Outrage over WHO memo kicks off Taiwan presidential race

An internal World Health Organization note calling Taiwan part of China generated a splashy protest from Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, who called it 'belittlement' of the island’s ever sensitive political status.

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou speaks during a news conference at the Presidential Office in Taipei May 10. Ma on Tuesday protested against the World Health Organization for referring to Taiwan as a province of China, according to local media.

Had the World Health Organization memo calling Taiwan part of China leaked out last year, a wastebasket would have gobbled it up within hours.

But the Sept. 14 internal note made public this week generated an unusually splashy protest from Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, who called it “belittlement” of the island’s ever-sensitive political status and a breach of the UN agency’s rules.

The note on dealing with Taiwan calls the self-ruled island of 23 million people a “province of China” rather than "Chinese Taipei," the government says. Taiwan and the WHO agreed to the second name, which sidesteps the question of whether Beijing has sovereignty over the island, when they won rights in 2009 to attend the UN body's World Health Assembly as an observer.

Mr. Ma seized upon the memo as an opening reelection campaign gambit, say political experts. The presidential race that started in April and culminates with a vote on Jan. 14 pits Ma – sometimes criticized locally as too pro-Beijing – against an opposition party widely considered tougher on issues involving China. This week the president has held a rare press conference on the WHO memo and asked the foreign ministry to lodge a protest with the WHO. His government says it also will take up the issue at the World Health Assembly.

“Ma is trying to show in front of TV viewers that he is leading on this issue, that he’s not selling Taiwan,” says Shane Lee, a political science professor at Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan. He suspects China was in on it too, as Beijing leaders hope Ma's Nationalists beat the traditionally anti-China Democratic Progressive Party.

Any earlier, the president probably would have stayed quiet about the letter to keep peace with China. Although the Communist government claims Taiwan as its own and tries to squelch its international profile, it has made concessions including a tacit agreement to give the island seldom seen observer status in a UN agency. China’s softening follows upbeat trade talks with Taiwan since the conciliatory Ma was elected in 2008 after eight years of anti-China opposition rule.

The memo is unlikely to change Taiwan’s actual relations with the WHO, and China has urged calm over the flap. But the controversy could work against Ma as many opposition party supporters who advocate Taiwan’s formal independence say the "province of China" moniker spells foreign policy failure.

“The fact of the matter is that Taiwan’s [WHO] participation is an empty shell, without any substance. This memo shows clearly the failure of the Ma administration’s policies to gain international space,” Bob Yang, president of the Washington based, opposition-sympathetic advocacy group Formosan Association for Public Affairs said in a statement to journalists.

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