Delegates at a model United Nations Conference got a taste of a real life international row after Chinese students and US organizers clashed over one of the world’s most delicate diplomatic talking points – Taiwan.
The row came at the normally cordial Harvard Model United Nations conference in Boston, in which high school students from around the world get together every year to discuss international relations and to foster an open dialogue on complex global issues. The format is based on simulations and by assuming the roles of UN representatives and other international bodies.
This year, however, participants got an unexpected taste of just how complex and infected global conflicts can be in the real world.
It all started on the evening of January 29, when members of the Chinese delegation noticed that Taiwan was listed as an independent country in the official delegates’ handbook.
China and Taiwan — officially the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China — separated in 1949 following a civil war. But China still claims Taiwan as its territory and, to this day, is reported to have 2,000 missiles pointed at the island.
Taiwan, on the other side, is a flourishing democracy and less than 10 percent of its 23 million people support the idea of reunification; a figure that has declined consistently over the years.
The so-called Cross-Strait relationship is a constant strain between Beijing and Taipei, and also, it seems, among hot-tempered students. Reports point to the fact that many Chinese students overseas feel required to counteract perceived anti-China bias.
Members of the Chinese delegation accused the American organizers of having a poor understanding of international relations. They requested an apology, and that the organization committee reprint 3000 brochures.
But the committee turned down their request. Instead, they offered to make a clarification at the beginning of the conference.
An administrator tried to smooth things over by offering participants to pick up stickers that said “by Country and Region” to add to their delegates’ handbooks where it originally said “by Country”.
Ruth D. Kagan, Secretary-General of Harvard Model United Nations 2015, explained that the inclusion of Taiwan in the handbook was “not meant as a political statement” in an e-mail to the delegates.
But the Chinese were still far from happy with the organizers’ attempts to cool the situation and continued to push their demands.
The following day, as the quarrel escalated, the American organizers decided to call security and remove some of the Chinese delegates from the conference, which was held at the Sheraton Hotel in Boston.
The Chinese had become a “security risk” and the organization committee “felt uncomfortable about their presence”, one of the Chinese participants wrote in a post on the Renren social networking site, which is popular among Chinese students.
“Even though now I am more than 100 miles away from the scene, as I am sitting on my bed in the hotel room, I can still feel the blood rushing to my head,” she wrote.
“So this is America’s so-called freedom, its so called freedom of speech and freedom of movement. So these are the human rights that America is preaching every day — but where are those rights now?
“America’s democracy, freedom and human rights are only for Americans; they have nothing to do with you Chinese folks.
“Americans treat you with bias if you are Chinese. Being Chinese just won’t do. This is a fact.”
The writer was identified by China’s state controlled newspaper Global Times as Deng Bingyu, a student from Xi’an-based Northwest Polytechnical University in Shaanxi Province.
However, an organizer of the conference disputed the online account and said that the ones who were removed from the conference were in fact not registered delegates.
“No students were removed. And we did not have any argument about Taiwan with any of the Chinese students,” said the organizer, who spoke on terms of anonymity. “Some people were removed, but we don’t know exactly who they were. They were not delegates of the conference.”
The blog post created quite a stir online, with mixed review. Many Chinese commentators were supportive of the Chinese students; others said the students were overreacting and called them naïve.
J. Michael Cole, senior fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham in the UK, had praise for the organizers. “Beyond doubt the organizers of HMUN2015 acted sensibly in the situation. They refused to be pressured by hotheads, and they pushed back just enough to maintain their integrity,” he wrote in a blog post.
China’s leader Xi Jinping has brought new urgency to the unification issue. In September, he expressed his “firm and unwavering stance” on reunification under the idea of “one country, two systems” during a meeting with pro-unification delegates in Beijing. The authorities in Taipei immediately rejected the idea, branding them “unacceptable”.
When I interviewed Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-jeou in the Presidential palace in central Taipei last October, he admitted that it’s a fine balancing act to maintain good economic relations with China while keeping Beijing’s push for reunification at bay.
“During my tenure as president, I will not discuss unification with mainland China,” he declared. “In addition, I will not promote independence, let alone the use of force. I believe this is essential to achieving a stable and lasting framework for peaceful development.”
That question of a “stable and lasting framework” is one that’s likely to be on the agenda of the Harvard Model United Nations Network for many years to come, and is unlikely to be solved with a sticker in the conference handbook.
Originally published to Forbes by JOHN NYLANDER on February 9, 2015.