Taiwan scored a small diplomatic breakthrough when it participated in a technical meeting of the World Health Organization (WHO), albeit in an online capacity on February 11 and 12, to discuss the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak that has already killed more than 2,600 people in China and infected over 79,000 people around the world—including 30 infection cases and one death in Taiwan as of February 25. Normally, Beijing possesses and exercises its clout to exert political pressure on international organizations to exclude Taipei. However, the epidemic’s dramatically rising death tolls and skyrocketing infection cases—which have already surpassed the numbers for the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) pandemic in 2002-2003—have created extraordinary circumstances for Taipei to carve out a sliver of international space on the coronavirus issue. Indeed, the Wuhan coronavirus has become an urgent global health issue that is presenting challenges to Beijing’s authoritarian governance and global image and is forging new dimensions in cross-Strait relations and Taiwan’s international space.
Taipei’s Representation in the WHO
The WHO, after some initial hesitation, declared the Wuhan coronavirus a public health emergency on January 30. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus came under intense criticism for effusively praising China’s efforts on the Wuhan coronavirus and not initially declaring the Wuhan coronavirus a global public health emergency. The coronavirus crisis has raised concerns about Chinese influence in the WHO, particularly after Ghebreyesus continually commended Beijing’s response even after reports emerged that local Chinese authorities initially tried to stifle news about the coronavirus. Taiwan was the only party with coronavirus cases excluded from attending the WHO’s emergency briefings.
Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO became a point of contention in cross-Strait relations—and between the United States and China—after Taipei challenged the accuracy of data on coronavirus cases in Taiwan that Beijing had provided to the global health organization. On February 6, Taiwan accused China of providing the WHO with incorrect information on the number of coronavirus cases on the island. Taiwan Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said, “We beseech the WHO not to put Taiwan’s information under China, creating mistake after mistake after mistake.” The foreign ministry also sought to communicate that Taiwan is not part of China, after a few countries including Italy, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Mongolia imposed travel bans blocking Taiwanese tourists or suspended flights from Taiwan. The United States stepped into the fray when US ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Bremberg told the WHO to communicate directly with Taipei. “For the rapidly evolving coronavirus, it is a technical imperative that WHO present visible public health data on Taiwan as an affected area and engage directly with Taiwan public health authorities on actions,” Bremberg told the WHO’s Executive Board.
In addition, US politicians including Senators Mitt Romney and Cory Gardner, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe voiced support for Taipei’s participation in the WHO, along with Taiwan’s diplomatic allies Eswatini, Haiti, and Paraguay. In a Facebook post on February 10, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) thanked additional countries including the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, and Germany for speaking up for Taiwan at a WHO meeting. President Tsai wrote on Facebook, “Taiwan is on the front-line of epidemic prevention. We hope that the WHO does not exclude Taiwan because of political factors.”
Both sides claimed credit for Taipei’s online participation in the WHO meeting on the coronavirus. The Chinese foreign ministry said Beijing gave approval for Taipei’s participation. The Taiwanese government refuted that claim, arguing that it directly communicated with the WHO regarding the meeting without needing Beijing’s permission. “The participation of our experts at this WHO forum was an arrangement made by our government and the WHO directly. It did not need China’s approval,” Taiwan’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said.
Xi versus Tsai’s Performance on the Coronavirus
Although the scale of the coronavirus threat differs, which side of the Taiwan Strait can do a better job at protecting their respective populations from the coronavirus and maintaining social stability? Each government’s response to the Wuhan coronavirus has become a new criterion in assessing the performance of democratic versus authoritarian governance. Tsai wrote on Facebook, “Please rest assured that the government will go all out to continue to protect Taiwan from the threat of the Wuhan coronavirus.” Less than a month after her re-election victory, Tsai has sought to foster national calm on the coronavirus, notably over the domestic supply of face masks, which ignited a public frenzy over stockpiling surgical face masks until the government instituted a rationing system for distributing face masks.
