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24 February 2021

Why Taiwan matters

With only nine deaths from Covid-19, the island's handling of the pandemic is a testament to the success of its democracy. 

By Harry Eyres

Taiwan’s successful handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is a model for the world,” announced the outgoing US ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, in a statement on 19 January. With a population of nearly 24 million, the self-styled Republic of China (a de facto independent democracy, but claimed by the People’s Republic of China, which has never ruled over it) has, as it stands, managed to limit case numbers to 941 and deaths to only nine.

This is not accidental. Taiwan’s painful brush with severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003, when 181 people died, meant it was better prepared for a pandemic involving a highly transmissible and deadly virus than nearly all European nations or the US. I experienced this preparedness when flying from Taiwan Taoyuan International airport on 21 January 2020, where prominent signs with the characters for “Wuhan” directed arrivals from the stricken Chinese city through separate channels.

The raw numbers and the efficiency of the government response are not the only reasons Taiwan’s handling of Covid-19 has been exemplary. As Jeanette Chiang, a columnist for the Taiwanese daily China Times, explains, the “effort has been bottom-up rather than top-down, the achievement of grass-roots civil society as much as government”. Taiwan has avoided lockdowns and schools have stayed open. “We go to the theatre and pack restaurants wearing masks,” reports Lin Hwai-min, the founder of Taiwan’s acclaimed Cloud Gate Dance Theatre. “The good normal life in Taiwan seems surreal.”

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All this has depended on a highly effective “find, test, trace and isolate” system in which monitoring and support for those self-isolating have played key roles. When my nephew returned from studying in Sweden to Taiwan last August, a local council official phoned him every morning for 14 days to check on his whereabouts and health, and visited in person to provide a care package, including instant noodles, chocolates, snacks, canned milk, face masks and rubbish bags. (He was also able to apply for a daily subsistence allowance worth £26 a day.)

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This is not just a matter of diktat from on high (unlike in China) but of collective civic action and responsibility. Government collaboration with an exceptionally strong civic technology community known as G0v (“gov zero”) solved initial problems around mask distribution. G0v developed a series of apps and other digital tools that were integrated with the government’s distribution system and enabled people to find out where masks were available. G0v’s influence goes further: it has created an online platform for civic engagement in public policymaking, including detailed discussion of budgets. It is extraordinarily rare to see anyone without a mask in a public space in Taiwan.

Taiwan could claim to be a model for the world in other respects. On 31 January, Derek Mitchell, the president of the National Democratic Institute and a former US ambassador to Myanmar, told me: “Taiwan’s democratic processes, vibrant civil society and commitment to human rights and social justice [it was the first country in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage, in May 2019] make it a beacon in Asia.” He added: “Taiwan’s success as a democracy also represents a fundamental challenge to the Chinese Communist Party, as it puts a lie to the CCP’s assertion that democracy is a Western system incompatible with Chinese culture.” 

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Taiwan has great strategic importance for the US, reflected by the Taiwan Relations Act (1979), which guarantees US support for Taiwan in the event of an attack from China. The 2020 Taiwan Assurance Act also supports Taiwanese participation in UN organisations such as the World Health Organisation, which Beijing opposes. The Trump administration was notably, even provocatively, pro-Taiwan, but Joe Biden suggested he would broadly follow in the same manner after he formally invited Hsiao Bi-khim, the Taiwanese representative to the US, to his inauguration in January – the first time a Taiwanese representative has been invited by the incoming president since 1979.

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Mitchell hopes for a more respectful approach than the one taken by the Trump team, in which Taiwan is not viewed merely as “a cudgel to beat China with” but valued on its own merits for its potential to contribute to global affairs. Even here we have not exhausted the reasons why Taiwan matters. Its democracy is not just an adjunct to American interests, but, as the 2/28 memorial museum in Taipei makes clear, the result of heroic efforts by Taiwanese civil society during most of the 20th century in the teeth of brutal suppression by both the colonising Japanese (from 1895 to 1945) and Chiang Kai-shek’s occupying Kuomintang (1947-87).

An economic miracle occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, during which Taiwan was transformed from an agricultural society into one of the four “Asian tigers” (along with Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea). But since the lifting of martial law in 1987, something else has occurred: the creation of the world’s first Chinese-speaking democracy, with free elections, free press and high levels of civic trust.

Taiwan also has a unique mix of cultures, religions (Buddhist, Taoist, Christian, Confucian) and ethnicities (more than 500,000 people of indigenous origin speaking 16 languages) that seem to coexist harmoniously. Many parts of the island the Portuguese called Formosa remain untouched by development and urbanisation and it is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. Lin Hwai-min says the Taiwanese are “discovering our own island… I hope we treasure and honour nature more seriously in the future.”

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The Taiwanese are admired for their entrepreneurial spirit, tech wizardry and high levels of education, but the island’s cultural prowess is celebrated less often. The Cloud Gate Theatre tours the world to great acclaim and has moved into a splendid purpose-built home in Taipei; the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts, which opened in 2018, is, according to its director Chien Wen-pin, “the biggest theatre complex under one roof in the world” and “a symbol of freedom and democracy”.

The re-election of President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, which supports the continuation of Taiwan’s de facto independence, in January 2020 was a demonstration of the desire of the people of Taiwan to continue governing themselves, and not to be used or threatened or colonised by any great power. They deserve that chance; whether the angel of history will allow it is another matter. 

This article appears in the 24 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britain unlocks