The Debate

Taiwan and the World Health Assembly

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The Debate

Taiwan and the World Health Assembly

Taiwan finally receives its invite to the WHA — with several strings attached.

Taiwan and the World Health Assembly
Credit: World Health Organization headquarters image via artin Good /

On Friday, May 6, 2016, Taiwan received an invitation to attend the annual World Health Assembly in Geneva as an observer.  Under normal circumstances this would be good news.  But there are several problems with the invitation.

As background, it must be mentioned that since 2009, Taiwan has attended as an observer under the name “Chinese Taipei” under an agreement between the government of President Ma Ying-jeou, the government in Beijing, and the World Health Organization (WHO), led by Margaret Chan from Hong Kong.

Proponents of that arrangement hoped that in that way Taiwan could gradually be included in the all-important network of WHO committees that provide the working framework for the fight against communicable diseases worldwide.

This expectation has not been met. Today – seven years later – the Taiwanese medical community is still being excluded from much of the international health network. Worse, a few years ago it became known that WHO general secretary Margaret Chan had instructed her staff and member organizations to refer to Taiwan as “Province of China.”

Now to the present: during the past few weeks it looked like Taiwan would not be invited to this year’s assembly, as Beijing wanted to send a not-so-subtle signal to the incoming administration of president-elect Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP, who won an overwhelming election victory in January, and who will be inaugurated on May 20, three days before the WHA meeting.

However, both the United States government and the European Union members states prevailed upon the WHO to invite the new government in Taiwan to attend the meeting as an observer. This happened on May 6, 2016.

But there are several catches.

The first one is the name under which Taiwan can participate: the previous government of President Ma Ying-jeou accepted the name “Chinese Taipei”, and this became practice during the past seven years.

However, many people in Taiwan – in the particular the young people – find this name highly demeaning, and argue that Taiwan should be allowed under its own name: the name that is used by everyone to refer to the country, “Taiwan.” They say that if Taiwan is forced to attend under “Chinese Taipei,” why isn’t the WHO consistent, and have the U.S. attend under “American Washington,” France under “French Paris,” or the United Kingdom under “British London”?  That would be equally silly.

The second catch is that the letter of invitation this time added “United Nations Resolution 2758” as a basis for attendance.  Under this October 1971 UN General Assembly resolution, the regime of Mao Zedong in Beijing became the representative of “China” while the UN expelled “the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek.”

On one level, taking this phrase by itself, this should be no problem as very few in Taiwan – except a small group around President Ma Ying-jeou — see themselves as “representatives of Chiang Kai-shek” anymore.  However, on another level, the resolution has been used to keep Taiwan out of the United Nations, although in the text of the Resolution there is no mention of “Taiwan” whatsoever.

The third proviso – obviously inserted by Beijing – is that Taiwan’s participation should be in accordance with the “One China” principle. By doing so, Beijing wants to emphasize that it considers Taiwan to be an “inalienable” part of China. The problem is of course that the PRC government in Beijing has never ruled Taiwan, but that it sees it as an unresolved issue dating back to its Civil War with the Chinese Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek, who fled to Taiwan in 1949.

So, what it the new government of Dr. Tsai Ing-wen to do?

On Sunday, May 8, 2016 it wisely announced that it will send Minister of Health-designate Lin Tzou-yien to Geneva, but announced at the same time that it did not accept the conditions proposed by the WHO secretariat.

In a press conference at DPP Headquarters on May 8, incoming government spokesman Tung Chen-yuan stated that according to the WHO charter, the right to health is a fundamental and universal right, and that is why Taiwan would contribute to the WHO.

He added, “The right of Taiwanese to fully participate in the international community should not be restricted by any political framework. Therefore, the ‘one China’ principle and the UN Resolution 2758, which were added to the invitation issued by the WHO secretariat, have no connection to Taiwan’s participation in the WHA.”

Perhaps the international community should start giving its own interpretation to the “One China” principle by stating they of course recognize there is only “one China,” but that the people of Taiwan need to be allowed to make their own decisions on their country’s future, free from pressure and intimidation by China. 

Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016 he also served as editor of Taiwan Communiqué, a publication based in Washington D.C.