The inevitable vote: the United Nations, Taiwan, and the People’s Republic

After twenty-two years of debate, the United Nations on October 25, 1971 voted to expel Chiang Kaishek’s Republic of China and seat Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic. That vote, made only months before Richard Nixon became the first American president to visit China, would close one chapter of world history and affirm the beginning of China’s reopening to the world. As the first and only decision to effectively expel a member of the United Nations, the vote also marked an important coming of age for the United Nations as a body willing to act independently of the United States.

The UN’s ‘longest debate’

The fact that China, the world’s largest country by population, second largest economy, and a fast-growing military power is a member of the UN Security Council today seems obvious. Yet, at the time of the decision by President Franklin Roosevelt to include China as one of the Great Powers, even against the opposition of Winston Churchill, is less obvious. Erez Manela, a Harvard scholar, argues that it was not the power of a China lobby or overestimation of China’s strengths that led to its inclusion but a belief by Roosevelt that the UN’s legitimacy rested upon as broad a popular representation in the organization as possible.1

On October 1, 1949, the Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, declared victory in Beijing over the forces of nationalist Chiang Kaishek.2 A month later, on November 18, 1949 Zhou Enlai cabled UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie, urging a transfer of recognition to Beijing of China’s seat, beginning a debate that would last for two decades. It would not be until the fall of 1950 that the UN General Assembly would first take up the question when India first moved for replacement.  After a border dispute with India, Russia sponsored the motion for two years before Albania became the regular sponsor for Beijing. The United States succeeded in defeating the motion for years, often by invoking a clause in the UN Charter that required “important questions” before the General Assembly to be settled by a two-thirds vote.3

For decades, US sympathy for the Nationalists was matched only by a domestic American political situation that did not want to suffer another perceived loss to communism by letting the People’s Republic of China into the UN.  American diplomat James Nevins Hyde explains in a UN oral history interview that the British, whose Prime Minister Clement Atlee had committed with President Truman to keep the People’s Republic out of the UN, had pushed the US to recognize the country in exchange for a cease-fire in Korea. The US rejected without hesitation.4


As the United Nations again prepared to debate China’s status in 1971, dramatic changes were beginning to reshape the geopolitical landscape, not least with respect to the US-China relationship. A less manic phase of China’s tumultuous Cultural Revolution brought a renewed eye on engagement with the world and a desire to balance America against the Soviet Union, with which China had fallen out. A year before, after China invited a team of American ping pong players to be the first Americans to enter the country in years, US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger undertook a secret trip to Beijing to lay the groundwork for Richard Nixon’s “opening” of China in 1972.

As the New York Times observed in September 1971,

“Every fall for more than 20 years, the Turtle Bay diplomats have been going through the motions of a fierce battle on China. Each time they knew that they were shadowboxing. Nothing would be changed as a result of their efforts. Last week, the annual debate was on again, and the words were largely the same. But it was a different contest. There was a sense of excitement and suspense. For the first time the outcome was in doubt.”5

The balance for the United States was a tricky one as it attempted to continue its détente with Beijing without abandoning Taiwan, with the important geopolitical and domestic implications such an action would bring. Led by new ambassador George H.W. Bush, the US delegation offered a tantalizing counterproposal to the Albanian motion. Instead of removing Taiwan entirely, the US proposed a motion that would install Beijing on the Security Council and give it a seat in the General Assembly while allowing Taiwan to also keep a seat in the Assembly.

The US delegation cited as precedent the fact that Belarus and Ukraine, member states of the USSR had been granted at the founding of the UN two seats of their own. The decision to do that was a contentious one but believed important to ensuring Stalin’s support for the UN project.6
Ambassador Bush explained, that the Charter,

“which is flexible enough to allow for the representation of Byelorussia, the Ukraine, and the USSR is certainly flexible enough to accommodate this situation … The formula we have proposed has been most carefully written to aid placing any unnecessary difficulties in Peking’s way … the resolution neither says nor implies that there are ‘two Chinas’ or ‘one China and one Taiwan.’”7

Concerns that the US would go through the motions of defending Taiwan given its ongoing rapprochement with Beijing were  “dispelled,” according to the New York Times by Ambassador Bush, “who has put all his considerable energy and enthusiasm into the fight.”8 The ambassador warned against the expulsion of a government representing fourteen million people, prompting criticism that the US was crying foul while for decades letting hundreds of millions of mainland Chinese go unrepresented. The vote would not technically be an expulsion. Under the founding Charter, the General Assembly had the right to settle questions of representation. Therefore the vote did not expel Taiwan from the United Nations, but transferred the credentials of China’s seat to Beijing. This nuance avoided the invocation of Article 6 of the Charter, which would have required Security Council approval and the likely veto of the United States.

Taiwan’s representative was emphatic that the Republic of China had “earned its place in the United Nations” because of its World War II contributions and that the “government that participated in the founding of the United Nations is the same government of the Republic of China … The fact that the Communists have been in occupation of the Chinese mainland since 1949 does not in any way alter this legal status.”9 While Beijing and Taipei were both insistent in their articulation of “One China,” it was arguably the position of Taiwan that mattered more. Had it been willing to support the US two-seat proposal, thereby modifying, if not entirely renouncing, its “One China” policy, it would have put Beijing in the difficult position of having to reject the seat it had long sought because Taiwan still remained.

