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An ugly spat this week between the World Health Organization and the Taiwanese government over racist trolls is the latest development in a much larger geopolitical dispute with no end in sight. The director-general of the WHO said this week that he has endured months of racist abuse and death threats online and accused the Taiwanese government of stoking the abuse. To make matters worse, President Donald Trump jumped into the fray.
Like other U.N. organizations, the WHO considers Taiwan a part of the People’s Republic of China and excludes its government from membership. This, critics say, is detrimental to global cooperation during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which Taiwan has emerged as one of the most effective countries in combating the disease. Taiwan and its defenders have strongly criticized the WHO and its director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, for being overly deferential to Beijing.
In a Wednesday press conference, Tedros, who is Ethiopian, said this criticism had crossed a line. A CNN reporter asked him if the criticism he has received from world leaders makes his job difficult. Tedros responded: “I don’t give a damn, because it’s personally targeted to me. What makes me sad is when the whole black community was insulted, when Africa was insulted. Then I don’t tolerate it.” He then accused Taiwan’s government of stoking the abuse: “Taiwan’s foreign ministry, they didn’t disassociate themselves. They started criticizing me in the middle of all that insult and slur.” It wasn’t quite clear from Tedros’ statement what form this abuse had taken or why he thought Taiwan was behind it.
Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, rejected the accusation that racist slurs against Tedros had come from the island, and invited Tedros to visit. A foreign ministry spokeswoman did not exactly help the government’s cause by saying, “The concept of racism does not exist in Taiwan.” OK, then.
Tedros certainly does not deserve this kind of abuse, and Taiwan should say that explicitly. If the WHO’s critics are resorting to racism, it would be doubly unfortunate, because Taiwan does have legitimate cause for complaint about the organization. Experts have been warning for years that Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO is dangerous for public health. The country’s scientists say they were denied access to information and resources during the 2003 SARS epidemic as a result. (Taiwan held observer status in the WHO’s executive body when it was led by the Beijing-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou, but was denied even this after the more nationalist Tsai was elected.)
In the early days of the outbreak, health officials in Taipei say the WHO ignored their warnings—based on communication with mainland colleagues—that the disease could be transmitted between humans, slowing the global response to the growing threat. Instead, in mid-January, the organization issued a now-infamous endorsement of China’s finding that there was no human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan. The WHO continued to praise China’s handling of the virus throughout January, despite abundant evidence that authorities were covering up the severity of the situation in Wuhan. This praise was especially stark in contrast to the organization’s criticism of China during SARS.
Taiwan has had remarkable success combating the virus. More than two months after COVID-19 arrived on the island, it has seen only 380 cases and five deaths. Yet its health officials remain frozen out of emergency meetings and briefings at the main organization coordinating the global response to the pandemic. (In a painfully awkward interview with a Hong Kong journalist, one senior WHO official seemed to pretend not to hear the question and then insisted on moving on when asked about Taiwan.)
Tedros, previously the health minister of Ethiopia, was seen as China’s preferred candidate in elections for the WHO leadership in 2017 (though he was also backed by the outgoing Obama administration). Tedros has been the subject of controversy before, notably in 2017 when he decided to name former Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe as a “goodwill ambassador” (the decision was later rescinded), which some saw as payback for his support from Mugabe’s ally China. China has made a concerted effort in recent years to build its clout and influence in U.N. organizations like the WHO.
This is what Trump was referring to this week when he ripped the WHO as “China-centric” and threatened to withhold U.S. funding from the organization. The focus by Trump and other leading Republicans on the WHO and China is, while based on some legitimate complaints, a fairly transparent effort to deflect from the administration’s own failings. (For what it’s worth, Anthony Fauci has called Tedros “outstanding” and said “under his leadership, they’ve done very well. He has been all over this.”) And Taiwan advocates in the U.S. are using the crisis as an opportunity to boost the island’s global status.
It’s also a little rich for this administration to criticize the WHO’s pro-China bias. The U.S. is the largest funder of the WHO by far and enjoys substantial influence in the organization. It has chosen to exercise that influence in extremely odd ways, such as threatening sanctions on countries to defeat an innocuous WHO resolution supporting breastfeeding. The Trump administration has cut U.S. funding for international public health efforts and moved to disassociate from a plethora of U.N. agencies. Its budget request in February included a 53 percent cut to the WHO.
If the U.S. doesn’t like China’s clout at the WHO, it has to exercise clout of its own.