. You can view the entirety of the e-mail exchanges and private chat summaries here.
Summary of the e-mails and private Facebook messages
AIDA Taiwan began the e-mail exchange with the AIDA Board and AIDA Assembly by expressing concern over removing the Taiwanese flag at the 27th AIDA World Championship. While the AIDA Board responded with legal advice from their lawyer regarding there being no legal basis for using the ROC flag to define Taiwan, AIDA Taiwan expressed that the legal advice contained errors and would provide their legal advice. In the meantime, they provided a letter of advice from a professor of international politics. After the AIDA Disciplinary Committee rejected AIDA Sweden’s charges against AIDA International, AIDA Taiwan submitted two motions for a special vote regarding their full membership status with the right to display their country name and flag, along with a suggested amendment to remove the rule stating the IOC must recognize the country in the AIDA statues. AIDA Taiwan later provided a legal opinion letter by a lawyer specializing in international law.
Soon after, Claude Chapuis informed Assembly members that AIDA Taiwan is not a full member state since no vote was found, and he “supposes it is a mistake on the AIDA webpage.” AIDA Taiwan argued that they received a confirmation offer from the AIDA Board in July indicating their full membership and inquired as to why their membership status came into question while discussing member rights. The AIDA Board later updated that they were contacted by Chinese authorities and asked for a meeting and were preparing for it, and quoted, “We expect that this will allow AIDA to continue its activities in China without any difficulties and even gain additional recognition very useful for the local development.”
Later, in private Facebook message exchanges between the negotiators of AIDA Taiwan and AIDA International, AIDA Taiwan conceded to points regarding flag and country naming in competitions. Both parties continued to discuss how to make AIDA Taiwan a full member state. After AIDA International met with the Chinese authorities, Taiwan’s name in AIDA’s Education Online System (EOS) was suddenly changed to ‘Chinese Taipei (Taiwan Islands)’ without a discussion within the AIDA Assembly and with no announcement. The AIDA International negotiator privately wrote that there wasn’t a choice after meeting with the Chinese authorities. In an e-mail to Assembly members, AIDA Taiwan provided minutes from a meeting where the AIDA Board stated, “The direct communication between Chinese authority and AIDA board makes the board believe they cannot keep the term ‘Taiwan’ to refer Taiwanese in all official channel. The obedience is crucial for Chinese authority when AIDA develop freediving in China.”
Meanwhile, in private messages, the negotiator of AIDA International put forth a plan to make AIDA Taiwan a full member state, with the first step being to remove the ‘1 AIDA full member per country’ stipulation in the AIDA statutes. As this vote was put forth on behalf of AIDA France representative Claude Chapuis, AIDA China representative, Aolin Wang warned in an e-mail, “Any discussion or vote relating to territory subject will easily become complicated beyond your imagination and this might result in really bad situation. Your intention to ease the administration process of AIDA can become the very opposite.”
AIDA International’s voting process
AIDA International told DeeperBlue.com that AIDA France’s proposal did not receive the support of the member countries for initiating the special vote (a minimum of 20% of the active Assembly members is required). At the time of this writing, there have been no further AIDA Assembly meetings about the situation.
According to AIDA International’s statute 9.4.1 Special Votes, “a special vote of the Assembly may be called for by the President along with one other Officer, by a majority of the Executive Board, or by the written request to AIDA of not less than twenty percent of Members.” Although Claude Chapuis proposed the vote to change the statutes on behalf of AIDA France (which needed 20% of AIDA Assembly members to agree to initiate an actual vote on the matter), it didn’t necessarily have to happen this way. After the start of the war in Ukraine, AIDA International initiated a straightforward public vote regarding the IOC’s recommendation to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from participating in competitions. This means that the vote to remove the ‘1 AIDA full member per country’ stipulation in the AIDA statutes could have also been initiated straightaway instead of proposing to hold a vote and waiting for a consensus. AIDA International also failed to make the vote to change the statutes public and visible to all AIDA freedivers so they could submit their votes to their respective AIDA Nationals.
Public responses to Taiwan’s AIDA Member status and country name change
In mid-November of 2021, AIDA International downgraded AIDA Taiwan’s position in the AIDA Assembly from a full member state to an observer and changed Taiwan’s country name in their Education Online System (EOS) to ‘Chinese Taipei (Taiwan Islands)’ and later to ‘Chinese Taipei, Taiwan’ with no official announcement to the public. It is important to note that the name ‘Chinese Taipei’ is only used for participation in sports and international events, such as the Olympics. It is not an official name for Taiwan to delineate geographical location or nationality, which would be the ‘Republic of China.’ AIDA International was made aware of this fact; however, the current ‘Chinese Taipei, Taiwan’ naming under the ‘Nationality(passport)’ option remains on the official website at the time of this article’s writing.
AIDA’s response to DeeperBlue.com’s request for comment was as follows: “Republic of China” is not used by any international organization in the world and it would be confusing for our community because, most of us don’t know the difference between Republic Of China and People’s Republic Of China. Given the particular situation of Taiwan, AIDA is striving for inclusiveness and makes the compromises imposed by the international relations like all the other international organization in the world do.”
