A Tale of Two Chinas


If you thought Donald Trump used the word China too much, this is going to be quite the journey for you! When someone says the word China, you probably think of ya know, China, that place where all your stuff gets made! If you’re a China-savvy individual, you’ll be quick to point out that the ever-sensitive situation with Taiwan complicates the meaning of the word ‘China’ in international affairs.

Skipping over a bit of history (which we will get to later) China was left in an awkward situation in 1949, with two Chinas emerging from a civil war. The Communist Party maintained control of Mainland China, but the Nationalists were still the internationally recognised government, holding the Chinese seat at the United Nations. If you know anything about UN Security Council reform (or lack thereof), you’ll know it’s awfully limited by the veto of the P5 on any proposed reforms. Keeping this in mind, how did China (the current one) get its seat at the UN Security Council back from China (the other one)? It’s an interesting question that grapples with issues of state sovereignty, the power of the UN General Assembly and some interesting legal technicalities. Down the rabbit hole we go!

First, that bit of history I skipped over. Once upon a time, we had one China ruled by the Chinese Nationalist Party (ROC). Civil war was going down between the Nationalists and the Communists when Imperial Japan forced them to get the band back together to maintain Chinese sovereignty. They hated Japan more than each other and put their fight on hold for a bit. Once Japan had surrendered in 1945, they went back to civil war! The Communists emerged victorious as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and forced the Nationalist government to flee to the island of Taiwan. This is where our issue of two Chinas comes from! How many times have I said China already?

So, the Security Council.

Article 108 of the UN Charter states that any amendments to the Charter need ratification by 2/3 of UN members, as well as all of the P5 (China, France, Russia, USA and UK). This is why Security Council reform is so difficult, because they can just refuse to do things they don’t like and ruin the fun for everyone, so keep that in mind. Cool? Cool.

So this is where things get a bit weird and technical so try not to fall asleep because I promise it is interesting. While most important decisions of the UN go through the Security Council, Article 18 of the Charter gives the General Assembly certain so-called “important questions” for it to make decisions on without the Security Council. This includes boring items like elections to the Economic and Social Council and budgetary questions. Interestingly however – the “expulsion of Members” is also delegated to them. Now this is where the legal grounds get a bit blurry, because Article 6 of the UN Charter states that the General Assembly may expel Members of the UN that have persistently violated the Principles of the Charter, upon recommendation by the Security Council to do so. Who gets to do the things?

Further, Article 18(3) also gives the GA the power to make “decisions on other questions, including the determination of additional categories of important questions”. I know, right? They get to decide more things they get to decide on! This means that the GA needs a 50% + 1 majority vote to determine what questions it can then pass with a 2/3 majority. This technicality was ultimately used to expel the Republic of China and allow the People’s Republic to join in their place. A resolution was proposed that would make any proposal to expel the Taiwanese delegation a new “important question” for the General Assembly that would need a 2/3 majority for approval. Surely, this was a matter of such great importance that a simple majority should not decide it?

Apparently not.

The resolution failed by 59 votes to 55, much to the anger of the Taiwanese delegation. The US tried to step in like the good mate they are and help the Taiwanese China, putting forward a motion that their expulsion be voted on separately. This would have allowed the Communists to join as ‘China’, while allowing the ROC some representation at the UN. They wanted the legitimisation of mainland China to be seen as separate from the expulsion of Taiwan. Again, this was rejected. Rough day for them…

So, in November 1971, Resolution 2758 on what had been deemed the ‘unimportant’ question of Chinese representation was voted on by the General Assembly. The PRC was established as the legitimate government of China and the rest is history. Hello China, goodbye other China.

Now, the ROC still argues this is illegal. As mentioned earlier, Article 6 of the Charter states that Members be expelled through a recommendation to the General Assembly by the Security Council for violations of the Charter. To this day, the ROC argues that their expulsion was illegal and unjust. And to be fair, they might have a point. However, two main arguments are generally raised in defence of the decision.

  1. That the expulsion of Member States and ‘changes in legal representation’ are two distinct matters. ‘China’ as a State was not expelled from the United Nations; rather, the legal representatives of what we know as ‘China’ were expelled for unlawfully occupying that position. The argument is that this decision was a corrective one as opposed to an expulsion of a Member State as ‘China’ stayed at the UN. A fine legal line perhaps, but an important distinction to be made.
  1. That Article 6 does not govern absolutely in the dealings of the expulsion of members. While it stipulates the grounds on which a Member State can be expelled for violating the Charter, Article 18 also gives that power to the General Assembly under its consideration of ‘important questions’. You can get kicked out for more than one reason!

This ultimately grapples with some serious questions in international law about state sovereignty. It strikes at the heart of how we understand sovereignty in terms of representation in international organisations, and even its fragility through dependence on other States.

And hey, if for some horrible reason Donald Trump wins the U.S election, maybe we’ll find ourselves with a tale of two Americas, recognising an exiled Clinton government in Hawaii! For now though, the case of two Chinas is unique in both its significance and circumstances. If nothing else, it leads to some interesting discussions about modern Chinese territorial claims.

Well, interesting to someone who just spent their Friday night writing about the bloody UN Charter.


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