WITH TAIWAN'S HEALTH MINISTER ON TAIWAN'S WHO BID
July 22 (CNA) Minister of Health Lee Ming-liang was interviewed
by Central News Agency's contributing writer Mark Wolfe
on July 9. He spoke on the need for Taiwan to participate
in the World Health Organization (WHO) as an observer. Lee,
formerly president of the Tzu Chi College of Medicine and
Humanities in Hualien, also elaborated on the repercussions
of being sidelined by the WHO and his hope for the future.
On May 11 of this year, you were quoted in the local media
as saying: "Taiwan's participation in the WHO is an
extremely complicated political issue." Can you tell
me a little bit more about that?
Well, actually it depends on how you see that. It's complicated
in a sense in that it has a political component in it and
of course you know that it depends on which angle you see
it. From our side it's purely humanitarian - a health issue.
From the other side, the Communist Chinese side, it's a
political issue. Now since we cannot detach this issue from
the communist view.... Regardless how we want to see it,
you cannot get free from the Chinese communists' view. From
our side it is purely a humanitarian issue.
This year was the first year that the word Taiwan was used
in the effort to enter the WHO as an observer. Since mainland
China considers Taiwan officially as "China, Taiwan
province," isn't using Taiwan going to make things
more difficult politically?
The allies [of the Republic of China] used the "Republic
of China, Taiwan" before, as usual. Then about a month
before the middle of May, [President Chen Shui-bian] asked
the premier to form an interdepartmental, inter-ministerial
team and assigned me as the initial person in charge of
we discussed the issue of what name we should use - Republic
of China, Taiwan, as had been officially submitted this
year or, verbally, when we or others are talking about the
issue, [we decided to] just drop everything except Taiwan
because it is very, very confusing. Ask people what's the
difference between the People's Republic of China and the
Republic of China? It's very confusing. So after a thorough
discussion, we came to the conclusion that this time when
we go out - verbally - we just use Taiwan, make it simple
and drop everything. So what you said about Taiwan is correct,
but only verbally. [When people ask], "Where do you
come from?" [We answer], "From Taiwan."
So the written parts were the same as before?
Right, because that was [decided] before [I was minister].
But now we can ask, "How about the next time?"
Now, actually when we use the term "Taiwan, ROC,"
and since for convenience we just drop "ROC,"
it is just like before - "ROC, Taiwan," for convenience
we drop "Taiwan." All right? Of course you cannot
use such a complicated thing for such a simple answer.
I chose "Taiwan, ROC" I asked the Executive Yuan
for permission. Actually, I said, "What name should
So next time it will just be "Taiwan"?
I don't know. I presume so. Now would that make the matter
worse? I don't know. It depends on how you see that. You
can always make it worse, regardless...with China.
In the past, there appears to have been some lack of communication
or cooperation between the Department of Health and the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and perhaps other agencies.
How serious was the problem and how has it been addressed?
I admit that the problem did exist before. I guess [it]
is understandable that if nobody was assigned to lead...
or be responsible for that, then naturally there will be
a problem. We have the professional people and knowledge,
yet we don't have the resources. We don't have the necessary
diplomatic skills. We don't know how to do that.
yet, it's an issue of mixed problems. In other words, you
need political skill as well as professional knowledge.
So really, as far as I am concerned, it doesn't matter who
leads, but the Department of Health is willing to do whatever
its share is [to help].
in the past we did have this problem of coordinating. For
example, if I wanted to ask the people from the [ministry
of] foreign affairs who live in Geneva - I can't order them
to do anything.
You have to go through channels....
Of course, right. And we don't have any single person from
the Department of Health stationed outside [Taiwan]. We
don't have the financial resources either. So everything
has to go through coordinated communications, and of course
this creates problems. (To be continued)
This was before or this year?
This is after this time. Remember that I only took over
this job a couple of weeks before [the WHO meeting this
year], so I didn't get the time to solve these problems
before I went [to Geneva]. But we made it work through mutual
understanding. We solved our problems through personal relations
rather than official channels.
Are you working on establishing official channels?
We are doing it now. We are in the process...I believe next
week I'm going to talk to the Executive Yuan and see what
we can do to help this situation.
So the Department of Health will be in the leadership role?
Yes. But the resources will have to be allocated from the
[Ministry of] Foreign Affairs to the Department of Health.
There have been a number of articles written by the government
on the issue of Taiwan being unable to obtain information
on new health care polices and development directly from
the WHO. Why is it important to get information directly
from the WHO? Isn't medical information available from other
agencies, hospitals, universities, the Internet or private
First of all is time and then the completeness [of the information]
...whether we can get it in time or get a complete picture
or not. Much information from the WHO is available on the
Internet, but only members of the WHO have access to it.
