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Last Updated: 06/09/2003
Taiwan, China & SARS
Dr. Lorna Hahn

Dr Hahn, Executive Director at the Washington Think Tank, Association of Third World Affairs argues that the SARS epidemic should give China pause for thought in its attitude to Taiwan.

On June 5, the World Health Organization invited experts from Taiwan to  participate in a global conference on SARS (Special Acute Respiratory Syndrome), to be held June 17-18 in Kuala Lumpur. The invitation, coming just two weeks after the failure of Taiwan's latest attempt to join the WHO, is a tacit admission that the fight against international epidemics requires full international cooperation--and that the "world" of the WHO should include Taiwan.
         SARS, which originated in China's southern province of Guandong last fall, has now struck over 8400 people, nearly 800 of them fatally, in 30 countries. Hardest hit, after China and Hong Kong, is Taiwan--which acquired the mysterious "atypical pneumonia" from travelers returning from Guandong. Yet when Taiwan--backed by the U.S., Japan and many other countries--asked the World Health Assembly in Geneva to accept it as an Observer on May 21, its bid was promptly rejected. This is because China, invoking the "one China" principle, insists that Taiwan is merely a wayward province of China, which should reunite with the mainland, and is therefore unworthy of membership in an organization for which statehood is a requirement. Besides, Chinese officials have stated, it is unnecessary for Taiwan to join the WHO because China is looking after the health of the Taiwanese.

         The situation might be comical were it not so serious. the PRC government obviously cannot look after the health--or anything else--of the 23.5 million Taiwanese, as it has never ruled Taiwan since assuming power on the mainland in l949. Since that year, when the fleeing Kuomintang (Nationalist) leadership fled to Taiwan and took control of it, the island has been self-governing and has evolved into a vibrant and prosperous democracy.

          Although its president, Chen Shui-bian, represents the Democratic Progressive Party, which favours declaring formal independence from China, Chen has refrained from any such provocative actions and has instead sought warmer ties with Beijing. The latter, however, wishing to force Taiwan into reunification, prefers to focus not on friendship but on isolating Taiwan internationally.

           As China wants the world to consider Taiwan as part of "one China," it insists that other countries grant diplomatic recognition only to Beijing, and not to Taipei. Because of its superior size and strength, China has been able to convince all but 28 small countries to break official ties to Taiwan, and to keep it out of international organizations. In an effort to accommodate China, Taiwan has for seven years sought to enter the WHO not as a full Member, but simply as an Observer. It even tried to do so last month as a "Health Entity," not a "country," to avoid hassles over its status. China, however, refused these compromises--and scolded President George Bush for signing an "erroneous bill" supporting Taiwan's observer status in the WHO.

         The people of Taiwan, unable to share data on SARS--or other diseases--with other countries in an organized, steady manner, are obviously suffering from their exclusion from the WHO. But so are other people. Taiwan's excellent medical researchers, who have eradicated cholera, polio, smallpox and other diseases from the island, have made considerable progress in identifying the cause of SARS. If they could work directly with colleagues in the WHO, they could probably make a significant contribution to international health. Taiwanese medical teams have also given extensive help to poorer countries in Africa, Central America and elsewhere, and could do more if they could work multilaterally with WHO Members. (Taiwan has even been quietly giving medical help to may Chinese: They range from pregnant women coming to Taiwan to give birth in modern facilities, to ill people paying large sums to Taiwanese fishermen to bring them in illegally, after which they turn themselves in to immigration authorities for the purpose of getting free medical care before being repatriated).

             As the world could clearly benefit by having Taiwan participate in the WHO, concerned delegates to the Kuala Lumpur conference should try to persuade their Chinese colleagues to find a way for Taiwan--as a "Health Entity", "Health Jurisdiction" or some other name--to join the organization. The Chinese should be reminded that diseases need no visas, do not recognize or not recognize countries, and constitute a health--not a diplomatic--problem. The delegates might then suggest that China, as a great power, should demonstrate its global leadership by designing
a formula for Taiwan's entry into the WHO as an Observer. And if flattery gets them nowhere, they might add that worldwide disapproval of China's irresponsible behaviour towardsinternational epidemics could lead to drops in tourism, trade and investment, and possibly to cancellation of Beijing's hosting of the 2008 Olympics--for which it campaigned long and hard. All this could well bring results at the next annual meeting of the World Health Assembly--and would be well worth the effort.

Lorna Hahn, Ph.D.
Executive Director
Association on Third World Affairs

Dr. Hahn has published & lectured widely on the US-Taiwan-China tangle.