AIDA Taiwanese instructors were horrified at the changes. One instructor asked in a private AIDA Instructors Facebook group how the nationality of AIDA members can be changed to ‘Chinese Taipei’ without consent. Upon posting, AIDA International commented a standard response that can be seen on posts asking for technical assistance: “Kindly send your request to firstname.lastname@example.org.” Afterward, they turned off the commenting for the post.
AIDA China representative Aolin Wang responds to the Taiwanese flag situation at the 27th AIDA World Championship (turn on the English captions for translation)
President Tsai’s social media post thanking countries for removing their flags to stand in solidarity with Taiwan prompted AIDA China representative Aolin Wang to respond to the situation. After referring to President Tsai disrespectfully in Mandarin as “so-called Tsai,” he gave a brief history of the implementation of the Nagoya resolution and concluded that “the development of AIDA needs China, and freediving also needs China on the world stage.” In fact, according to AIDA International’s 2020 Financial Statement, while China accounted for 133,482EUR of income that year, the contribution from the much smaller island of Taiwan was 113,550EUR.
It does seem that AIDA International is worried about the potential future loss of Chinese education income and is ready to sacrifice income from Taiwan in the process. This is something many education agencies across the diving world are grappling with.
Present Day: Freediving Competitions in 2022
Vertical Blue 2022
As Vertical Blue 2022 approached, AIDA sent out a ruling to competition organizers stating that in AIDA events, the Taiwanese flag couldn’t be used.
“We started to think about ways around that, and the most obvious way was to have some kind of neutral flag. We wanted to show solidarity with these Taiwanese athletes,” competition organizer William Trubridge told DeeperBlue.com. And so the idea of the ‘One Ocean’ flag was born by Head of Safety Marco Cosentino.
William designed a simple blue flag with a white circle in the middle, with the circle depicting the ‘O’ in ‘ocean.’ “It represents that we are all drops of water in the same ocean. At the end of the day, it’s just one planet, one ocean,” said William. He allowed athletes to compete under this flag, which would replace their national flags, and the acronym ‘ONE’ replacing their country’s official acronym to stand in solidarity with countries that have been put in an untenable situation, including Ukraine. And so, 20 of the 42 athletes stood united under the ‘One Ocean’ flag.
The 28th AIDA World Championship
On the other hand, before the start of the 28th AIDA World Championship in Burgas, AIDA International specifically asked Taiwanese athletes to confirm that they would not display their national flag, stating, “All individual freedoms of a person will be respected to the extent where they don’t interfere with the freedoms of the other (physical or legal) persons – such as AIDA.” AIDA International responded to DeeperBlue.com’s request for comment on the consequences of athletes displaying the Taiwanese flag by saying, “Based on the AIDA rules, the consequences can go from a simple warning to disqualification.” And sure enough, Taiwanese athletes, including Mia Hou, were forced to compete in AIDA competitions this year under the AIDA International flag and ‘TPE’ acronym to avoid interfering with the “freedoms” of AIDA International.
When asked by DeeperBlue.com whether AIDA International would consider using a neutral flag such as Vertical Blue 2022’s ‘One Ocean’ flag, AIDA International responded, “We cannot consider such flag because AIDA is a federation of countries and by the rules, in the WCH the athletes are selected by their Nationals to represent their country (not themselves like in Vertical Blue).” And so, at this year’s 29th AIDA World Championship, Taiwanese freedivers Jay Ku and Michael Zhi-Da Ko (who won silver and gold medals in their disciplines, respectively), were required to perform their victorious dives under the flag of AIDA International.
The first photo shows Taiwanese athletes posing with the Taiwanese flag off to the side of the awards ceremony. The second and third photos are from the winner’s podium, where only the Taiwanese athletes were forbidden from displaying their national flag.
We can draw several conclusions from the information presented above and AIDA International’s responses. First, it is obvious to see that the Chinese government is putting immense pressure on AIDA International, as evidenced by the letter sent to AIDA International from the Foreign Affairs Liaison Department of the State Sports General Administration of China and despite AIDA International’s claim on Facebook that “there has not been any external pressure on AIDA to influence these decisions.” Commercial pressures regarding the growth and expansion of AIDA freediving education in China also likely factors into the decision-making process, which is evidenced by AIDA International’s statement, “We expect this will allow AIDA to continue its activities in China without any difficulties and even gain additional recognition very useful for the local development” in an e-mail regarding a meeting with Chinese authorities.
However, AIDA International remains a Swiss non-profit organization, and its responsibilities are to the equal rights and freedoms of its members, not to their potential growth in China. AIDA International could even consider inviting itself into the ranks of an organization like the Women’s Tennis Association and other large multinational companies that pulled away from China and their demands instead of placating them.
And so, we finally return to the subject of AIDA International publicly turning to their freedivers and asking them to vote on the issue of banning Russian and Belarusian citizens from participating in competitions. While the status of Russian and Belarusian athletes is not the focal point of this discussion, a few questions remain: why didn’t AIDA International apply this same logic to Taiwan’s name and flag? Why did they immediately and publicly issue a vote on the outcome of Russians and Belarusians yet capitulate to the authority of the Chinese government behind closed doors?
And perhaps the most important question of all: what should a non-profit organization’s decision-making be based on – growth or ethics?