Last month Taiwan was barred from participating in the World Health Organization’s annual meeting, known as the World Health Assembly (WHA). To the people of most countries, the World Health Organization’s annual conference is not something that makes the front pages of newspapers or drives nightly political conversation on television. But Taiwan is, of course, not like most places. As with everything in Taiwanese life and politics, to understand the significance of the WHA affair one must understand the historical context involved.
While Taiwan is a self-governing, multilingual, and democratic society, its ability to participate in international organizations is significantly hampered by Mainland China’s claim of sovereignty over the island, which multiple governments in Taiwan since 1949 have contested. Up to this point, a careful balancing act has been maintained across the Taiwan Straits, with Taiwan’s self-governance offset against the need to engage with a superpower who is unrelenting in its desire to “unify” Taiwan to a Motherland it supposedly longs to return to. China has remained steadfast in its commitment to use all measures available- economic, cultural, and even potentially military- to achieve its long dreamed of reunification.
Over the last eight years Taiwan has been able to participate in the WHA as an observer under the name “Chinese Taipei” (中華台北). It has done so, however, only with the consent of the Chinese government, who saw the move as allowing one of its provinces to participate in an international forum. This year, however, no invitation letter was offered by the WHO in the run up to the meeting, leading to a daily drumbeat of media discussion regarding China’s attempts to suppress Taiwan’s voice in the international arena.
Both the Taiwanese parliament and presidency is currently controlled by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP 民主進步黨), who have traditionally favored Taiwan’s entry into the United Nations as a sovereign island nation completely independent of the People’s Republic of China. The DPP government, led by president Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), came to power last year, after eight years of Nationalist Party (GMD) rule under Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). Tsai launched an aggressive public relations campaign to generate international support for Taiwan’s participation this year in the WHA. Such a campaign included the release of short films highlighting Taiwan’s contributions to world health, interviews with Taiwanese physicians discussing the importance of Taiwan’s presence at the WHA, and direct appeals by president Tsai on Twitter to all international supporters of Taiwan.
For the DPP, Taiwan’s participation in the meeting was a question of local and global health policy, with China’s attempts to block it seen as an unnecessary politicization of the forum. While for China, allowing Taiwan even an inch of international breathing space outside of its own careful orchestrations remains unthinkable. Despite Tsai’s valiant public efforts, no major Western leader spoke directly about Taiwan’s case, though some lawmakers in Canada, the United States, and Europe voiced their support. To make matters worse, prior to the WHA meeting the Chinese government sent a letter to every country with permanent missions in Geneva stating that its “province” of Taiwan would not be participating in the event this year. The copy of the letter was splashed across the front pages of Taiwan’s newspapers. The letter incensed government officials with its blatant use of the term “province” (省), which was particularly demeaning, even by the standards of China’s past public pronouncements on Cross-Straits issues.
One of the main drivers of the current downturn in relations across the Straits is the DPP’s refusal to publicly endorse the “1992 consensus,” which was an agreement made in that year between representatives of the Communist Party (CCP) and the Nationalist Party (GMD) who ruled Taiwan at the time. According to the consensus, there is only “One China,” though both the GMD and the CCP have different interpretations of what that “One China” means. The consensus thus spawned the so-called “One China Principle” (一中原則), which for the Communist Party means that China is an indivisible nation and that Taiwan is a province within that nation. The DPP have never publicly endorsed the One China principle, and President Tsai refuses to do so down to today.
China’s refusal to allow Taiwan to participate in the WHA was largely seen as punishment for the DDP’s refusal to fall into ideological line. Under the previous Ma Ying-jeou administration, the ruling GMD were more than eager to accept the One China principle. The GMD is still committed to the notion that they are a “Chinese” political party, and that their ultimate political destination involves a unified China at some point. For the CCP, a refusal to accept the 92 consensus is tantamount to a statement of sovereign independence on behalf of the DPP, and Beijing has thus moved aggressively to shrink Taiwan’s presence on the world stage over the last year. Aside from barring Taiwan from participating in the WHA, the CCP have pushed African governments to shut down Taiwanese consulates abroad (and rewarded them lavishly for it), arrested Taiwanese citizens working on the Mainland, and worked to distance Western countries from expressing any kind of support for Taiwan’s cause.
