What’s In a Name?

A modest proposal: Make Beijing Peking Again.

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet; So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d, Retain that dear perfection which he owes Without that title.”

In this famous passage from Act II Scene II of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the Bard espouses the idea that the name of something doesn’t define its essence. The philosophical debate over language and reality, form and function, has been ongoing for millennia – from Plato and Aristotle to postmodernists and deconstructionists. I’m generally not someone who believes in the power of labels to define reality, but some labels are indeed important.

One such type of label that is increasingly salient in the modern day is the geonym, or place name. Geographic nomenclature is deeply political, with place names having significant cultural and propaganda value. In scholar Benedict Anderson’s 1983 book Imagined Communities, the author describes nations as groups of people who self-organize into a limited, sovereign community based on some shared feature. Language is one of the prime features of an imagined community, and the names of places and institutions reflect the political and societal realities of the nation. They are deliberately intended to convey civic meaning and serve a particular purpose in uniting and consolidating the shared community around a common orientation.

The name of a new country sets the stage for its future or connects with its past, while city names can honor important political icons or reflect changes in culture. For instance, Constantinople, the city named after the Roman Emperor in 330 A.D., was formally rechristened Istanbul in 1930 as part of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s modernization and Turkification efforts. This change was meant to reinforce the Turkishness of Turkey and repudiate the Byzantine Greek past; it was an act of nation-building by one of the early 20th century’s most interesting statesmen. The last major round of renaming came during decolonization in the 20th century’s postwar period. Names given to colonies by European empires were cast aside in favor of indigenous nomenclature; in Africa, new names abounded – Basutoland became Lesotho, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, Portuguese East Africa became Mozambique, Tanganyika became Tanzania. These changes were, as part of the decolonization process, inherently political, and integral in the attempts to form indigenous national identities.

The politics of geonyms has not been left in the postcolonial past, but is still relevant across the world today. In 2016, the United States officially changed the name of the highest peak in the country from Mount McKinley, the name given it by a gold prospector in 1896 and governmentally recognized in 1917, to Denali, the name used for centuries by Alaskan natives. This renaming was intended to honor indigenous Alaskans and history by restoring the earliest known title of the mountain. In a similarly-motivated move, the nation of Swaziland – a small state mostly surrounded by South Africa – renamed itself eSwatini in 2018. This new name was an overdue switch from the British colonial title to the indigenous geonym and was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of decolonization.

Not all recent nomenclature changes have been that simple, however. The case of North Macedonia is instructive in that respect. The country now known as North Macedonia came into being after the breakup of Yugoslavia and sought to be called the Republic of Macedonia. Its southern neighbor, Greece, was incensed, as its northern region is also known as Macedonia and hosts important cities like Thessaloniki. The debate also encompassed history, as Alexander the Great – a Greek hero – was from Macedonia (then covering both current Greek Macedonia and part of Northern Macedonia – confusing, I know.), and the two nations competed over his legacy. Geopolitically, this mattered quite a lot, as Greece blocked Macedonian accession to NATO and the European Union until it relinquished the name ‘Macedonia’. In 2019, after decades of debate, a compromise was achieved which fully satisfied neither party, wherein the nation’s name became North Macedonia and Greece ended its diplomatic veto.

As you can see, geonyms can be very complicated!

As is quite clear, in the case of geonyms, Shakespeare was (gasp!) wrong. In the fractious world of 21st century geopolitics, place names are more critical than ever, especially for the totalitarian enemies of America. Propaganda can travel around the world in seconds and these nation-states are using this information ubiquity to their benefit. The regimes in China and Russia are highly invested in promoting their own propagandistic geonyms as a sign of their international prestige and power over other actors. Some of these names have long histories, but are being foregrounded as part of a drive for belligerent geopolitics in the current day.

In the case of Russia, this has been a politics of force; the invasion of Ukraine and the attempted Russification thereof are prime examples. As Russia’s invasion has proceeded, areas which have been under Moscow’s control since the early days of the war have been subject to a program of cultural destruction. Children are being abducted and transferred to Russia, education has been changed to align with the Kremlin’s preferred line, and, most salient for us, signage has been altered to reinforce Russia’s hold over these regions. This has long been the policy of an expansionist Russia, going back to the days of the Tsars. Russification attempts to denude inhabitants of their historic identity and make them easier to rule; it was carried out under the Imperial Russians, the Soviets, and now the Putin regime. The illegal annexations of Crimea in 2014 and of eastern Ukraine just last year are part of this quest to use international institutions and other nations to legitimize Russification efforts. Fortunately, this has so far been mostly unsuccessful, but as the war in Ukraine drags on, the situation on the ground becomes harder to reverse.

