Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 9

Beijing insists that Taiwan can participate in the global struggle to contain Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) only as a part of the People’s Republic of China.

There is nothing surprising about this denial of recognition to Taiwan as an individual entity. Beijing has always stipulated that, at international events, Taiwan must either not appear at all or only under a rubric, such as “Taipei-China. ”

It is extraordinary, however, that the international community–even on a medical issue as critical as this one–is complying with the Mainland’s demand that Taiwan be excluded from international meetings on SARS convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Association of South-East Nations (ASEAN).

Beijing’s obstruction is notable in light of the most recent statements from Beijing. U.S. Senator Bill Frist, a doctor, reported after a meeting with China’s president: “Hu Jintao said this is a disaster not only for China but potentially for the entire world.”

China’s new prime minister, Wen Jiabao, stated at the recent ASEAN meeting in Bangkok that China was acting completely openly and leaving no stone unturned to prevent the spread of SARS. “I’m daring to face the fact [of SARS] and I’m daring the whole world on this issue. The Chinese government is here in a spirit of candor, responsibility, trust and cooperation.”

Premier Wen’s “candor” appeared to recognize that viruses know no political boundary. But WHO and ASEAN continue to reject Taiwan’s inclusion in their deliberations over SARS. Between 1997 and 2001, WHO rejected five consecutive proposals for Taiwan to take part in its activities as an observer.

At a recent press conference in Geneva, a reporter asked David Heymann, director of the WHO’s Communicable Disease Executive Department, whether WHO thinks the Taiwanese are already immune to SARS. WHO realizes that SARS cases have occurred in Taiwan, Heymann said, and has asked the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) to dispatch experts to Taiwan. He added that WHO will continue to track developments of SARS in Taiwan through the CDC. Asked whether WHO’s avoidance of direct contact with Taiwan on the SARS issue is due to “political factors,” Heymann said: “Your question is a reply in itself.”

This political exclusion of Taiwan is disgraceful for three reasons. The first is that SARS has appeared on Taiwan, despite the fact that authorities there have taken strict measures to control access to the island for travelers from SARS-infected places. The second is that, unlike the People’s Republic, Taiwan immediately notified international health authorities when the first case of SARS appeared on the island. Finally, Taiwan is recognized internationally as having a first class medical and public health system, whose practitioners and officials are well placed to engage in cooperative efforts to control the SARS epidemic.

Beijing should have lost any credibility in dictating who can join in the global fight against SARS. Its secrecy and duplicity are the key reasons for the SARS epidemic inside China and its spread abroad. The international press, and somewhat belatedly WHO itself, have condemned Chinese foot-dragging and lying. “I think we’re going for a very big [SARS] outbreak in China,” said Henk Bekedam, the WHO representative in China. “I think it will be quite a challenge to contain SARS within China.”

Beijing’s leaders eventually confessed that their response to the disease, twenty-two weeks after it appeared in Guangdong, was unprofessional, inadequate, and dangerous. Before the warning, a Guangdong official had stated–anonymously–“Beijing has decided that SARS should be handled mainly from the point of view of safeguarding China’s international prestige and credibility.”

Indeed, until the Politburo’s Standing Committee spoke, the SARS story was usually treated in the Chinese media (as opposed to the coverage it received on websites–before they were blocked) as an example of “unfriendly” or “anti-China” behavior. This was also how it was viewed by some well-known American China-watchers; they too regularly chastise Taiwan for provoking China.

A Shanghai doctor, an expert on epidemic diseases, stated: “You foreigners value each person’s life more than we do because you have fewer people in your countries. Our primary concern is social stability, and if a few people’s deaths are kept secret, it’s worth it to keep things stable.” This remark is understandable. Before permission has been granted, Chinese law specifically brands as a crime any publication indicating the existence of an epidemic.

But despite the global emergency, Beijing maintains that Taiwan can attend neither WHO nor ASEAN meetings on SARS. According to the People’s Daily of March 14, a spokesman from the Foreign Ministry said China opposed the passing of a bill by the U.S. House of Representatives expressing support for Taiwan’s participation in WHO. “As a part of China, Taiwan is not qualified to join or assume observer status at the World Health Organization because members of the global body are sovereign states,” the spokesman said. “The bill, passed on Tuesday, has violated the norms of international laws and the principles of the three Sino-US joint communiques,” he added. The spokesman also said that the bill represented interference in China’s internal affairs and that it is doomed to failure.”

Just before he was removed from office, Chinese Health Minister Zhang Wenkai said: “I say to you here, as Minister of Health, that the epidemic has come under effective control. It is safe to work, tour or live in China.” The now disgraced Zhang also clung to the official line on Taiwan, saying that “The Taiwanese people are our blood brothers, and blood is thicker than water.” The mainland, he added, was willing to cooperate with international organizations to help the Taiwanese people. Experts from the mainland were also prepared, he said, to study SARS countermeasures and prevention with Taiwanese counterparts. But Zhang said it is untrue that–as claimed by Taipei–Taiwan cannot get access to information and that the lives of the Taiwanese people are being neglected. He concluded:

“We hope that the leaders of the Taiwan authority no longer spread rumors with ulterior motives, or even use the disease as an excuse and in the name of human rights to try to enter the World Health Organization, which is only open to sovereign nations.”

The comments by former minister Zhang reflect the Chinese Communists’ penchant for secrecy and their defense of “sovereignty” at all costs. A Chinese diplomat in London told me on April 30: “This question of Taiwan and WHO must not be raised. It is a Taiwanese trick for getting into international organizations.” He had just heard Dr. Ron Behrens, an expert on epidemics at the London School of Tropical Medicine, say: “This is a medical matter. Taiwan should be at these meetings. It’s a matter of partnership, of collaboration.” Beijing’s mesmerizing power over international affairs continues to paralyze nations and organizations–even during the health crisis for which China is internationally acknowledged to be the ultimate cause.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of this affair is that Taiwan is asking for only one thing at international meetings on SARS: observer status.

–Editor’s note–
On May 6, 2003, the day this publication went to print, the World Health Organization agreed to send a medical mission to Taiwan to help deal with the SARS outbreak on the island.

Jonathan Mirsky was the China correspondent of The Observer [London] and East Asia Editor of The Times [London]. In 1989 he was named the British editors’ International Journalist of the Year for his reporting from Tiananmen. He lives in London.