Editor’s Note: This is an expanded version of a piece we have published in the current issue of National Review.
NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I n the middle of the 20th century, there was an expression: “He had a good war.” It was unseemly, maybe, but everyone knew what the expression meant: The person in question had come out of World War II in good shape — even advantaged. In the same way, we might say that Taiwan is having a good pandemic.
Those words are terrible to type, but readers may indulge them.
Taiwan is enjoying good press all over the world, for its handling of the crisis. One headline reads, “Taiwan’s Coronavirus Moment.” Lots of headlines speak of “lessons” to be learned from Taiwan. The phrase “Taiwan model” is in the air. It is used by the U.S. State Department, for example.
So, Taiwan has been handed an excellent opportunity: an opportunity to earn recognition, good will, and sympathy. But there is a danger, and that danger is, as always, the Chinese government. This government claims Taiwan as a mere province of China. Taiwan has shown up the People’s Republic in the pandemic — which makes the men in Beijing angry.
The headline I quoted above, I quoted incompletely. In full, it reads, “Taiwan’s Coronavirus Moment — and Delicate Balancing Act.” Taiwan must find a way to strut its stuff, or seek its due, without provoking Beijing into greater fury.
“Taiwan has been isolated from the international community for many years,” says Mab Huang, an eminent scholar in Taiwan. He is Liberal Arts Chair Professor at Soochow University. Taiwan’s isolation has been “a fairly painful experience” for the island’s citizens, as he says.
Indulge me in a little etymology. “Isolate” comes from “island,” in Latin. Taiwan has often given me occasion to reflect on that fact.
“Our government and civil society — NGOs — have been working very hard to gain access to the international community,” Professor Huang continues. (“NGOs” are non-governmental organizations, as you know.) Moreover, government and civil society have been working to “gain dignity” within the international community, says Professor Huang.
Ah, yes. Taiwan has suffered many indignities over the last 50 years. It was replaced by the PRC at the United Nations in 1971. Eight years later, the United States abrogated formal relations with Taiwan, in favor of the PRC. And yet, the U.S. maintains a strong informal alliance, and the American Institute in Taiwan functions as an embassy.
Taiwan may compete in the Olympic Games — but under the name “Chinese Taipei.” “This is so we don’t get it confused with the Swedish Taipei,” quips Jacques deLisle, an expert on China and Taiwan at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. From 2009 to 2016, Taiwan was allowed to participate as an observer at the World Health Assembly (the decision-making body of the World Health Organization, which is an agency of the U.N.) — but, as at the Olympics, under the name “Chinese Taipei.”
What happened after 2016? I will get to that in due course.
Johns Hopkins University, the renowned institution in Baltimore, keeps an interactive map, charting the coronavirus. At first, they listed Taiwan as “Taiwan.” Then they changed the designation to “Taipei and environs.” This is how the WHO currently refers to Taiwan. After criticism, Johns Hopkins switched back to “Taiwan.”
Taiwan is down to 15 allies, which is to say, 15 states that recognize Taiwan. No offense to these states, but they are tiny and insignificant — from Eswatini to Tuvalu.
It is hard to think of a state less deserving of pariah status than Taiwan: a country that evolved from dictatorship to become a splendid example of liberal democracy in a region sorely in need of such an example.
The coronavirus started in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province, China, sometime in December 2019. This made Taiwan a “frontline state,” as Jacques deLisle says. Taiwan had a number of things going against it, as a frontline state.
Taiwan is only 81 miles from the mainland. People travel between the mainland and the island all the time. In 2019, there were almost 3 million visitors from China to Taiwan. Also, Taiwan is densely populated — not a natural place for “social distancing.”
As soon as there was a hint of a virus from China, Taiwan swung into action. Why? How to explain the alacrity?
First, “Taiwan does not trust China,” as Jianli Yang says, bluntly. He is a Chinese democracy activist who heads Initiatives for China in Washington, D.C. “Probably Taiwan knows better than any other country the nature of the Chinese Communist regime. Taiwan knows that you cannot rely on accurate information from China. So, from Day One, Taiwan acted to protect itself.”
Second, Taiwan had been hit by SARS — which also originated in China — in 2003. This epidemic was devastating for the country, as Taiwanese tell it. There were 346 cases of the illness and 73 deaths (in a country of 22.5 million).
Is that a lot? It must depend on what one’s standards are.