The future of Taiwan’s international relations looks only more challenging from here. China is currently trying to reshape the world’s economic system with their “One Belt, One Road” (一帶一路) initiative, which is China’s attempt to coordinate economic activity with over 60 different countries, with Beijing at the center of this new world economic block. Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Accords and his general distrust of multi-lateral organizations has left a profound leadership vacuum in world affairs, one that China is only more than happy to fill. If countries want to participate in China’s new economic order, complete with generous investment projects and potential debt relief, they need to play by China’s rules, which means signing agreements that recognize the One China Policy as the cornerstone of Chinese sovereignty.
Taiwan’s space on the international stage is thus getting more and more limited, and they are up against a China that is now wealthy, powerful, violent, and deeply versed in the game of realpolitik. China is no longer the tight-lipped, lead-from-behind, emerging power of the 80s and 90s. With the weakening of the European Union and the Trumpian self-destruction of the American empire, China has found a world that is more malleable than ever. As such, China’s intellectuals have increasingly tried to find ways for Chinese leaders to speak a universal language on the world stage, a language that will give their country not just economic but cultural and civilizational prestige. After more than thirty years of breakneck economic development, China’s wants to be known as more than just the world’s factory. It now desperately craves cultural legitimacy, presenting itself as a magnanimous global power with a revamped strategy for world order (a 新天下主義, to invoke a discourse of global power that is now prevalent among intellectuals in Beijing and Shanghai).
As things stand, Taiwan is a thorn in China’s side that needs to be quickly addressed, for what Taiwan represents- pluralism, democracy, human rights, and transparency in public and historical life- is everything that the CCP’s authoritarian development model has not provided to its people. To allow Taiwan a space in the international order would be to admit that another model for the Sinophone world is possible, one that does not involve secret police, mass censorship, and state repression of all forms of public democratic expression.
Taiwan is an outside space, a different social and political configuration for Chinese speaking peoples, and is thus an existential threat to Beijing’s political regime. Taiwan’s very marginality－always looking in, never totally incorporated in any imperial formation (China, Japan, or the United States), perpetually confounding attempts to secure its own proper identity- is the source of its disquieting power. In the face of the Mainland’s centralized and doctrinaire political culture, Taiwan is always already impure, mixed, disloyal.
How did Taiwanese society respond to its disbarment from the WHA? On the same week as it was refused entry to the meeting, its highest judicial body ruled that preventing two people of the same-sex from marrying is a violation of their constitutional rights. In the words of the ruling, the current provisions of Taiwan’s Civil Code that do not allow persons of the same sex to marry are “in violation of both the people’s freedom of marriage as protected by Article 22 and the people’s right to equality as guaranteed by Article 7 of the Constitution.”
Suppressed internationally, Taiwan responded by doing what it has done for many decades now: working to make its society more just and open. The authorities in Beijing would do well to read the full text of the marriage equality ruling. The ideas that are contained therein- concepts like equality, rights, and freedoms- are the battleground upon which the Cross-Straits conflict has been and will continue to be fought.
On the evening of Wednesday, May 24th, when the Constitutional Court’s ruling came down, there was no cause for sadness over Taiwan’s international struggles. Instead, amidst lashing rain and chilling winds, thousands of young people came out to a rally outside the legislature building. The rally both celebrated the court ruling and let legislators know that its was now their turn to act to legalize gay marriage.
The atmosphere was festive and welcoming, but also reflective, even somber at times, deeply marked by the trauma of a repressed community’s decades long struggle for cultural recognition and legal protection. It mixed joy with sober reflection, laughter with cautious pause. In a month of almost relentless negativity for Taiwan, it was a reminder of all that the island has accomplished.
Walking away from the rally, one could not but be convinced that resilience in the name of justice is not lost in the Sinophone world.
Mark McConaghy holds a PhD from the University of Toronto’s East Asian Studies Department. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the Sinophone world. He is currently a visiting scholar at Academia Sinica’s Institute for Chinese Literature and Philosophy.
Cover Image: Bennian/Getty Images.