By Juan Alberto Ruiz Casado
Certain contradictions in the discursive dynamics observing Taiwan’s pandemic response deserve scrutiny. Initially, Taiwan was described as the ultimate example of a democratic approach to the COVID-19 pandemic in comparison to the authoritarian policies of the Chinese Communist Party. By 2022, however, the pandemic strategy of China had become analogous to Taiwan’s and, simultaneously, both had diverged from the rest of the world. Nonetheless, whilst Taiwan has ceased to be mentioned as a paradigm, disappearing from the debate despite maintaining the same policy goals than in 2020, global criticism of China continues now for its purportedly unsustainable and excessive zero-COVID policy. Based on the two quarantines experienced by the writer of these lines in Taiwan, the first at the end of March 2020 and the other in February 2022, this article investigates the development of pandemic strategies in Taiwan and the discursive dynamics developing around them in relation to the context in China and the rest of the world. The results indicate implications that go far beyond sheer health policies, showing that the Taiwanese government is now hostage to its own success and the long-nurtured oppositional practice vis-à-vis China, in a race to the bottom to see who remains as the best guarantor of the health of their citizens. In the end, the “Taiwanese miracle” has faded under the long shadow of the despised neighbour/enemy.
During the first months of the pandemic, the response of Taiwan was broadly portrayed as the paramount example of how democracies and freedom of press were more suited than authoritarian states to act efficiently at times of emergency. Inserted in a discursive strategy to shore up the hegemony of the West and its project of liberal democracy as the universal good towards which everyone must wish to converge, Taiwan became the best card to further demonize China and its “Chinese virus”. By the end of February, The Diplomat dedicated an article to remark how “Taiwan’s example proves that the free flow of information is the best treatment for the coronavirus outbreak”. Other important international media outlets such as El País published pieces on how “democracies are better at managing crises”, citing the example of Taiwan as the proof that, in contrast with China, culturally close societies had successfully employed democratic means to stop the pandemic. Similarly, The New York Times stated that the pandemic showed “China’s governance failure”, criticizing the Chinese political system and suggesting that citizens were starting to question it. In the same line, Asia Nikkei asserted that “Taiwan’s democratic success belies Xi Jinping’s assertion that China’s techno-authoritarian model is superior”. As a final example, Freedom House, a US “think tank” stated that “you don’t need dictatorship to fight COVID-19. It is useful only for oppression”, while comparing the data from Taiwan, New Zealand and South Korea with that of China—and propagandistically adding to the data numbers that one million Muslims in “interment camps”.
My first personal contact with these praised policies took place by the end of March, 2020, when I returned with my couple from India to Taiwan, just on the day that India proclaimed the total lockdown of the country to stop the spread of the pandemic. On those dates, entry into Taiwan was restricted for nationals and residents. We were extremely fortunate to purchase one of the last seats available on the last flight operated by China Airlines, a Taiwanese airline. Already on the plane, we travelled surrounded by passengers with the mask under their noses and even a young man close to us who spent the entire trip with the mask planted on his forehead without any flight attendant indicating him how to wear it right. Upon arrival at the airport we had to necessarily accept the intervention of our mobile phone by the authorities (something that other countries refused to accept due to rights considerations), and those who did not have a Taiwanese SIM card were forced to buy one on the spot. All the workers wore special PPE suits and thermal cameras took the temperature of the passengers before leaving the airport facilities. A relative of my couple picked us up in his private car and took us to the family home where we spent 14 days in quarantine, confined in a room. One morning, some technical circumstance in the telephone towers caused both my phone and my partner’s to acquire the signal from a different tower than usual. Less than half an hour later, the police were at the door of the house asking about my chores because they had received a signal that my phone had moved: effectively, for practical purposes we were under house arrest. No rapid test or PCR was performed on us during all this time. In fact, just at the end of the quarantine, my partner noticed a certain itching in her throat and as a precaution she requested a PCR to make sure she could lead a normal life with her family. She was given an appointment for the next day at a nearby hospital and was given a negative result after waiting one day more.
