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Taiwan protests lack of invitation to World Health Assembly

World Health Assembly (Pan American Health Organization PAHOF/Flickr)
May 22, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The democratic government of Taiwan on Monday expressed “dissatisfaction, protest and regret” at the lack of an invitation from the World Health Organization (WHO) to take part in its annual World Health Assembly (WHA) amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Taiwan’s health minister Chen Shih-chung said Monday had passed with no invitation to this year’s online WHA conference forthcoming.

“We have yet to receive an invitation despite our efforts, right up until the last minute,” Chen told reporters in Taipei on Monday. “It seems that this will not now happen.”

“We must express our strong dissatisfaction, protest and regret,” he said.

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Chen said Taiwan had plenty to contribute to this year’s gathering of 187 countries, including its exemplary handling of its own coronavirus epidemic, which was controlled from the outset by stringent travel bans, testing, quarantining, and contact-tracing.

The island also began developing treatments for the coronavirus and repurposed production lines to manufacture enough face masks for everyone to wear when they leave their homes each day.

“We won’t be sharing the Taiwan model at the conference, which is the WHO’s loss, but also means we can’t learn from the experiences of other countries,” Chen said.

Presidential spokesman Alex Huang called on the WHO to reject attempts at “inappropriate intervention” by Beijing, and to allow Taiwan to take part in all of its conferences, reporting mechanisms, and other activities.

Huang said the fact that China’s president gave the opening address to the WHA “wasn’t exactly a surprise.”

“This is why the heads of other member states may be asking themselves whether the WHO has become the CHO,” he quipped, in a reference to China.

Taiwan pushed aside

Since President Tsai Ing-wen swept to a landslide victory promising to stand up to Beijing and seek a more active role in world affairs, China has used its considerable influence at the WHO to ensure that the 1911 Republic of China on Taiwan, now ruled by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP),  is excluded from the body it once participated in as an observer.

According to a May 15 report in Foreign Policy magazine, China recently penned a secret letter to the WHO to ensure Taiwan wasn’t allowed to take part.

Chinese president Xi Jinping instead made the opening speech to the online WHA, following reports that Beijing had written to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus calling on him to stand firm and not invite Taiwan, which Beijing has threatened to invade.

Washington also hit out at the decision not to invite Taiwan, saying it damaged the WHO’s credibility at a crucial time for global public health.

“[China’s] spiteful action to silence Taiwan exposes the emptiness of its claims to want transparency and international cooperation to fight the pandemic, and makes the difference between China and Taiwan ever more stark,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on Monday.

“Taiwan is a model world citizen, while [China] continues to withhold vital information about the virus and its origins, deny access to their scientists and relevant facilities, censor discussion of the pandemic within China and on Chinese social media properties, and casts blame widely and recklessly,” he said.

Taiwanese foreign minister Joseph Wu Zhaoxie said there is nothing in the WHO to prevent it from allowing Taiwan to join.

“China says that it cares, but it has repeatedly deprived the people of Taiwan of their health and human rights,” he said. “The people of Taiwan are united in their aversion [China] and will not give up their desire to make a positive contribution to world affairs.”

‘This is a political issue’

A spokesman for Taiwan’s Kuomintang nationalist party, now in opposition, but which was a founding member of the WHO as the government of the 1911 Republic of China, said the views of the island’s 23 million people shouldn’t be ignored.

Taiwanese epidemiologist Ho Mei-hsiang said the government shouldn’t waste time aiming for observer status any more.

“This is a political issue … and the solution depends on the strength [of our leadership],” Ho said.

Taiwan has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, nor has it ever formed part of the People’s Republic of China. The KMT fled to the island in 1949 after losing a civil war with Mao Zedong’s Soviet-backed communists.

Following a decades-long campaign by dissidents, pro-democracy and independence activists, many of whom were jailed and persecuted under the KMT one-party regime, the island made a transition to full democracy beginning in the late 1990s.

About two-thirds of Taiwanese don’t identify as Chinese, according to a recent survey, instead selecting “Taiwanese” as their identity in a recent poll by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center.

Some 83 percent of respondents under 30 said they don’t consider themselves Chinese.