Department of Health Minister Yeh Ching-chuan (葉金川) was in for a surprise in Geneva yesterday when two Taiwanese students approached him after dinner and asked him to clarify his position on the designation of Taiwan as “Chinese Taipei” at the World Health Assembly (WHA), the WHO’s decision-making body.
After regaining his composure (he whimpered, lost control), Yeh said he might consider taking legal action — back in Taiwan — against the two women.
Aside from Yeh’s sobs, the reaction of the Taiwanese government and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was one of outrage, with references to Taiwan being an international “laughingstock” and to the feelings of Taiwanese being hurt by the two women’s actions.
More interesting was Presidential Office Spokesman Wang Yu-chi’s (王郁琦) comments on Monday, who said that while he understood there were differences of opinion over whether Taiwan should agree to the name “Chinese Taipei” at the WHA, the public should voice its discontent at home rather than at international events.
There was, undoubtedly, some loss of face involved with the incident on Monday, which marred an otherwise perfect day for the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration, as it finally had something to show for its pursuit of détente with Beijing. After all, despite its doing so as an observer, this was the first time since 1971 that Taiwan participated in a UN body.
Beyond the loss of face, however, is the fact that the success of the contentious rapprochement between Taiwan and China initiated by Ma after he came into office last year is contingent on opposition to those less-than-transparent efforts not being internationalized. In other words, the rosy picture that has been painted of China-Taiwan relations by international media, investors and most of the world’s capitals in recent months must not be undermined by news that there is something rotten in Taipei, that millions of Taiwanese either oppose, or at a minimum apprehend, the manner and speed by which talks with China have proceeded. This strategy was on full display over the weekend, with the KMT and most foreign media downplaying the importance of the anti-Ma protests in Taipei and Kaohsiung on Sunday and reporting that “thousands” or “tens of thousands” of demonstrators took part in the rallies when, in reality, there were hundreds of thousands.
Facing a weakened opposition Democratic Progressive Party, the KMT/Ma administration, which control both the executive and the legislature, appear to have reached the conclusion that as long as trouble can be kept at home and does not spill out, they can continue to ignore dissent and proceed with their cross-strait negotiations.
Monday’s incident in Geneva threatened all that, however, because all of a sudden the world (or at least the Swiss and the participants at the WHA), were made aware — perhaps for the first time — that there is real opposition to Ma’s policies and that Taiwanese will not only travel to voice their discontent, but even risk arrest to do so. Yeh’s threat to sue may have been overreaction from a man who has clearly demonstrated his inability to handle stress. But depending on whether this materializes or not, it could also be an attempt to use prosecution as a means to deter others from expressing the fears and discontent of Taiwanese on the world stage.
Perhaps it is easy for the world to ignore little Taiwan when shouts of anger are expressed on the island, as happened this weekend. It might be more difficult to turn a blind eye to what’s going on here, however, if Taiwanese take the fight abroad. Perhaps those two young ladies in Geneva were on to something. (As Michael Turton points out, though, it would have helped if the ladies had protested in English or French, so that what was said could be understood by the audience.)