Written by Yao-Hung Huang.

Image credit: Houlin Zhao, Secretary – General, ITU with Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, WHO by ITU Pictures /Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

The tragedy that is the spread of the COVID 19 virus has dominated headlines around the world. While in Taiwan it has been a cause of considerable consternation, it has at the same time incited controversy about Taiwan’s relationship with the Chinese mainland. This has been most evident in the flair up of the so-called ‘face mask panic’ (口罩之亂), which saw furious anger at restrictions on China-bound facemask exports among prominent China-friendly business and entertainment figures. 

Yet it is on the other side of the political divide where concern has been greatest. There are worries that the very governance issues which arguably inhibited the early identification and containment of the epidemic forebode the bleak future of a Taiwan unified with the Chinese mainland, should this eventuate. A more immediate cause of consternation is how the global response to the disease has shown how China’s influence upon international organisations is contributing to the international marginalisation of Taiwan. An important case in point has been the organisation at the forefront of global efforts to respond to the coronavirus crises – the World Health Organisation (WHO).

When China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) two decades ago, Taiwanese experts anticipated that China’s economic opening up and increasing participation in international organs would hasten its transformation into a liberal democratic country, and prompt it to soften its stance on Taiwanese sovereignty. However, years of integration into the global order have not prompted China to rule out using military force to reunite Taiwan with the mainland. Rather than market forces constraining China, its growing market power and investment potential – manifest in its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative – have become instruments of power projection. And rather than submitting to a ‘rules based order’ and curtailing its regional ambitions, China’s widening presence in global forums has seen it increasingly use international bodies to strengthen its territorial claims and deny wider recognition of Taiwan’s sovereignty.

In the case of the WHO this trend is not new. When SARS hit Taiwan in 2003, the island’s authorities attempted to directly engage with the WHO to report on the spread of the epidemic. Acquiescing to the requests of China – who feared allowing Taiwan to join efforts to combat the epidemic would strengthen its claims to sovereignty – WHO denied this request. When Taiwanese journalists raised the issue at an international press conference, the PRC ambassador to the WHO, Sha Zukang, replied “Who cares about you?” Wu Yi, the head of the Chinese delegation to WHO, made China’s position patently clear: “As a province of China, Taiwan is not qualified to accede into the WHO as either a full or associate member, nor to participate in the WHO as an observer”.

Whereas the WHO’s position in the past was a passive measure aimed at keeping China onside, its more aggressive stance since the outbreak of the COVID 19 has seen it accused of becoming a spokesperson, and not merely a facilitator, of China’s ‘one China’ foreign policy. On January, 22nd 2020, the WHO again denied Taiwan the facility for direct participation. On this occasion, it responded by referring to Taiwan as “Taiwan, China”. Possibly nervous that this was not enough, on the following day it renamed Taiwan as the “Taipei Municipality”. Two days later it called Taiwan “Taipei”. In February, it began to name Taiwan as “Taipei and environs”.

This Lacanian wordplay on the designation of Taiwan serves China’s agenda of reducing Taiwan to an amorphous entity without a clearly defined geographical locus, let alone a sovereign government with a concrete territorial boundary that is the subject of de jure recognition by Taiwan’s eight diplomatic allies, and de-facto recognition across and beyond the global community of democratic nations. It speaks to the WHO’s increasingly proactive inclination to be seen as an obedient observer of Beijing’s foreign policy dictates.

In Taiwan, it has not gone unnoticed that the proactive efforts of the WHO to contribute to the diplomatic marginalisation of Taiwan – the latter of which has thus far successfully managed the spread of the virus – lie in stark contrast with its positive appraisal of the very administration that is responsible for the outbreak of what has now become a global pandemic. The director-general of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu, praised China’s system for its “speed, scale, and efficiency” in handling the outbreak of the coronavirus. He also criticized countries that have imposed travel and trade restrictions on China. This has infuriated many in Taiwan, who feel the WHO’s compliance in reducing Taiwan to a nebulous non-entity has had a deeper impact on their sense of identity and collective self-affirmation. Netizens in Taiwan have responded by turning the Lacanian wordplay back on the WHO – redefining it as an acronym for the “Wuhan Health Organization,” and the “Winnie Happy Organization” (based on the widespread meme which emphasises a likeness between China’s Chairman Xi Jinping and Winnie the Pooh). Some have suggested it be renamed the CHO (Chinese Health Organization).

On the other side of the political spectrum, China’s allies in Taiwan have also used the island’s inability to participate in the WHO as a reason for adopting a more pro-China agenda, and push back against the hard line taken against Chinese interference by Taiwan’s current president, Tsai Ing-weng. Moreover, the pandemic itself – and its association with threats to public safety emanating from China – have worked their way into analogies of the dangers of Taiwanese sovereignty. This represents a development of recent trends in the rhetoric of pro-China political entities in Taiwan. During the recent presidential election campaign, the China-friendly KMT candidate Han Kwo-yu stated that “Taiwan independence is even worse than syphilis”, and “syphilis will only harm your wife, but Taiwan independence will put all Taiwanese in an irremediable predicament”. The Taipei city mayor, Ko Wen-je, similarly said that “syphilis is easier to treat than Taiwan independence”.

There has, of course, been a pushback against the WHO’s continued complicity in China’s attempts to deny representatives of Taiwan’s 24 million souls access to an organisation which has a key role in promoting public health. Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, Eswatini, Paraguay, Guatemala, Hati, Honduras, Nauru, the Marshall Islands, and St Kitts and Nevis, are actively supporting Taiwan’s campaign to receive updates directly from the WHO. They have been supported more recently by the UK, Australia, New Zeland, Belgium, Japan, Germany, and the US. On January 30th, Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, openly supported Taiwan’s campaign to join the WHO, noting that Taiwan can help Asian nations fight the spread of the virus. A similar message was soon after conveyed by Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau. At a United Nation’s convention in Geneva on Feb, 7th, both the US ambassador, Andrew Bremberg, and Japan’s ambassador, Ken Okaniwa, advocated that Taiwan should be included in the organization.

At that conference, the Chinese delegate, Qi Daihai, emphasised that attendants should stop “hyping up” the “so-called Taiwan issue,” rather than presenting a solid case for its denial based on epidemiological grounds. Chinese ambassador, Li Song similarly stated that Taiwan does not need to join WHO since it is a province of China, and said Taiwan’s non-participation in global epidemic prevention is merely being used as a pretext to disrupt the “one China” principle. The absurdity of this position, Taiwan’s demonstrated expertise in pandemic prevention, and the growing stakes involved, should give Taiwan’s supporters hope that common sense will eventually prevail.

Yao-Hung Huang is an Assistant Professor at the English Department of the Fo Guang University. This article is part of special issue on COVID-19. 

Along with Taiwan Insight’s special issue on Taiwan and WHO, we also introduce a timely special issue of the International Journal of Taiwan Studies (IJTS) on “Taiwan, Public Diplomacy, and WHA”. Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO and the WHA is now a major cause for concern. To understand the reasons, consequences and possible remedies for Taiwan’s exclusion, one has to adopt a multi-disciplinary perspective. In this IJTS’s special issue, we have brought together political scientists, IR specialists, communication scholars, and health experts. For more details, please visit here.


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