The oversimplistic and often prejudiced analyzes contrasting Taiwan’s “democratic” action vis-à-vis China’s “dictatorial” approach were commonplace before the pandemic severely affected liberal-democratic countries which were not able or willing to stop it, whereas China utterly contained the pandemic within its borders. While the discursive operation of propaganda contrasting “democratic” handling of the pandemic as superior to the “authoritarian” one faced these insurmountable contradictions, leading experts on epidemics offered more measured and realistic accounts, oblivious to anti-China propaganda and Manichean narratives. A paper published on the journal Nature, titled “When COVID-19 meets centralized, personalized power”, claimed that “the debate over whether autocracies or democracies are better at fighting epidemics is misguided”, arguing that the CCP hasdboth succeeded and failed at handling different issues of the pandemic. Thus, while the Chinese government had eventually been able to deal with the coronavirus with great success, according to the study, it “failed to stem the outbreak before it went global”. This being true, it is necessary to emphasize that this failure to initially prevent the pandemic outbreak is not exclusive to China: many other countries (the vast majority, perhaps except Taiwan) also failed to tackle the pandemic promptly after facing the first cases in their territory, independently of what the CCP previously or simultaneously did in its country. For instance, Richard Horton, editor in chief of the medical journal The Lancet, stated that:
“Despite the uncertainties about what took place in December, Chinese doctors quickly warned their government and their government warned the world. Western democracies failed to listen to those warnings. There are certainly questions for China to answer, but to blame China for this pandemic is to rewrite the history of COVID-19 and to marginalise the failings of western nations”.
Freedom of the press or democratically-elected governments did not grant in all cases a faster or more accurate response than that of the Chinese government. Moreover, not all countries departed from the same situation: whereas China was the first country to face the unknown new virus, without any previous knowledge of its features or alert of its presence, the rest of the world already counted with solid information about its gravity. As explained by Gregory Poland, director of the Vaccine Research Group, China “moved very quickly to stop transmission. Other countries, even though they had much longer to prepare for the arrival of the virus, delayed their response and that meant they lost control”.
Taiwan was one of the few exceptions in this regard. As expressed in another paper published in the scientific journal The Lancet, “Taiwan’s successful response to COVID-19 up to August 2020 has resulted in relatively low cases and mortality”, and “while some aspects of the Taiwan approach might not be acceptable in other jurisdictions, the potential social and economic benefits of avoiding a lockdown might alleviate some objections”. As a result, Taiwan lobbied for inclusion in the decision-making body of the World Health Organization on the basis of its success and expertise under the slogan “Taiwan can help”. The Taiwanese model was, then, evaluated by epidemiological experts as an exemplary case because “it could improve current responses to COVID-19, and prepare health systems and populations for a timely and effective global response to the inevitable next pandemic”. Of course, there are contextual issues of governmentality to asses: any direct comparison between China and Taiwan must be nuanced when studying the pandemic approach in a small insular territory with a population of 23 millions and another of 1,400 millions in a vast continental extension. Still, the important present question becomes what to do with the Taiwanese model once gained that essential time to prepare health systems and populations to face the pandemic: when should it end?
Two years later, my return to Taiwan felt very different from the process experienced during the “exemplary period” of 2020. In 2022, before boarding, it was necessary to show the result of a negative PCR and the booking of a hotel to quarantine at destination. On the plane, the use of a mask was much more carefully observed and enforced, although during the compulsory eating ceremony these were momentarily forgotten. Upon arrival in Taiwan, once again workers dressed in white PPE suits seated all passengers in a room at the terminal and, one by one, they called us to perform a new PCR test. About two hours after arrival, when the results came out progressively, they allowed us to continue the process of telephone intervention and subsequent usual departure from the airport (passports, luggage, customs). Only one passenger tested positive and was seated separately to be taken by ambulance to quarantine at a hospital. We were offered three free self-tests per traveller to carry out during the quarantine. During the dates of the Chinese New Year, given the lack of hotel capacity to accommodate so many incomers, families were allowed to share a room and the quarantine stay was reduced from 14 days to other options such as 10 days in a hotel plus 4 days at home. However, before and after these dates, all passengers had to spend the 14 days of quarantine alone, even if previously living and travelling together. Upon leaving the airport, the “pandemic taxi” service took travellers to their respective hotels to quarantine: the price to go to our hotel was about 30 euros to the nearby city of Taoyuan. We would still have to take one more taxi from Taoyuan to Hsinchu in order to spend the last four days of quarantine, at a cost of another 50 euros. The total cost of travelling to Taiwan in these circumstances was dizzying: in addition to the flight, PCR test and special pandemic taxis, the cheapest rooms to spend the quarantine had an approximate cost of 100 euros per night, with little luxuries. We were at least lucky to have a window even if just facing a brick wall. At the end of the hotel quarantine and at the end of home quarantine, more PCR were performed (the PCR tests in Taiwan were free of charge).
