Written by Leo Chang and Alan H. Yang.
Image credit: WHO World Health Organisation website under magnifying glass by Jurnej Furman/Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0
Taiwan’s effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a growing number of countries to support Taiwan’s membership in the World Health Organization (WHO). Yet, as widely reported in Taiwanese media, when the World Health Assembly(WHA) recently resumed, the Facebook page for fans of the WHO appears to have set “Taiwan Can Help,” a slogan that has been used by Taiwan’s current Tsai administration to promote Taiwan’s international assistance in disease control, as a keyword that will lead to netizen’s posts being blocked. Amazingly, reports from within Taiwan have stated that many messages which include any references of Taiwan or “Formosa” are being blocked on this specific fan page. It may be the case that the PRC’s widely condemned censorship practices are being extended to an international body that operates under the auspices of the United Nations.
While not widely publicised in the global media until recently, this has outraged many Taiwanese netizens. This has extended to the Taiwanese government, with Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu recently confirming that the island has lodged a formal protest. Some have responded by creatively using metaphors, metonymy and other devices. But – also in line with Chinese censorship practices – the WHO fan page administrators appear to have responded by expanding its list of banned keywords. While the WHO has since removed the social media filters, which it blamed on an “onslaught” of cyber attacks, we are led to ponder the question: can political tenets imposed by Beijing such as the “One China Policy” be allowed to override fundamental human rights such as freedom of speech outside of China? If so, where is this taking us?
Beijing believes that the UN General Assembly Resolution 2758 creates a solid legal foundation for other jurisdictions to respect its so-called “One China Principle,” and strongly disagrees with Taiwan participating in the UN and its affiliated organizations. On the first day of the 73rd WHA, a proposal for a supplementary agenda item entitled “Inviting Taiwan to participate in the World Health Assembly as an observer” was discussed using the two plus two debate arrangement, with China, Cuba, and Pakistan arguing against the proposal. Making recourse to the “GA Resolution 2758”, China falsely claimed to the world that they had made appropriate alternative arrangements for Taiwan’s participation in the global health system, summarily ignoring the call of thousands of congressmen and women across the world that had shown their support for Taiwan. Yet again, China was attempting to leave Taiwan and its 23 million people in the cold.
It is often said that even in an age marked by growing aspirations for liberalism playing a more dominant role in international relations, global politics is still largely based on realism-driven powerplay. It remains the case, in other words, that asymmetries of power frame, and too often determine the outcome, of international interactions. However, we retain our commitment to creating a liberal order on the basis that this order will uphold certain universal, people-centered values, and lead nations to respect human rights as a common moral ground for developing sustainability and good governance globally. Once the world tacitly tolerates the erosion of human rights by powerful political entities and allows them to undermine international organisations’ commitment to these universal values, this common moral ground, and the credibility of the liberal order as a tool for promoting a better world and safeguarding the universal rights, can only be compromised. Although geopolitics dictates that Taiwan’s government not been able to participate in most international organisations, in particular those associated with the UN, other issues, such as the inability of Taiwanese reporters to enter the United Nations for interviews, violates the principle of freedom of the press. The rule that those holding a Taiwanese passport cannot enter United Nations buildings is equally troubling.
It is one thing that China prevents its people from logging into the world’s major social platforms. But it is a deeply worrying development that it appears to be exercising its influence over some social media operations to erode freedom of speech beyond its borders. At the beginning of this year, ICAO Twitter blocked all messages related to Taiwan. In response, the US State Department issued a statement expressing its concern and “call upon ICAO to immediately and permanently reverse its practice of blocking discussion of Taiwan on its Twitter properties and make clear publicly its understanding that freedom of expression must always supersede the political insecurities of member states”.
Unfortunately it appears that the resolve of the Unites States to protect freedom of speech is not being observed by the international organisations that it had long nurtured. It appears that the WHO “deployed” its censors ahead of this year’s forum in order to block comments related to Taiwan. Yet there is growing evidence that the practice of setting keywords to flag comments that may offend Beijing’s sensitivities is not only being applied to Taiwanese. Reports of netizens overseas are adding to a growing body of evidence that any mention of or reference to Taiwan (or even using FORMOSA) by users of any nationality is not being allowed. It appears that the baseline tenet that political influences must not undermine fundamental human rights is being undermined. Most people who strongly support the principle of freedom of speech remain blissfully unaware that his tenet is appearing to be gradually eroded by those who pledge fealty to the ideology of “One China.”
Such actions are not only unjust – the are a violation of fundamental human rights.
United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2758 emerged nearly 50 years ago. While it determined China’s representation in the UN, it was not a judgment on Taiwan’s qualifications for participation in international organizations, and it was certainly not intended to be a platform for compromising basic human rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The resolution does not address the issue of Taiwan’s representation in the United Nations, nor does it mention that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China.
When most countries in the world establish relations with China, they do not accept that China exerts sovereignty over Taiwan, but rather merely acknowledge its claim to exert sovereignty. As the Assistant Secretary of State David R. Stilwell said at the Heritage Foundation on August 31, 2020, “The US has long had a one-China policy. This is distinct from Beijing’s “One China Principle” under which the Chinese Communist Party asserts sovereignty over Taiwan. The US takes no position on sovereignty over Taiwan. “
Resolution 2758 of the United Nations General Assembly does restore the legal rights of the People’s Republic of China to participate in the United Nations, but the People’s Republic of China seems to have selectively forgotten the purpose of the resolution, which “is essential both for the protection of the Charter of the United Nations and for the cause that the United Nations must serve under the Charter”. According to UN General Assembly Resolution 2758, the People’s Republic of China is not granted the right to represent Taiwan but must respect basic human rights following the UN Charter. The United Nations and its affiliated organizations should respect and protect freedom of speech under the Charter, rather than setting Taiwan as a word which can prompt someone’s comments to be flagged and censored.
Countries in the world must take seriously the claims that the World Health Organization has acted contrary to the principle of freedom of speech. Obeisance to the so-called “one China” principle should not supersede the responsibility to respect foundational human rights. We should not ignore nor tolerate China’s attempts to export practices which undermine universal values to international organizations.
Do not let our world become one in which the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
Leo Chang is a non-resident fellow based at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, National Chengchi University (NCCU), Taiwan.
Alan H. Yang is an Associate Professor at the NCCU’s Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies(GIEAS), the Deputy Director of the NCCU’s Institute of International Relations(IIR), and the Executive Director of the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation, based in Taipei.