“We could not get any information from the World Health Organization because we were excluded from it,” a Taiwanese official tells me, looking back on 2003. “They refused to engage with us, because they were so afraid of China. So, we could not handle SARS well. But this time, when the coronavirus came, we were ready.”
In the years after SARS, the world in general understood that the PRC had behaved badly. The world also understood that Taiwan should have a part, somehow, in the WHO and not be blindsided. In 2009, the PRC relented.
This relenting followed the election of Ma Ying-jeou as president of Taiwan. Ma is part of the Blue coalition in Taiwan, which favors relatively close ties with the PRC. Him, Beijing could tolerate. Ma served two terms, ending in 2016.
In that year, Tsai Ing-wen was elected president. She is part of the Green coalition, which is independence-minded. Her, Beijing could not tolerate. So Taiwan was booted from the health organization, even as an observer.
Near the beginning of the pandemic — on January 11 — Tsai was reelected in a landslide. This “really angered and humiliated Beijing,” as Jianli Yang says.
Jumping on the pandemic, Taiwan implemented 124 measures — an almost famous 124, at this point. They deserve an article unto themselves, for they are interesting in multiple ways: technical, economic, political, social, psychological. Taiwan is a society with a high degree of mutual trust, or social solidarity, if you like, and the Taiwanese can embrace policies that other societies would balk at. But this is another article, and here I would like simply to mention masks.
At first, Taiwan banned the export of masks, to ensure an adequate supply for the citizenry. The country manufactured masks at a furious pace, with the military enlisted in the effort. Masks were rationed, so that no one had too many or too few. Some could buy masks on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; others on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. There was a clear, detailed system.
There was also a slogan, typical of the society: “I’m okay, you take the mask first.”
By April 1, Taiwan was ready to donate masks abroad. Taiwan donated 10 million masks, marked, significantly, “Made in Taiwan.” This was at a time when the PRC was selling such equipment, and often faulty equipment at that. Taiwan sent 7 million masks to Europe, 2 million to the United States, and the remaining million to its 15 allies.
There was a slogan to go with all this: “Taiwan can help.”
As Professor deLisle points out, Taiwan has long looked for opportunities to assist on the international stage. They want to show themselves a team player, globally. So they are quick to supply aid after earthquakes, in times of flooding, and so on.
Taiwan’s vice president, Chen Chien-jen, made a statement that confirms this point precisely. In mid-April, he said, “We can see that this is a good opportunity for us to let people know that Taiwan is a good global citizen.” Chen, by the way, is an epidemiologist, who earned his doctorate at Johns Hopkins.
He did not run with President Tsai in this recent election. The new vice president, to be sworn in with Tsai on May 20, is Lai Ching-te. He earned a master’s in public health at Harvard.
Back to masks for a moment: By early August, Taiwan plans to be exporting mask-making machines.
So far, there have been 438 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Taiwan, and six deaths. When there is a stretch of days with no new cases, some buildings in Taipei light up with the word “Zero.”
Winter break for schoolkids was supposed to last from January 21 to February 10. Officials added two weeks to this break, owing to the pandemic. Taiwan’s schools have been open since February 25 — although with strict precautions (involving temperature checks and the like). Professional sports are being played, without spectators. A baseball announcer said, “Welcome to the one and only live sports game on the surface of the planet!”
Anyone can understand the pride that Taiwanese take in such matters.
Taiwan very much wants to get back to the World Health Organization, in some fashion. But why? With the country serving as a model of a coronavirus-fighter, why does it need the WHO? According to Taiwanese officials, the country can use all the information it can get. Every scrap helps. COVID-19 is a pandemic, sparing no country, and the world is interconnected, and the very word “world” is in the WHO’s name, and no country should be excluded.
But there’s the rub: Is Taiwan a country? According to the PRC and its enablers, no.
Taiwanese officials make another point: Taiwan has information, and experience, to share with others. So its inclusion in the WHO would be of benefit to all concerned.
Friends of Taiwan, led by the United States, are pushing for its inclusion, just as they did after the SARS epidemic. It’s “back to the future,” as Jacque deLisle says. As always, the PRC is pushing back, strong-arming anyone it can. China’s hold over people and institutions is a phenomenon of our time. Beijing is a master instiller of fear.
On March 27, Yvonne Tong interviewed Bruce Aylward, by video hookup. She works for a Hong Kong news program called “The Pulse”; he is a Canadian official of the WHO. A stranger interview you never saw.
