After accusing Taiwan of launching “personal attacks” and a “racist campaign” against him at a news conference on April 8, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus quickly stirred up another controversy over whether the WHO had ignored Taiwan’s warning at the end of last year about possible human-to-human transmission of the COVID-19 virus.
That dispute extended the battle of words between Tedros and Taiwan, with unexpected results.
It turned into a “battle of unequals” initiated by Tedros, but his display lacked meticulous tactical thinking and effective strategic adjustments. Taiwan used this to its advantage by highlighting the effects of its epidemic prevention efforts and successes.
It also allowed Taiwan to promote its “Taiwan can help” strategy, which has given the nation more visibility internationally than it has experienced in decades, while also focusing global attention on its outstanding epidemic prevention efforts.
All this has helped Taiwan create an international environment more conducive to once again opening the doors to the World Health Assembly (WHA).
How did Taiwan manage to turn the tide?
Tedros had already been the target of international criticism during the early stages of the pandemic following a series of pro-China statements, as well as a stream of misjudgements regarding the virus, including the denial of human-to-human transmission in a tweet posted by the WHO as late as Jan. 14.
Amid growing global criticism, Tedros was unable to take it anymore and launched a “counterattack” at a WHO news conference. Unfortunately, he made multiple mistakes that a successful strategist would avoid when planning a counterattack.
His attack was not only inaccurate, but also aimed at the wrong target, at the wrong time and the wrong place. In the end, he failed to achieve the result he hoped for and gave Taiwan a chance to turn the tide.
Tedros’ verbal assault against Taiwan failed for several reasons.
First, his accusations were unfounded. Any kind of counterattack requires fundamental evidence to be effective, but Tedros only said that “abuses, or racist comments, giving me names, black or Negro” came from Taiwan without presenting any concrete evidence.
Second, Tedros made the remarks at the wrong place, opening himself up to questions about the distinction between public and private spheres, and using public resources for personal purposes.
He inappropriately chose the organization’s routine public news briefing to disclose personal attacks as if he were suffering from injustice and humiliation. This created the impression that he lacks the demeanor a leader responsible for administering international affairs should possess.
Third, Tedros’ timing was bad. As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world and had an increasingly severe effect on Europe and the US throughout March, discontent with his misjudgement was increasing worldwide.
When Tedros was criticizing Taiwan, an online petition calling for his resignation — which was not organized by Taiwan — had already been endorsed by 750,000 people worldwide. It was foreseeable that Tedros was unlikely to gain widespread public support for his counterattack given these unfavorable circumstances.
Fourth, Tedros chose the wrong target. He did not strike at a particular individual or a certain group, nor was his target very concrete. Rather, Tedros directed his attacks at Taiwan, a political entity, with a very general accusation — “racial discrimination.”
The attack came from Tedros, a single person, and was directed at a whole society. Given the lack of evidence, it was not very difficult to see that his attack would result in a massive counterattack.
As expected, Tedros’ accusations drew fierce criticism from what seemed to be all of Taiwanese society.
Not only did Tedros’ accusations result in a rare joint counterattack from Taiwan’s two major political parties — the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — Taiwanese students at home and abroad joined the protest against his “untruthful accusations.”
Taiwan is riding the wave of its successful disease prevention efforts, and the nation’s medical and innovative capabilities have been widely recognized and acknowledged internationally.
The DPP administration also took the rare opportunity to promote the “Taiwan can help” campaign to highlight the nation’s presence, and enhance its global visibility by engaging in exchanges and cooperation with the international community.
Apart from the government’s protest and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ demand that Tedros apologize, a crowdfunding campaign raised enough money to run an ad in the New York Times on April 14. It grabbed the greatest attention of the Taiwanese counterattacks against Tedros.
The ad, which was designed as a letter written by Taiwanese to the world, delivered the message “WHO can help? Taiwan,” and said: “In a time of isolation, we choose solidarity.”
Meanwhile, real racial discrimination against Africans occurred in Guangzhou, China, the nation that supports Tedros most strongly.
Several Africans who had not been diagnosed with COVID-19 said that they were placed under arbitrary quarantine or had their passports confiscated by local authorities, and some of them were even evicted from their homes and turned away by hotels.
As a result, many African nations either summoned their Chinese ambassadors or wrote to Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) to express their concern and ask for an explanation.
Taiwan is widely acknowledged as a foreigner-friendly society. Although cross-strait relations have long been far from ideal, most Chinese students and tourists who have had the chance to visit the nation have been positive about its friendliness and politeness.
Perhaps Tedros, who had been under great pressure from the global public, recklessly vented his anger at Taiwan because he thought the backlash would be rather small, given that Taiwan lacks international status, is not acknowledged as a sovereign state by the UN and is not a member of the WHO.
As it turned out, his attack backfired. Tedros’ choice to criticize Taiwan paradoxically focused more international attention on Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO.
European countries, the US and Japan have voiced support for Taiwan’s participation as an observer at the WHA annual meeting from Sunday next week to May 21. While the issue of Taiwan’s participation eventually rests with Beijing’s attitude, the nation has successfully highlighted its international isolation — caused by Beijing’s claims of sovereignty over Taiwan — and garnered more international support.
From this perspective, Taiwan has won a landslide victory in the accidental dispute provoked by the WHO chief.
John Lim has a doctorate in law from the University of Tokyo and is a former associate research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Modern History.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming.
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