Taiwan, Covid-19, and the Future

The island votes for freedom and dodges the Covid-19 bullet

By: Gregory McCann

Taiwan, a beleaguered island just 130 km off the Chinese coast and home to hundreds of thousands of Chinese nationals as well as its indigenous population of 23.8 million, has become the global guiding light of the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020, in the process making the government in Beijing look vindictive and ultimately, through its superior handling of the virus, look foolish as well.

The island, which China calls a rogue province,  has to date just six known pandemic-related deaths, none new since April 10, and just 426 total cases.

Taiwan’s handling of Covid-19 seems nothing short of miraculous. What is doubly remarkable is that China has bullied the World Health Organization and particularly its director-general, the former Ethiopian foreign minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to keep Taiwan from getting any help from the WHO or – in the light of its remarkable success in combating the coronavirus – giving advice to other WHO member nations on its methods. Taiwan, already on the alert to the virus, was barred by China’s objections from an emergency meeting in Geneva on January 22 and 23. As a result, Taiwan received no help from the international community on what measures to take to seek to address the virus.

But I lived on the island for 14 years, and I know it wasn’t a miracle that spared the island, whose restaurants, bars, and night markets are unthinkably still open. One can still wash down a mouthful of stinky tofu with a swig of Taiwan beer on the streets of Taipei tonight, if one feels like it.

“Taiwan's Corvid-19 response has been run by scientists who make great efforts to educate the public, and the experience of SARS has informed the local response,” said long-time American expat Michael Turton,  a political commentator, linguist, blogger.

China itself is partly to blame for Taiwan’s success when last year, seeking to put economic pressure on Taipei to rein the island in, cut off tourist flows just before the virus hit, which had the effect, luckily for Taiwan,  of “drastically reducing our exposure,” Turton said. Beijing severely reduced outbound tourism to Taiwan as punishment because the island’s voters democratically elected President Tsai Ing-Wen (above) of the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) who favors formal independence from Mainland China.

By electing Tsai, the people of Taiwan chose a leader who would steer them away from an increasingly belligerent and autocratic China, and by incurring Xi Jinping’s wrath, inadvertently halted massive tourist flows that would have likely flooded the island with Covid-19 cases.

That’s not all. “Taiwan knew before any other country because people in China went to high-end private hospitals and private clinics to get treatment, and many of those are operated by Taiwanese investors and staffed with Taiwanese doctors,” Turton said, adding that Taiwan’s intelligence services are also aware early of new diseases in China, which helped sound the alarm on the island. He also emphasized the geographical importance of this place:

“Taiwan is an island,” he said. “So is South Korea, effectively. Also Singapore and New Zealand. It is easier to isolate them.”

If there is any place that is strategically important in the world, it is Taiwan. The island is at the center of China’s territorial ambitions. Taking control of Taiwan is not just some long-held Chinese dream to reclaim terrain that was “lost” during its supposed two centuries of humiliation by the Japanese and other nations, but is part of a much larger plan to push the United States out of the Western Pacific and to terrorize Japan into conceding the Ryukyu or Okinawa archipelago.

Since the Covid-19 epidemic spread across the world after originating in Wuhan, China has taken advantage of global preoccupation with the disease to crackdown dramatically on Hong Kong at a time when potential protesters are prudently off the streets to avoid infection. In the South China Sea, the government opened new research stations on the one-time islets it has turned into bases by dredging on sites claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, and others.

As the New York Times reported on April 21, Beijing announced it had formally established two new districts within its so-called Nine-Dash Line that include dozens of contested islets and reefs. Many are submerged bits of atoll that do not confer territorial rights, according to international law, provoking the US Seventh Fleet to launch the America, an amphibious assault ship, and the Bunker Hill, a guided missile cruiser, driving up tensions sharply.

Essentially, if Taiwan goes, the Western Pacific goes, and once that goes, the US has been greatly diminished in its world standing, and likely the entirety of East Asia would fall under China’s sway.

The Uyghurs of Xinjiang, the Tibetans, Hong Kongers, the ethnic Mongolians of Inner Mongolia, Falun Gong members and others have already learned that lesson. The Filipinos and Vietnamese who are trying to defend their territorial waters in the South China Sea from aggressive Chinese expansionism, and ordinary Chinese citizens who try to speak the truth of what they see—including the very doctors and medical staff in Wuhan who tried to sound the alarm about Covid-19. Despite Beijing’s denials, it was the muzzling of the doctors of Wuhan that allowed Covid-19 to let rip across the world.

To some extent, the fate of Taiwan is the fate of the world. It is too late for Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, Inner Mongolia, and the Chinese themselves—the CCP and Xi Jinping have them all. But it’s not too late for Taiwan and the wildlife that remains on this planet—or, it’s not too late for them if the world is willing to stand up for what’s right and good.

Taiwan has demonstrated that its handling of the pandemic is something the world can learn from, and the wildlife of this planet should be treated like the biological treasures that they are, not stir-fried into oblivion for quack health benefits. We know where that leads.

Gregory McCann, a former university lecturer in Taipei, is the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.