The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) handling of the Wuhan coronavirus could emerge as a new challenge to the party’s governance and its national image abroad. Unlike the traditional pillars of CCP’s legitimacy such as economic performance and Han Chinese nationalism, the coronavirus is a life-or-death issue that galvanizes the Chinese public and more directly leads to anti-government sentiment and protests. Therefore, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) is mounting an aggressive public relations campaign to convince the Chinese public and international opinion that his government has—or will eventually have—effective control over the virus. On February 10, a CCTV video showed Xi donning a face mask while inspecting the coronavirus prevention and control work and speaking to medical staff in several locations in Beijing. Chinese state media have sought to paint Beijing’s actions in a positive light by pumping out articles featuring international praise from foreign governments and individuals. What Xi desperately wants, but still lacks, is validation from major Western countries, though Trump’s statements of confidence in China’s ability to handle the crisis are an exception.
A prevalent attitude in the West is that China has botched the handling of the Wuhan coronavirus. Early missteps include Chinese authorities clamping down on initial reports on the coronavirus in December 2019, notably with the silencing of Li Wenliang (李文亮), a doctor at the Central Hospital of Wuhan and an early whistleblower who was reprimanded by local police for sharing information about the mysterious virus and later died after contracting the coronavirus. Also, Chinese authorities failed to provide early warnings to the public or take crucial early measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Furthermore, China’s shifting data collection methods, which led to a dramatic surge in domestic coronavirus cases from 15,152 cases on February 13 to 59,804 cases the next day, threw into question the reliability and accuracy of the Chinese government’s information. The spread of the coronavirus, and subsequent measures by foreign governments to limit travel to and from China, coupled with existing strands of anti-Chinese sentiment around the world, have dealt a new blow to China’s international image.
Testing Cross-Strait Ties
The coronavirus crisis also has tested Taipei and Beijing’s working relationship. Taiwan has mainly depended on the Chinese government to coordinate the repatriation of Taiwanese citizens residing in Wuhan and other parts of Hubei Province. Despite an initial lack of communication between the two sides, a China Eastern airline flight returned 247 of the estimated 500 Taiwanese citizens stranded in Wuhan amid the Chinese lockdown back to the island on February 3. On that day, Tsai affirmed Chinese assistance in returning Taiwanese back to the island and thanked the personnel of both sides for their joint efforts to complete this operation in a post on Facebook. She wrote that although there are different political views across the Taiwan Strait, the current epidemic should take precedence over political considerations. However, after an infected passenger boarded the first return flight to Taiwan, a spat ensued between Taipei and Beijing, and there have not been subsequent return flights to Taiwan for the remaining Taiwanese still trapped in Wuhan.
In a saga that gripped the Taiwanese public, a Taiwanese child with hemophilia in urgent need of medication was trapped in Jingmen, a city in Hubei Province, during the government-imposed lockdown. After the child’s parent appealed to the Straits Exchange Foundation (海峽交流基金會,SEF) for help on January 27, SEF coordinated with the head of an association of Taiwanese businesses in Jingmen and successfully delivered medicine from Taiwan to the stranded child in China. There have been several other cases of Taiwanese citizens with Chinese spouses and their children remaining in sealed-off cities in China. There are nearly 2 million Taiwanese working and living in China who may decide to return to Taiwan due to the coronavirus outbreak. Indeed, many Taiwanese workers in China who recently returned to the island after the outbreak expressed little interest in resuming work in China.
If the coronavirus cases start to reach high infection rates in Shanghai, which has a large population of Taiwanese residents, some of these Taiwanese expatriates in Shanghai may decide to return to Taiwan, where they could receive better health care. Taiwanese expatriates in Shanghai—and elsewhere around China—may chafe under stringent Chinese measures that have put communities in mass confinements and erected barriers to normal social and physical contact, likely to create bouts of social isolation as well as economic and political discontent. According to Shanghai’s municipal bureau of statistics, approximately 44,900 Taiwanese resided in the city in 2010. For a long time, Shanghai has been part of China’s charm or “soft power” for many Taiwanese people, and the mass return of Taiwanese expatriates from Shanghai back to Taiwan amid the coronavirus might diminish China’s lure for the rest of the population.
The main point: The Wuhan coronavirus has become an urgent global health issue that is challenging Beijing’s governance and international image, as well as creating new dimensions in cross-Strait relations and Taiwan’s international space.