The recent furor over an internal WHO memo downgrading Taiwan to a “province of China” and the government’s inept handling of this matter has set a dangerous precedent that could further erode Taiwan’s international standing.
When the WHO document was first disclosed by Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Kuan Bi-ling (管碧玲) it triggered public outrage.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was slow to catch on to the implications. Instead, he touted it as one of his administration’s achievements that Taiwan had been able to attend the World Health Assembly (WHA) as an observer under the name “Chinese Taipei” since 2009. Ma further claimed that his cross-strait policy had secured this goodwill gesture from China.
Ma promptly changed his tune when he realized that this could become a liability in his upcoming presidential campaign and called a press conference in which he clenched his fist and gnashed teeth — but still barely managed to protest, calling the WHO memo unreasonable, unfair and “inconsistent” with past practices. He also promised to deliver a strong letter of protest to the WHO Secretariat.
When the letter was made public after Department of Health Minister Chiu Wen-ta (邱文達) delivered it to the WHO, it caused further public disappointment and anger.
The letter merely asked the Secretariat to be consistent in referring to Taiwan as “Chinese Taipei” and did not attempt to refute the WHO’s assertion that Taiwan is a “province of China.”
Kuan revealed further documents issued by the WHO Secretariat which refer to Taiwan as an “area” of China, relegating Taiwan’s status to that of Hong Kong and Macau.
“The expression ‘Chinese Taipei’ should only be used for the list of participants, summary records and similar documents of World Health Assemblies to which that entity is invited as an observer,” a new memo added.
In other words, Taiwan is referred to as “Chinese Taipei” for just the five days a year when the health minister attends the WHA. By failing to assert that Taiwan is a sovereign state, and not part of China, Ma has given the international community the misleading impression that Taiwan agrees that it is part of China.
It fell to US Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to speak out for Taiwan. In response to questions from reporters, Sebelius said no UN agency had the right to unilaterally determine Taiwan’s status. Ma should have thanked Sebelius for her remarks and agreed with her position.
When then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in the summer of 2007, indicating Taiwan’s interest in joining the world body, Ban brazenly responded that the UN considered Taiwan to be part of China. Washington warned Ban that this was not the position of the US.
The WHO debacle shows that Ma’s policy of cozying up to China and distancing the nation from allies like the US and Japan can only further erode international support.
The episode also shows that Ma’s policies have reduced, rather than increased, Taiwan’s international space. Instead of bringing “substantive participation,” they have garnered only empty promises. Instead of enhancing the health and well-being of Taiwanese, they have brought Taiwan closer into the unwelcome embrace of an authoritarian China.
Let’s hope that Taiwanese see through the rosy misrepresentations of the Ma administration’s policies and cast their vote for a party that truly represents the interests of Taiwan and its freedom-loving people in next year’s elections.
Chen Mei-chin is a commentator based in Washington.