Aren't there private avenues? Hospitals or researchers?
Yes, you can always do this indirectly, but certainly it
is not the best way to do it. CNA: So the WHO has information
that no one else has? Lee: Yes, of course. They have their
own Web site, they have their own evaluations and even if
we want to be evaluated as part of the system, we cannot.
example, our national health insurance program - we'd like
to know how well we are doing compared to other countries.
They [the WHO] come out with a complete report and we have
to go through friends to indirectly get a copy.
You can get the information indirectly, though?
Yes, you can get it indirectly, but I don't know how complete
it is. I mean if you ask for "A" indirectly, you
might get "A," but they might have "A, B,
C" that we don't know about. So, in that case, we wouldn't
have the complete [information].
Taiwan often points to the enterovirus outbreak in 1998
to show the need for WHO participation. What help could
the WHO have provided that could not have been obtained
elsewhere during the outbreak?
Well, first of all, you need to share the [information on
the] epidemiology. Without proper channels you really have
to figure out what you have by asking from country to country
to country, instead of [using the WHO] network that has
an association with groups of people that constantly meet.
That's number one. Number two is identification of the specific
strain of a virus. The final conclusion [regarding the 1998
enterovirus outbreak] was arrived at after sending a sample
to the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] in the United States
through a private channel - a personal friend.
was some delay in determining the strain of the virus. Finally
we got it.
If you had had WHO access...?
They could have stepped in. They have a group of experts
that could come in immediately as a mobile team. Like a
fire department goes over here "What's going on, can
we help?" Rather than actually being literally left
on your own.
So, in a sense, because Taiwan couldn't get access to the
WHO, people probably died because of that.
Some. I cannot say all of them or how many of them - I can't
say that. But certainly if we say that we were left alone
to fight that, at least in the initial stages, it is not
an understatement. Fortunately, Taiwan is quite good. We
can solve problems, although not as quickly or as well as
we would like.
Wouldn't it be wise to ignore politics and accept any name
that China wants as long as the people of Taiwan can be
represented in the WHO? And if not, isn't Taiwan putting
politics ahead of health just as much as China?
Well...it's not our fault and that's not fair to us.
Couldn't Taiwan say, on a case-by-case basis, "We need
your help; you can call us Taiwan province?"
I don't think it's as simple as that. Obviously it involves
national dignity. Certainly it's not for me, at this level,
to decide. So...it's a very sensitive issue, let me put
it that way. So when you come to an issue like this...I
don't think that it's nationally acceptable at this point.
China's stand is clear: The WHO is part of the U.N., and
the U.N. accepts that there is only one China with its government
centered in Beijing. As long as the U.N. accepts Beijing's
"one China" principle, is there any hope that
Taiwan will ever be granted even observer status in the
I don't see why not. First of all, we are not challenging
the "one China" policy which the U.N. stands by.
We are not asking for membership. We are asking for observer
status, which has nothing to do with a nationality.
example, the Red Cross is an observer, as is the PLO, the
Vatican and a few others. So if we consider that there are
23 million people, or more now [on Taiwan], it is a significant
number of people who are left outside of the WHO...you can
solve that issue by giving them an observership - let them
participate, let them be part of the system to be taken
care of as well as to take care of others.
it's fair to have this kind of arrangement and I'm sure
that lots of people can accept that. Even the United States
is turning to that.
It seems that Beijing will never allow that.
Well, yes, but when you have the momentum to turn the tide
- to turn one side - I'm sure they probably will... if more
than half of the people say that this is not an unreasonable
idea, not by challenging you on who is the only China.
say this: Taiwan's issues will be solved in the future,
right? But in the meantime, what are you going to do? Leave
23 million people out there until this issue is solved,
which may require 50 years, 100 years? Why can't we ask
for an interim solution? Putting politics aside for the
There seems to have been some optimism after your return
from the last WHO meeting in Geneva. What are your feelings
about the future?
Well, it is not me or the people on this island to decide,
to tell you the truth. The reason that we feel more optimistic,
including myself, is that we can feel some change in the
United States, which is encouraging. I had a chance to meet
with the secretary of health, Tommy Thompson, in Geneva
and it was the first time in 20-some years - after the break
in the diplomatic relationship...he clearly stated that
the United States position is in support of Taiwan in some
way of participating in activities, although he stopped
short of mentioning observer status.
we can see a change in the atmosphere. In the last half-year
we have had some people visiting places in Europe. They
have had been more or less encouraged. I have some friends
in Sweden and Denmark and they say that when the time is
right, they will certainly include us.
we have some sort of communication and exchanges of people
and good friends in Europe, and they are professional, and
they all agree that this is a kind of nonsense [to exclude
So if there were enough support, it wouldn't matter what
Right. They don't have any veto there [in the WHO].