October 4, 2005 | Wall Street Journal (Opinion Journal and European Edition)

The Good China

Taiwan succeeds despite being shunned by the U.N.--or maybe because of it.

Having spent rather too much time recently immersed in the bubble-world of the United Nations and its recent 60th Anniversary “high-level event,” I found myself craving a dose of reality. At the U.N., not only does the project of reforming a corrupt and ingrown system appear beyond reach, but even the matter of renovating the building itself has become a symbol of the mess within. Having already bogged down in its own scandal-ridden contracting practices and priced the renovation project at an astronomical $1.2 billion, the U.N. has been demanding that U.S. taxpayers bankroll its refurbishment plans with an interest-free loan, even though–as real estate whiz Donald Trump testified in July to Congress–“they have no idea what they're doing.”

So, for a change of scene, I paid a visit last week to another building in midtown Manhattan, just a few blocks from the U.N. There, at 42nd Street and Madison Avenue, a dramatically different sort of renovation project has been nearing completion. This edifice houses the embassy of Taiwan, the Republic of China (officially called the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office), which in July 2004 bought an entire office building in midtown Manhattan, had it gutted, arranged for swift renovation and in April began moving staff over from the old offices. This evening, Taiwan plans to host on its agreeably revamped new premises the first of three receptions leading up to the Oct. 10 celebration of its National Day.

On the afternoon I dropped by, there was great commotion in the lobby, where workmen were hammering, sawing and painting to meet the deadline. But in the 16th-floor office of Ambassador Andrew Hsia, there was an air of competence and calm. The genial, silver-haired Mr. Hsia, sporting a trace of construction dust on his otherwise polished black shoes, took time over a cup of tea to recount how he decided that Taiwan's mission needed more office space in New York, arranged the purchase last year of the building for $30 million, spent another $20 million on renovation, set a date for completion of the project, and took responsibility for ensuring it would get done on time. “My project manager came to me recently and asked, 'Do you have a plan B?' ” says Mr. Hsia. He told his project manager, simply, “No.”

In the grand arena of global diplomacy, office renovations are of course a sideshow. But as a symbol of the difference between the aging behemoth that is the U.N., and the lively democracy that is Taiwan, the contrast between the two renovation projects could hardly be more apt. While the U.N. reserves one of five permanent seats on its Security Council for the despotic “People's Republic” of China, plays along with the nuclear bomb program of the Islamic “Republic” of Iran and routinely clears its schedule to entertain the opinions of Fidel Castro's Cuba, the U.N. does not even offer Taiwan observer status, let alone a seat.

Taiwan, meanwhile, has been a world leader in embodying the ideals of the U.N.'s own charter–meant to promote peace, freedom and prosperity. Since the late 1980s, the Chinese government in Taipei has gone from martial law to free-wheeling elections, as the 23 million people on Taiwan have created China's first full democracy. In recent decades, they have also leapt from deep poverty to the ranks of the world's wealthier polities. The usual U.N. databases do not include Taiwan, but according to the CIA World Factbook, Taiwan's per capita income these days is about $25,000–which in U.N. rankings would place it in the neighborhood of such highly developed nations as Italy and New Zealand, with almost 20 times the per capita income of Red China.

Taiwan has achieved this despite being evicted from the U.N. in the 1970s, to be replaced by the communist government. For Taiwan, there has been no place at the perennial U.N. conferencing on “sustainable development.” Taiwan was cut out of the U.N. picture years before the U.N. began its drumbeat for global taxation to support U.N. “millennium development goals.” And lo! Taiwan has blossomed beyond the wildest dreams of the U.N. aidocrats who, bereft of the defunct Oil for Food program, now hope to lavish yet more attention, and earn themselves many more U.N. per diems, in Africa. It's enough to suggest the real secret of success might be to ignore the U.N.

But it's hard to dismiss the U.N. completely as long as such heavyweights as the U.S. and European Union treat it as the top global forum of sovereign states. Out of the U.N.'s 191 member states, 26 of the smaller powers recognize Taiwan. Every year, on Taiwan's behalf, some of these small nations go to bat at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly to have placed on the U.N. agenda Taiwan's request for “the equitable representation of the 23 million people of the Republic of China (Taiwan) in the United Nations.”

This year, amid the U.N. festivities over its own 60th birthday and high-minded aims, the General Assembly was even busier than usual. So the U.N. folded Taiwan's request for equitable representation in with a new request sent over by Mr. Hsia, for the U.N. to uphold its own charter by actively promoting peace in the Taiwan Strait–which is lined on the communist side with missiles targeted on Taiwan. Red China, backed by Pakistan, opposed both items. Gambia and Chad argued for Taiwan. The U.N. allotted 24 minutes for the entire debate, and then briskly dismissed it as not worth including in the official agenda of the General Assembly.

Borrowing a page from George Orwell, the U.N. also celebrated its anniversary with a poster in the lobby of its famous but decrepit headquarters, on which it advertised a display of “Original Signatories of the U.N. charter.” Except they weren't. The original signatory for China of the U.N. charter was the Republic of China. In the 2005 U.N. version, the signatory listed was “China, People's Republic of.” Informed of this Turtle Bay twisting of history, Mr. Hsia wrote to U.N. Undersecretary-General Shashi Tharoor, noting, “It is hard to imagine how the U.N., perhaps the world's most important international organization and one which is widely counted on to preserve the truth, could allow itself to blatantly deviate from history and misinform the world about something so fundamental to its history.”

The U.N. did not write back, says Mr. Hsia, nor did the U.N. correct the mistake. Instead, in the finest tradition of Orwell's memory hole–the poster simply vanished.

Why should the surreal ways of the current U.N. be allowed to set the agenda? Ambassador Hsia has invited a wide variety of guests to the housewarming parties he is hosting at the Republic of China's new embassy building this week. Among them is the new U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton. If he, or anyone else, for that matter, wants to truly honor the ideals of freedom and prosperity that the U.N. was founded to promote, this mission of a free Chinese people to the crossroads of the Free World is one of the most important places in New York to visit this season.

Ms. Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Her column appears here and in The Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.



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