Sat, May 24, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Putting politics before public health

By Doug Bandow

China appears to be the most likely source of the SARS epidemic. And if China is identified as the origin, the cause will be the Chinese government's long refusal to deal honestly with a serious problem that swiftly turned into a deadly crisis.

After unconscionable delay, Beijing has acknowledged the severity of the epidemic and dismissed a number of officials for mishandling the issue. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) stated at the recent ASEAN meeting in Bangkok: "The Chinese government is here in a spirit of candor, responsibility, trust and cooperation."

Fine words, but China continues to oppose an important step that would help combat SARS and other threats to human health: allowing Taiwan observer status at the World Health Organization (WHO).

The UN may be generally ineffective, but if there is an obvious place for international cooperation, it is combatting transnational medical epidemics. And the WHO has been most everywhere during the current crisis -- except to Taiwan. Only in May did the organization send two experts to Taipei.

The problem is politics. The PRC claims sovereignty over Taiwan, separated from China throughout the 20th century -- first occupied by Japan and then the home of the KMT government ousted from China. When the US warmed to the PRC in 1971, the Republic of China (ROC) lost its membership in the UN General Assembly and most ancillary international organizations, including the WHO.

Taiwan's isolation is senseless. The vast majority of the country's 23.5 million people want to maintain their nation's independent existence after a century apart from China.

Taiwan has a larger population than three-quarters of UN members and its people have created a vibrant, capitalist, democratic state -- something to which the vast majority of nations can only aspire.

The ROC retains the recognition of a score of mostly small countries and has been allowed to participate in some international forums through various guises, such as a "customs territory" in the WTO. But Taiwan remains outside the WHO looking in.

Beijing naturally wants to keep Taiwan isolated. A Chinese diplomat told journalist Jonathan Mirsky: WHO observer status "is a Taiwanese trick for getting into international organizations." For this reason Beijing even blocked WHO officials from visiting the country after a massive earthquake in 1999.

But observer status confers no international legitimacy. After all, WHO observers include the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the Vatican, the Red Cross and the Sovereign and Military Order of Malta. Excluding Taiwan is the real political trick.

The PRC's obstruction wouldn't matter so much if there were no practical impact of Taipei's exclusion. But that exclusion has contributed to the spread of SARS.

Taiwan is at great risk, given the nation's substantial cultural, familial and economic ties with China. Yet, for a time, the WHO didn't even acknowledge the outbreak of the disease in Taiwan. The government has responded with tough measures and international openness -- in stark contrast to Beijing -- but Taipei may find it difficult to isolate itself if infections continue to spread across the PRC.

And if Taiwan is at risk, so are other states. The country is one of the globe's most important trading nations, ranking 14th. It also is home to hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from throughout East Asia.

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