The differences between the stage acclaimed as exemplary and this second stage are notorious and evident. Everything changed after the outbreak caused in Taiwan by the Delta variant in May 2021. Panic seized a population that until then had not shown any interest in getting vaccinated (vaccines were expiring without nobody wanting them), since there were no community infections and the general feeling was that getting vaccinated posed more risks than not doing it. Suddenly, greater restrictions on general movement and almost paranoid precautions were imposed on newcomers, at the same time that urgent needs to obtain vaccines emerged (blaming China for not having them already) and the authorities dedicated themselves to uselessly fumigating the sidewalks and subway stations walls and handrails, with great pomposity, to give the impression that they were working on it. By then, Taiwan was ceasing to be a world example and its instrumentalization within the discursive strategy to attack China in general and China’s pandemic attitude in particular had practically disappeared. Instead, discourses shifted to the purportedly imminent Chinese invasion and the alleged aggressiveness of Chinese military planes entering the Taiwanese ADIZ—despite this being completely in accordance with international law, exactly as the US military argues when its Navy vessels sail through the Taiwan Strait.
In November 2021, The Guardian spoke again about Taiwan in relation to the pandemic handling, but this time the article title showed a very different tone: ‘How long can you maintain it?’ Cost of Taiwan’s pursuit of Covid zero starts to show. Months later, particularly in January 2022, many Western media adopted this same perspective to criticize China, including also The Guardian, which titled an article almost identically to the previous example: How much longer can China keep up its zero-Covid strategy? Thus, on those same dates The Economist headlined China stands alone in its attitude towards the pandemic, implicitly merging Taiwan, by omission, within such Chinese exceptionality. In other words, Taiwan and China were now at the same point, becoming the only two exceptions to the rest of the world.
This discursive shift demonstrates that Taiwan was not initially hailed for adopting an exemplary zero-Covid policy—at least not exclusively—but, mainly, for showing itself as a distinguishable card with which to embarrass the antagonized China. Taiwan was useful in fuelling the argument that the Chinese on the Western “democratic” side had a superior system of government. In other words, while Taiwan served as an example to criticize and even demonize China, the policy of putting the safety of the population first was worthy of praise. On the contrary, when that same zero-covid policy coincided with China’s strategy, it became a blemish for Taiwan and the policies of the Taiwanese government began to tarnish, disappearing from public debate as an example to follow. Although at the beginning of the pandemic Taiwan’s attitude allowed the system to prepare and buy time for the arrival of vaccines, two years later both Taiwan and China face the dilemma of having to open up to COVID-19 at some point and, thus, enable the community transmission of a pandemic that is already becoming endemic in the rest of the world.
The most crucial aspect of this course of events is that the Taiwanese government, obsessed since 2016 with offering an antagonistic discourse against the “Chinese enemy”, won a first hand in 2020 by showing itself to be a better protector of its citizens than the CCP. However, the second hand was won by China by imitating the Taiwanese model of zero-Covid, installing a political imaginary from which Taiwan now cannot escape: relaxing the measures and allowing community contagion would be understood by Taiwanese citizens as a policy insensitive to the lives of Taiwanese, while across the Strait the CCP maintains efforts to keep its citizens safe. Put another way, Taiwan has fallen into its own trap and is now hostage to its own success, not being able to lose face in its struggle to be the most responsible government.
If China had already acted like most Western countries and had allowed the spread of the pandemic to supposedly protect the economy and the normal life of its citizens, Taiwan would have a perfect excuse to following the rest of the world and relaxing its zero-Covid measures, instead of hardening them as has happened from 2020 to 2022. Now, Taiwan looks itself in the mirror when it looks at China, and the Taiwanese government cannot avoid being evaluated against the policies of the CCP, just as it was in 2020 because of the anti-China discursive strategy. This is not to say anything positive or negative about zero-Covid policies, since assessing their convenience is way too subjective and complex. The key to this discursive struggle is that the Taiwanese government is now pinned down in its decisions and depends on China to relax its measures first, before doing the same in Taiwan can be presented as legitimate to a citizenry that has gotten used to hear that communist dictatorships do not care about “the people”.