The Summer Palace and Kunming Lake, Beijing. Daniel Case via Wikimedia Commons.

News broke on Monday that a White House statement issued during the G-20 summit referred to Xi Jinping as President of the Republic of China.


Mr. Xi is the leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the communist mainland, as distinguished from the Republic of China (ROC) government.  That regime fled the mainland in 1949 to the island of Formosa– more commonly known as Taiwan– and remained the Chinese government recognized* by most of the world until 1971.  [To be sure, the State Department apologized for the gaffe… once the Chinese piped up and said, “um, did you guys ever take a history class?”  Perhaps this is why it’s not such a bad thing to have “professional politicians” in Washington.]

This is an elementary mistake that just shouldn’t happen at the highest levels of government.  It also shouldn’t happen in legal proceedings, but occasionally, such errors slip through, and they can be fatal to requests for service of process sent to foreign jurisdictions.  Three names to watch for– all China-centered:

  1. CHINA, PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF.  Again, the PRC is not to be confused with the older regime (the Kuomintang) which ruled China until Mao’s Communist Revolution.  This one is the mother ship, Big Red, the 1.3 billion people who make most of the stuff you buy at K-Mart.**  They not only have four times our population, but they also have nukes and a permanent seat (with veto) on the UN Security Council.  Safest bet– just call it China.  Full stop.
  2. CHINA, REPUBLIC OF.  This is not the mother ship.  And if you ask one of its residents, they’ll tell you that they’re still Chinese, but they haven’t been able to bring down the usurpers who’ve been running the mainland for nearly 70 years.  The ROC had the Chinese seat at the UN until 1971, when the UN accepted the reality that was the PRC.  To be safe in court documents, just call the ROC simply Taiwan and leave it at that.  Don’t elaborate and don’t get into the republican weeds in your pleadings, because it will only cause problems.
  3. HONG KONG, SPECIAL ADMINISTRATIVE REGION (SAR).  A British colony for a century, Hong Kong today maintains its common law legal system even though it became part of the PRC two decades ago.  If several sovereign states are named (China, Japan, the United States, even Missouri) or referred to in the pleadings, then Hong Kong must be modified to reflect its status.  Call it either “Hong Kong, China” or “Hong Kong, SAR” in order to differentiate it from sovereigns (which it’s not).

To Americans, this stuff doesn’t seem like a big deal.  To the Chinese– a culture that views “saving face” as an essential part of human existence– it’s downright critical.  If you’re going to play in their sandbox, you’re advised to adhere to their rules.  If you want them to serve process for you, or if you want to compel evidence, or if you hold out hope that they’ll ever enforce your judgment, you’re advised to pay close attention to nomenclature.

* Recognition is a very tenuous subject– so much so that the U.S. no longer formally recognizes any other country outright. We may send ambassadors, and the status of diplomatic relations may ebb & flow, but Rex Tillerson won’t step up to a lectern to say “the United States recognizes Country XYZ.”

** A little homage to a once-great company.  I spent two summers working there in college and enjoyed it thoroughly.