Name that inflames

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 May, 2009, 12:00am

The support ratings of president Ma Ying-jeou have gone up substantially since Taiwan was invited to take part as an observer in the World Health Assembly - the decision-making body of the World Health Organisation - using the name 'Chinese Taipei', ending a diplomatic deadlock that lasted a dozen years.

The timing was fortuitous since it coincided with widespread concern over the spread of swine flu around the globe. In fact, Taiwan's Health Minister Yeh Ching-chuan cut short his trip to Geneva to fly home after news of the first such case on the island.

Politicians from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party predictably denounced the name as one that offended Taiwan's dignity, although most people in Taiwan were pleased that the island could attend such a United Nations meeting for the first time in almost four decades. Besides, 'Chinese Taipei' is also the name used in the Olympics.

But another problem has arisen. It now turns out that, after the first case of swine flu was reported in Taiwan, the number was simply added to China's tally.

This is treating Taiwan as part of China, something that both the government and opposition in Taiwan do not want.

Over the weekend, after strong protests from Taiwan, the WHO website was changed. In the 37th update on the number of confirmed cases of influenza A (H1N1) around the world, issued on Saturday morning in Geneva, there appeared the following footnote below a table listing cases from 43 countries: 'Chinese Taipei has reported 1 confirmed case of influenza A (H1N1) with 0 deaths. Cases from Chinese Taipei are included in the cumulative totals provided in the table above.' Taiwan's Central News Agency quoted Mr Yeh as saying on Sunday of the footnote: 'I am not satisfied, but I can accept it.' But a more pervasive problem has not yet been dealt with. The WHO website repeatedly refers to Taiwan as 'China (Province of Taiwan)'. Unless this is changed, opposition politicians in Taiwan will continue to have a field day, deriding the Ma administration for failing to protect Taiwan's sovereignty. Ironically, it fell to a DPP politician, Chen Chu, the mayor of Kaohsiung who visited Beijing and Shanghai last week, to use the words 'President Ma Ying-jeou of the central government' while meeting Beijing mayor, Guo Jinlong , on Thursday.

Mainland officials routinely use the term 'leader' rather than 'president' when referring to him. Taiwan officials and members of the ruling Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, seek to appease Beijing by referring to the president as 'Mr Ma Ying-jeou' rather than use his title. The fact that Ms Chen had the courage to utter those words has rendered her a heroine to both the ruling and opposition parties in Taiwan. The DPP, even in opposition, seems to be standing up to Beijing and defending Taiwan's sovereignty.

Ms Chen was on the mainland to promote the 2009 World Games, which are to be held in her city. During her visit, the mainland announced that it would take part in the Games.

There is little point in trying to improve cross-strait relations unless the WHO issue is resolved first. And only Beijing can resolve it. After all, it signed a memorandum of understanding in 2005 with the world health body making itself responsible for Taiwan's health needs and for deciding how Taiwanese specialists could take part in WHO activities.

Now that Chinese Taipei has been made an observer, the WHO has to purge its website and, at the least, replace 'China (Province of Taiwan)' with 'Chinese Taipei' in every instance.

Unless this situation is resolved, the invitation to participate in the WHA meeting will be seen in Taiwan as a trap set by Beijing into which the Ma administration walked with its eyes wide open. Proposals such as signing a cross-strait economic framework agreement may become extremely difficult. It may even make it difficult for Mr Ma, who currently faces no credible opponent, to win re-election in 2012. The mainland must resolve the WHO problem and create a situation that does not embarrass Taiwan.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator