The earthquake's destructive force (Picture: Taiwanese Collegian)
On 21 September 1999, a devastating earthquake struck Taiwan. It claimed more than 2,000 lives, injured approximately 8,000 people, left more than 100,000 homeless. Soon, rescue teams from some fourteen countries arrived in Taiwan for rescue efforts; elite search-and-rescue teams from Virginia and Florida rescued their first survivor within minutes of arriving.
Taiwanese around the world highly appreciate the selfless assistance provided by so many nations around the world. In particular, the fast and efficient help from Japan, Korea, the United States, France, and Mexico showed that these nations cared. Even Turkey, which itself was just recovering from a massive earthquake, sent a search and rescue team.
However, the earthquake also brought to light some lingering confusion on the part of some international aid organizations, as well as some disturbing attempts by China to politicize the event.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Geneva as well as the American Red Cross felt it necessary to "consult" with Beijing before sending aid, thus unnecessarily delaying this aid at a time when speed is crucial.
Also, China tried to use the event to assert its claim to sovereignty over the island: China's Red Cross spokesperson Sun required that all international humanitarian efforts be subject to China's advanced approval, and that all Taiwan-bound international relief such as food, donations, medication, and rescue teams to be channeled through China.
To add insult to injury, China's Foreign Ministry offered thanks to various nations that sent rescue teams, under the pretense that it was representing Taiwan. It was also reported that the Russian rescue team that headed for Taiwan was not allowed to land and refuel in China. The Russians had to take an extended route through Japan to refuel thus delaying timely rescue.
In particular the moves by the UN agency in Geneva and the pronouncements by the American Red Cross raised the ire of several of Taiwan's supporters in the US Congress:
U.S. Congressman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) said in a statement issued on 21 September 1999, that the position taken by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Geneva "...is bordering on the absurd."
He added: "hundreds of people are fighting for their lives, and the bureaucrats at the UN are worried about offending Beijing's dictators. China has absolutely no right to interfere in this situation. China should be leading and not hindering the effort to help the Taiwanese people deal with this catastrophe."
On September 21st, the day after the earthquake, OCHA official Rudolf Mueller told Reuters that his office could do little "...because it does not recognize Taipei." He said he was "... waiting for the government in Beijing to request foreign assistance before it can do more than pass on information on the quake." Taiwan had asked for international assistance, but, Mr. Mueller stated "...we as the U.N. cannot act on the basis of a request from Taiwan, because it is not an officially recognized government."
In the overseas Taiwanese community, the statements by Chinese president Jiang Zemin that the disaster "hurt the hearts of people on the mainland as the Chinese people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are as closely linked as flesh and blood," were dismissed as political propaganda.
China aiming "love our compatriots missile" at earthquake-stricken Taiwan
Overseas Taiwanese organizations also dismissed the Chinese announcements that Beijing was donating $100,000 in disaster aid and another $60,500 worth of relief supplies as an attempt to capitalize on the disaster. A press report from Hong Kong even dared to suggest that with these meager amounts, China "led" international offers to help Taiwan recover from the massive earthquake.
US Representative Howard L. Berman (D-CA), a senior member of the House International Relations Committee, also criticized the United Nations for seeking approval from China before sending a disaster assessment team to Taiwan following the recent devastating earthquake.
"Politics should be put on the back burner when lives are hanging in the balance," Berman said. "It is absolutely unconscionable that the people of Taiwan, in their hour of need, should have to wait for the U.N. to jump over political hurdles erected by China."
"Taiwan is a strong democracy and a responsible member of the international community," Berman continued. "Over the years Taiwan has generously provided assistance to many countries suffering from their own natural disasters, including China. There should be no hesitation when the tables are turned."
"The current situation only strengthens my belief that Taiwan should be admitted to the World Health Organization and other international organizations," Berman continued. "The health and well-being of the Taiwanese people should clearly transcend any and all political considerations."
The president of the Washington-based Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA), professor Wen-yen Chen, echoed Mr. Berman's remarks. He said: "It is a disgrace that Beijing has to give the go ahead to the UN for sending relief aid to Taiwan. When will the world realize that Taiwan and China are two separate independent countries? It is quite saddening that politics are being played over the heads of the victims of this devastating earthquake."
On 5 October 1999, Congressman Chris Cox (R-CA) introduced an important joint resolution, H.J.R. 70, in the U.S. House of Representatives. Angered by reports that organizations such as the American Red Cross and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Geneva first sought permission from Beijing before deciding to provide disaster relief to Taiwan, Mr. Cox decided that it was necessary to ensure that all US and international humanitarian and disaster relief organizations can provide assistance to Taiwan without seeking approval of, or coordinating with, Beijing.
The Joint resolution also provides that the President shall take all necessary steps on behalf of the United States Government to support the membership of Taiwan in international humanitarian and health organizations, such as the Red Cross, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and the World Health Organization.
When he introduced the resolution, Mr. Cox stated: "Sometimes it takes an enormous tragedy such as this earthquake to bring home how futile it is for us to maintain the political differences that we do have across the globe. I think everyone watching on television saw that the people of Taiwan are not the dangerous "splittists" so often derided by the Communist government in Bejing, but men, women and children fighting for a better life, just like all of us."
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