Ms. Tong said, “Will the WHO consider Taiwan’s membership?” Dr. Aylward did not answer. He looked into the camera, for a long period. Finally, Ms. Tong said, “Hello?” He said, “That’s okay, I couldn’t hear your question.” Ms. Tong said, “Okay, let me repeat the question.” Dr. Aylward said, “No, that’s okay, let’s move to another one then.”
But the interviewer persisted (politely). Then Dr. Aylward appeared to sever his connection.
Persisting, the show got a hold of him again. Ms. Tong said, “I just want to see if you can comment a bit on how Taiwan has done so far in terms of containing the virus.” Dr. Aylward replied, “Well, we’ve already talked about China, and, you know, when you look across all the different areas of China, they’ve actually all done quite a good job.” With that, he bade farewell.
Even race has made its way into this drama. The director-general of the WHO is an Ethiopian scientist, Tedros Adhanom. He is a legend in his country, for building up public-health services. Mr. Tedros said that he had been the target of racist attacks from Taiwanese on social media. He said that Taiwan’s government had declined to disassociate itself from these attacks.
President Tsai took offense at a broad charge of racism against Taiwan, saying, “For years, we have been excluded from international organizations, and we know better than anyone else what it feels like to be discriminated against and isolated. If Director-General Tedros could withstand pressure from China and come to Taiwan to see Taiwan’s efforts to fight COVID-19 for himself, he would be able to see that the Taiwanese people are the true victims of unfair treatment.”
Like the U.S. government, the Australian government is supporting Taiwan’s return to the WHO. An Aussie spokesman put it delicately: “The challenge of COVID-19 demands a determined, global response. The WHO must therefore maintain a close working relationship with all health authorities. We support Taiwan’s participation as an observer or guest, consistent with our one-China policy.”
Australia and China have close business ties, and any slight to China makes Aussie businessmen very nervous. Anyone can understand this. A major Aussie businessman, Kerry Stokes, said, “If we’re going to go into the biggest debt we’ve had in our life and then simultaneously poke our biggest provider of income in the eye, it’s not necessarily the smartest thing you can do.”
In Washington, Congress passed the TAIPEI Act, and the president signed it. “TAIPEI” is one of those strained-for acronyms, standing for “Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative.” The bill passed both the House and the Senate unanimously. In brief, it requires that the U.S. government support Taiwan in its effort to integrate itself into the world.
A co-author of the bill, Senator Chris Coons (D., Del.), said, “The TAIPEI Act sends a clear message that the United States stands with Taiwan’s free-market democracy.”
Beijing, evidently, got the message. A foreign-ministry spokesman said, “We urge the United States to correct its mistakes, not implement the law,” etc. Otherwise, the U.S. “will inevitably encounter a resolute strike back by China.”
The U.S. mission to the U.N. signaled its support of Taiwan in a tweet. The Chinese mission did not care for the tweet, saying, “It gravely interferes with China’s internal affairs and deeply hurts the feelings of the 1.4 billion Chinese people.” The mission further declared that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China.”
China appears rattled and ticked, battling a public-relations problem in the world, as well as a virus. They look like a bully — bullying Taiwan, bullying international bodies — because they are. They are playing petty political games in the middle of a pandemic, as Jacques deLisle points out: a situation that is literally one of life and death.
They are also playing war games, increasing their drills in the vicinity of Taiwan, just to intimidate.
The pandemic, says Jianli Yang, has laid bare the contrast between authoritarian China and liberal-democratic Taiwan. Beijing will suffer from the contrast. The PRC has been deceptive, nasty, and manipulative; Taiwan has been transparent, forthright, open.
Beijing, wanting to suppress the truth as much as possible, evicted reporters for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, lost no time in inviting the reporters to come work from Taiwan — “a beacon of freedom and democracy.”
So, Taiwan is up and Beijing is down, to the extent that Taiwan can be truly up against this Goliath. Mab Huang, of Soochow University, points out that Taiwan need not pick quarrels with China right now. Events can take their course. I think of an adage sometimes attributed to Napoleon: “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”
Earlier, I spoke of “having a good war.” If Taiwan emerges from this “war,” this pandemic, more appreciated by the world — and if the Chinese government emerges more appreciated for its villainy — then this will be an outcome to hail, even if so much else is dark.