DOES A POLITICAL DECISION APPEASING CHINA OVERRIDE HEALTH AND INTERNATIONA L VALUES?
China’s relentless political war against its democratic neighbour, Taiwan, has resulted in another casualty: international public health. Collateral damage included the values and reputation of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
According to a press release from Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, WHO has once again failed to invite Taipei to the annual World Health Assembly (WHA). In the MOFA release, Taipei thanks the US government and those organisations and individuals that advocated for its inclusion in this year’s WHA; the release also, notably, graciously refrained from appointing blame for this egregious failure.
The invitation did not just get lost in the mail. China’s political warfare apparatus ensured the invitation would not be forthcoming. The 71st WHA is being held in Geneva, Switzerland this week. Last year’s assembly addressed such vital health threats as polio and antimicrobial resistance, along with emergency preparedness and response, maternal and newborn health issues, non-communicable diseases, and vital WHO governance policies.
Until recent years, Taiwan has been invited to the WHA, the decision-making body of WHO. From 2009 to 2016, it was invited under “observer” status, and Taiwan’s representatives contributed by sharing experiences in such areas as medical science and preventing the spread of contagious diseases.
Despite China’s efforts to isolate Taiwan internationally over four decades, WHO had invited Taiwan to the WHA based, in part, on its constitution that reads “health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition”. Apparently someone in WHO accidentally mislaid WHA’s constitution recently. Missing, too, is any pretense of WHO adhering to universal values of human rights.
WHO’s failure to invite Taipei was simply Beijing’s latest victory in its decades-long political warfare campaign against Taiwan.
As part of this campaign, China has waged an intense and highly coercive offensive against Taiwan’s formal diplomatic allies and international organisations that have, in the past, allowed Taiwan’s participation. The campaign has had its impact, with two of the few remaining countries with whom Taiwan has diplomatic relations defecting to China in the past year. Panama and Dominican Republic switched sides, reportedly with promises of billions of dollars in aid.
Now only 19 countries officially recognise Taiwan.
Taiwan is a great democratic success story, a thriving economy, and a global leader in health and science. So why does the People’s Republic of China (PRC) fear Taiwan so much that it wages this lengthy, expensive, and ultimately dangerous political warfare campaign to delegitimise and isolate it?
Following the loss of Mainland China to Communist forces in 1949, the defeated Republic of China (ROC) government fled to the island of Taiwan. But it never surrendered. Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) founded the PRC, and from its perspective, Taiwan was considered simply a renegade province that would be taken by force or absorbed eventually.
In its quest to subjugate Taiwan, the CCP seeks to limit its global presence under a “One China Policy” that asserts there is only one China (the PRC), that Taiwan is part of China, and that the PRC is the sole representative of China. Nations can choose which China to recognise, but the PRC’s population, geographic size, massive economic clout, and political warfare strong-arm tactics has gained it the preponderance of diplomatic recognition. In the process, it has excluded Taiwan’s representation in most international organisations.
China is strong now, as it constantly reminds us, with intimidating global political, economic, military, and intelligence service reach. Many of the elites who run international organisations, and those who govern the 194 nations and entities that comprise the WHA, fear China’s power – or eagerly seek out its patronage for economic gain.
Inconveniently for Beijing, Taiwan has survived, and now stands as an alternative liberal, democratic Chinese government. Taiwan has repeatedly proven it contributes significantly to worldwide public health programmes, the human right to good health, and to global disease prevention. In health-related issues, as in its peaceful transition to democracy, Taiwan has been a model global citizen.
But apparently good citizenship isn’t enough these days. Such a democracy in a Chinese society poses an existential threat to the CCP leadership, and the CCP will push as hard as it can to completely isolate it and strangle it into submission.
But now it is time to push back.
The US already backs Taiwan’s participation in the WHA, as does the EU. But many other countries must now recognise that the PRC’s bullying, exclusionary action is a threat to the current international order and their own well being. Such exclusion endangers the resolution of transnational health challenges, and it is inconsistent with the values of human rights and democracy.
But more importantly, the WHO must decide whether it will continue to uphold its constitutional commitment to human rights and inclusion – or whether it, like public health, will be yet one more victim of the totalitarian PRC’s political warfare success.
Prof Kerry K Gershaneck is a senior research associate with Thammasat University's Faculty of Law (German-Southeast Asian Centre of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance) and a visiting scholar at the Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies, National Chengchi University