Starting May 24 in Geneva, Switzerland, representatives from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 194 member states will meet for the 74th World Health Assembly (WHA). The annual WHA gatherings grant those countries their chance to have a say in the WHO’s policy direction, how its budget is spent, and who its next leaders will be. In the midst of a global health crisis, these decisions are even more important.
But since 2016, one nation has been conspicuously absent from these critical proceedings. Taiwan was invited to the WHA as an ‘observer’ in 2008, but after a period of intense lobbying from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Taiwan’s observer status was rescinded eight years later.
Last year, a group of countries skeptical of the undue influence wielded by Beijing banded together to call for change. They formed a US-led coalition to call for Taiwan’s reinstatement to the WHA. Yet their complaints amounted to nothing after they agreed that it was best to set aside such an inconvenient, divisive issue and focus instead on the more urgent matter of coordinating efforts to prevent deaths from coronavirus.
Despite their efforts, since the 73rd WHA concluded on May 19, 2020, COVID-19 has infected a further 153 million people and claimed almost three million more lives.
Besides its apparent pandemic failures, the WHO has consistently come under intense scrutiny in the past year for its links to the dictatorial, genocidal Chinese government. Questions will be asked for years to come about the decisions made in the first weeks and months of the pandemic and how many lives might have been saved if the WHO had acted more quickly or decisively, especially when doing so might have been against Beijing’s wishes.
If the WHO wants to begin to scrape back its legitimacy and convince the world it isn’t beholden to China, it should begin by inviting Taiwan to the WHA.
The WHO’s discrimination against Taiwan is not a new problem
In the context of the WHO’s close relationship with the CCP, its exclusion of Taiwan, otherwise known as the Republic of China, is hardly surprising. Much like in Hong Kong, the CCP has a habit of laying claim to nearby dissident populations, attempting to bring them under its control and declare them part of Chinese territory.
In reality, Taiwan has a strong claim that it ought to be considered free from President Xi’s government. You might even argue that Taipei is in fact home to the only legitimate Chinese government. In December 1949, following a brutal civil war in China in which millions died, the government of the Republic of China fled to the island of Taiwan. With Joseph Stalin’s support, Mao Zedong’s Communist Party formed the People’s Republic of China while the original Republic of China stayed in Taiwan, where it remains to this day.
It took several decades, but with the gradual acquiescence of international governance bodies like the United Nations and the WHO, the CCP has won near-total recognition from other countries, even in the wake of appalling atrocities like sweeping authoritarianism in Hong Kong and the ongoing Uyghur genocide in Xinjiang.
The result is that Taiwan and its 24 million inhabitants go without representation in important international matters like the World Health Assembly. In addition to everything else, Taiwan would probably have a great deal of useful insight to contribute to that summit if it were allowed to participate. As of April 2021, it had suffered a grand total of just 12 coronavirus-related deaths.
China’s immense influence
Much like last year, a few countries have once again coalesced to call for Taiwan’s readmission to the WHA, seemingly to Beijing’s fury. But even when the WHO and its members have been making all the right noises in public in the past, as soon as standing up to China becomes too costly or inconvenient, the rights of smaller countries like Taiwan have been quickly forgotten. This year must be different.
But given the WHO’s history on this issue, it may continue on the path of least resistance and keep its paymasters and political betters in Beijing happy, daring them to do more and go further to test the limits of the level of evil the rest of the world is willing to turn a blind eye to. After all, if a genocide isn’t enough to trigger a reckoning in how we treat China, perhaps nothing is.
On the off chance that the WHO was, in fact, troubled by the now widespread perception that it is in thrall to the whims of the CCP, a good first step towards winning back the trust of its member states (and preventing repeats of Donald Trump’s withdrawal of funding last year) would be the recognition of Taiwan as more than just a part of China, which is clearly borne out in reality.