In 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 government of the People’s Republic. This government claims Taiwan as a mere province of China. Taiwan has shown up the PRC 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 at Soochow University in Taipei. This isolation is “painful” for Taiwan people, as he says. Taiwan has often given me occasion to reflect that the very word “isolate” comes from “island,” in Latin.
“Our government and civil society have been working very hard to gain access to the international community,” Professor Huang continues. They have also been working to “gain dignity” within that community.
Ah, yes. Taiwan has suffered many indignities over the last 50 years. It was replaced by the PRC at the United Nations in 1971. The U.N. has a “One China policy,” which means that the World Health Organization excludes Taiwan, too. The WHO is a U.N. agency.
But from 2009 to 2016, Taiwan was granted status as an “observer” at the World Health Assembly. (This is the decision-making body of the WHO.) Taiwan was called “Chinese Taipei,” as it is at the Olympic Games.
What happened after 2016? More on that in a moment.
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 what the WHO is currently calling Taiwan. After criticism, Johns Hopkins switched back to “Taiwan.”
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. He is a China and Taiwan expert at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. 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, reflecting 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, but, in this one, I will bring up only masks.
At first, Taiwan banned the export of masks. And rationed them. By April, however, Taiwan was ready to donate them 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 scattered others.
There was a slogan to go with all this: “Taiwan can help.”
The vice president, Chen Chien-jen, 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.
In Taiwan so far, there have been 438 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and six deaths. Schools have been open since February 25 — although with precautions — and professional sports are being played, without spectators.
With the country serving as a model, why does it need the WHO? According to Taiwanese officials, the country can use all the information it can get. Every scrap helps. So too, Taiwan has information, and experience, to share.
Friends of Taiwan are pushing for its inclusion in the WHO, just as they did after the SARS epidemic. The PRC, as always, is pushing back, strong-arming anyone it can. China’s hold over people and institutions is remarkable. 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 said that he had been the target of racist attacks from Taiwan people on social media. President Tsai took offense at a broad charge of racism against Taiwan, and invited the director-general to visit her country, if ever he cared to defy China to do so.
In Washington, Congress passed the TAIPEI Act — unanimously, in both House and Senate — and the president signed it. “TAIPEI,” an acronym you had to work at, stands for “Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative.” Name aside, the bill basically requires that the U.S. government support Taiwan in its effort to integrate itself into the world.
A co-author, 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.
Wanting to suppress the truth as much as possible, Beijing 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.”
If Taiwan emerges from the coronavirus more appreciated — and the Chinese government more appreciated for its villainy — that will be an outcome to hail, even if so much else is dark.