Some observers feared that the arrival of the People’s Republic would upend the United Nations, citing concerns over their alliance with the Palestinians. The inevitability of China’s entry had already influenced the selection of the next Secretary-General. According to The Economist, even before the week of the vote, “acceptability to Peking was an unspoken criterion for all candidates for secretary-general.”10

As the debate began on October 25, the United States moved the “important question” resolution that it had used for a decade. It would not work another year. The New York Times reported that “pandemonium” broke out on the Assembly floor as delegates watched the measure go down to defeat by a vote of 59 to 55 with 15 abstentions.11 Eight of those abstentions had been expected to vote with the United States. The path was then clear for the United Nations to consider the Albanian resolution.

As the Assembly prepared to vote, the Chinese Nationalist representative, Liu Chieh, walked out to friendly applause from most delegations. And then, by vote of 76 in favor; 35 opposed, including the United States and Japan; and 17 abstentions the United Nations General Assembly passed resolution 2758 to “restore all its rights to the People’s Republic of China … and to expel forthwith the representatives of Chiang Kaishek from the place which they unlawfully occupy at the United Nations and in all the organizations related to it.”12 After a meeting of more than eight hours and twenty-something years, the question of China’s recognition was settled. As The Economist noted afterwards, the vote passed having met the two-thirds hurdle the United States had again attempted and this time failed to impose.13


As applause sounded in the Assembly, the reaction in world capitals was swift. In Washington, threats by some conservative politicians to halt funding for a United Nations already hobbled by a budget crisis were proven to be no more than tough talk. Senator Gale McGee, a conservative Democrat of Wyoming, reasoned that “just because this nation lost an important vote does not mean that we should ‘pick up our marbles and go home.’ It is not only childish but it also ignores the realities of world order and stability.”14

In Taipei, the reaction was defiant, seeking to hold on to its claims to legitimacy in other global bodies. The government of Taiwan has regularly advocated for representation at the United Nations, most recently in 2007 when its request was denied by Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon.15

In Beijing, a triumphant statement declared that the vote represented “the bankruptcy of the policy of depriving China of her legitimate rights in the United Nations obdurately pursued by US imperialism over the past 20 years … This is a victory of Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s proletarian revolutionary line.”16 It stated that upon joining the United Nations it would align itself with the nations of the “third world” against the super power politics of the United States and Soviet Union.17

Within four days of the vote of the General Assembly, the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization followed the General Assembly’s lead in shifting recognition of China to Beijing.18 Thus continued the steady decline of Taiwan’s standing in bilateral and multilateral settings, including the World Bank and World Health Organization. “There seems to be a misconception among some diplomats here that because we withdrew from the UN and its operations, it followed that we were leaving all other agencies,” Liu Chieh, the Nationalist representative to the UN declared. But under a 1950 General Assembly resolution, it was agreed that when controversies over membership arose, UN agencies would “take account” of the Assembly’s attitude.19

The vote to transfer recognition from Taipei to Beijing represented an important moment in United Nations and world history, cementing the People’s Republic of China’s arrival on the world stage. It also marked a triumph of global opinion over the United States, heightening the United Nations’ credibility in the world’s eyes.

  1. Jenna Zhang, “Manela discusses FDR vision for China as a world power,” Duke Chronicle, 14 November 2013.
  2. “National Day,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2014. Web, accessed 5 March 2014.
  3. Henry Tanner, “Peking smells the sweet smell of success,” New York Times, 26 September 1971.
  4. Interview with James Nevins Hyde, United Nations Oral History, United Nations Dag Hammarskjold Library, 18 April 1990.
  5. Henry Tanner, “Peking smells the sweet smell of success,” New York Times, 26 September 1971.
  6. Stephen Schlesinger, Act of creation: the founding of the United Nations, (Basic Books, 2004): 59.
  7. “Excerpts from statements in General Assembly on the representation of China,” New York Times, 19 October 1971.
  8. Henry Tanner, “Peking smells the sweet smell of success,” New York Times, 26 September 1971.
  9. “Excerpts from statements in General Assembly on the representation of China,” New York Times, 19 October 1971.
  10. “The Chinese are coming in,” The Economist, 30 October 1971.
  11. Henry Tanner, “U.N. seats Peking and expels Taipei; nationalists walk out before vote; US defeated on two key questions,” New York Times, 26 October 1971.
  12. Ibid.
  13. “The Chinese are coming in,” The Economist, 30 October 1971.
  14. Tad Szulc, “Pro-Taiwan conference here questions UN role of the US,” New York Times, 19 October 1971.
  15. Sigrid Winkler, “Taiwan’s UN dilemma: to be or not to be,” Brookings Institution, June 2012.
  16. “Texts of China statements,” New York Times, 30 October 1971.
  17. John Burns, “China thanks 60 for votes at UN,” Globe and Mail, 4 November 1971.
  18. John L. Hess, “UNESCO declares Peking the ‘legal representative of China,’” New York Times, 30 October 1971.
  19. Kathleen Teltsch, “Nationalists pledge to keep place in World Bank and other UN agencies,” New York Times, 27 October 1971.