The World Health Organization gets political

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything In It, The World Health Organization meets in Geneva, Switzerland this week, but it’s missing one country: Taiwan.

We’ll get to why that is in a moment, but first a little history of the World Health Organization. It’s an agency of the United Nations concerned with international public health. It was established in 1948, signed by 61 nations when it first began. Now 194 nations are part of it.

The World Health Organization played a lead role in the eradication of smallpox among other health improvements. The group favors worldwide universal health care and is not without its problems: reckless spending, including excessive travel costs among them.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: You heard earlier how international attention is on containing a new Ebola outbreak. Garnering less attention has been efforts by China to influence who participates in solving global health problems.

This week in Geneva, Switzerland, the 71st World Health Assembly meets. But political maneuvering is going on behind the scenes that many say undermines the ultimate purpose of the World Health Organization.

June Cheng covers East Asia for us and is here with more.

June, tell us some of the history of Taiwan’s standing with the World Health Organization?

JUNE CHENG, REPORTER: Yeah, so because Taiwan was kicked out of the United Nations in 1971 and replaced by the Beijing — the communist Beijing government, the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan has not been able to participate and be a member of WHO. And because China has been growing economically, it’s used its clout to force WHO and other countries not to recognize Taiwan. And so there was a breakthrough in 2009 after a more pro-Beijing president was elected, President Ma Ying-jeou. And at that time, Taiwan was allowed to attend the assembly as an observer and they had to use the name Chinese Taipei. And this is also something that the Taiwanese people have an issue with because nobody calls them Chinese Taipei and it’s in their only — they only use that name because China enforces it. And so since 2009, until 2016 Taiwan has been able to attend the assembly, but after President Tsai Ing-wen who is part of the democratic progressive party became president in 2016, Taiwan has not been invited to the assembly in 2017 and again this year.

Well, June, why doesn’t China want Taiwan to be a part of the World Health Organization?

CHENG: So, China has long claimed that Taiwan is a part of its territory, despite the fact that Taiwan is a self-governed island. China is a communist country and Taiwan is a democracy. There’s so many differences and essentially the communist government in Beijing has never ruled over Taiwan. But still China has said that it’s willing to use force to reunite Taiwan to the mainland. One way it’s doing that is by cutting Taiwan out of international bodies like the UN and convincing other countries to cut ties diplomatically with the island. And so right now Taiwan only has 19 diplomatic allies left. Because China is now the second largest economy, it has the money and the power to convince others to go along with its narrative when it comes to Taiwan.

So what are the practical concerns of Taiwan not being able to attend the World Health Organization’s assembly that’s going on this week in Geneva?

CHENG: One thing that Taiwan keeps pointing to is that in the early 2000s when there was an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS, the SARS virus, it took seven weeks before WHO dispatched experts to Taiwan and then only with China’s permission. And so Taiwan argues that it doesn’t make sense that an island with 23 million people and an advanced medical system would not be able to join this international body, only because of Chinese pressure.

And in what other ways has China perhaps tried to get foreign countries to follow its policies on Taiwan?

CHENG: So, last month China sent out a letter to 36 foreign airline carriers essentially demanding that they list Taiwan as a province of China rather than a separate country or region. And it’s also done the same thing to international companies like Zara and Marriott hotels that work both in China and in Taiwan. Again, they’re telling them that they can’t list on their website Taiwan as a different region as China. And because these countries are so afraid of losing out on this enormous China market, they’re kowtowing to Beijing. They’re apologizing and they’re updating their websites. And this just leaves Taiwan even more isolated on the international stage.

June Cheng is World’s East Asia correspondent. Thanks for bringing us this story, June.

CHENG: Thanks so much, Mary.

(AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying) In this Wednesday, April 11, 2018, file photo, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen attends a press conference at the Presidential Office in Taipei, Taiwan. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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