China has been using this approach for a long time as well, but mainly as a propaganda tool to support the CCP regime internally and abroad. One of the key ideas embraced by the CCP leadership is the reversal of the so-called ‘Century of Humiliation’, where foreign powers dominated China economically and politically. As part of the fight to restore China’s dignity – in the eyes of Xi Jinping, at least – the CCP has sought to ‘reclaim’ the nation’s territorial integrity. Don’t be fooled by the paean to history: this is a purely expansionist ideology meant to reorient regional and world politics around China as the ‘Middle Kingdom’. China has used geonyms as part of this propaganda effort, changing maps and names to reflect enduring Chinese dominion over areas that have not always been traditionally Chinese. Kashgar, also known as East Turkestan, became the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Taiwan is referred to often as Chinese Taipei, linking it with the mainland which seeks to forcibly conquer it. Famously, Beijing itself used to be known as Peking; changing that name was a key push towards ending the ‘Century of Humiliation’ and reasserting Chinese honor. China, given its massive economic power, has been far more successful at getting foreigners to adopt its favored geonyms and map choices. It has cajoled and threatened institutions and companies that acknowledge Taiwan as a country, fail to include the entirety of the South China Sea as a Chinese possession, or agree with Japan’s claim over the Senkaku Islands.

Why do these evil regimes deserve to have their preferred language adopted by the rest of the world, particularly Western companies, news outlets, governments, and international institutions? Well, the answer is, they don’t. Not only should we push back on these linguistic claims of sovereignty and prestige, we should actively work to undermine these totalitarians by playing their own game.

A story from this past week shows just how effective this approach – or even the threat of it – can be. Russia has possessed an exclave – a region not contiguous with the rest of the state – in Eastern Europe since the end of World War II. This area, called Kaliningrad by the Soviets after a murderous Bolshevik leader, is wedged between Lithuania and Poland and hosts Russia’s only ice-free European port. Prior to the Soviet annexation in the 1940s, Kaliningrad was a part of East Prussia and was called Königsberg; it had a long history of non-Slavic occupation, being primarily Germanic in ethnicity.

Just this week, a Polish government committee recommended altering its name for Kaliningrad, opting for Królewiec – the Polish translation of Königsberg – instead. The rationale behind this was sound: Kalinin was a repressive Communist who signed off on the order to conduct the infamous Katyn Forest massacre against Polish POWs. This seems a minor, reasonable change, especially given the fact it has not yet been officially adopted. But the Russian reaction speaks volumes. Moscow lambasted the mere suggestion of a name change internal to Poland as “bordering on madness” and “a hostile act.” Clearly, this ruffled feathers in the Kremlin.

A map of Eastern Europe showing Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave. (N.B. Since this map was published, Finland and Sweden have proceeded on the path to NATO accession.)

If Moscow reacts so strongly to the suggestion of altering a politically-important and propagandistic geonym, what would they do if more countries adopted this approach? What would the Chinese Communist Party do if companies and institutions stopped kowtowing to Beijing and refused to call Taiwan Chinese Taipei? The West has immense leverage over the language used in international arenas and the widespread understanding of what places are called – English being the lingua franca helps quite a bit. This is our soft power advantage; we should use it.

Soft power is not only an attractive force, but can be leveraged to undermine the regimes of our foes as well. Changing these names allows us to engage in a light version of regime denial, a soft form of regime change, if you will. The conflict we are facing with the enemies of the US-led world order is not merely strategic or economic; it is cultural and ideological as well. These foes seek a total reorientation of the world system towards their own interests, harming all those states that play by the neutral rules today. They will use any means necessary to succeed in this aim, from military force and espionage to cultural infiltration and high-tech propaganda operations. Sometimes, these soft tactics are even more effective than the use of hard power: just look at the threat of TikTok for an example.

We should fight fire with fire, orienting our soft power to the same forward posture that Russia and China have adopted. American soft power is unparalleled in the world – we have Hollywood, sports, media, celebrities, influential companies, and the attention of the whole planet. We have the capacity to far outmatch our foes in this respect, but it will take a whole-of-society effort to marshal the linguistic troops. Political leaders should pave the way, with the State Department and other entities shifting to different geonyms when possible and using American influence in international institutions to move them in the same direction. Corporations and organizations should join this push and refuse to bow to foreign pressure in how they use language. Celebrities have a huge role to play here, too. We should not see any further obsequious apologies to China for accidentally (and correctly) calling Taiwan a country – I’m looking at you, John Cena.

Americans love a righteous cause, and what’s more fun than some light trolling? This movement needs a motto, and there’s one just begging to be adopted: Make Beijing Peking Again.

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