Coronavirus further poisons relations between China and Taiwan

April 14, 2020 09:35
The decisive action taken by Taiwan government has earned international praise for its Covid-19 prevention measures. Photo: Reuters

The coronavirus has poisoned already bad relations between the mainland and Taiwan. Instead of bringing the two together to fight a common enemy, the epidemic has driven them further apart.

The Taiwan government, and its people, are angry over China’s refusal to allow it to join the World Health Organisation (WHO), even during such an emergency. This resulted in Taiwan people being banned from countries which thought they were from the PRC. Some in Taiwan have renamed the institution CHO – China Health Organisation.

Another bitter conflict has been the delay in repatriating Taiwan people from Wuhan, centre of the epidemic. While French, Americans, Japanese and other nationalities left quickly on chartered flights, some Taiwan residents were trapped for more than two months.

Now another front has opened in the battle – last Thursday Beijing’s Ministry of Education announced it would ban students from studying in Taiwan in the semester beginning in September “because of the pandemic and cross-straits relations”. Nearly 8,000 mainland students have enrolled in Taiwan’s universities; but only 800 are currently on the island.

The first case in Taiwan was recorded on January 21, when a 50-year-old woman who returned from her teaching job in Wuhan reported her illness. She was hospitalised. The first domestic case was on January 26 and the first death on February 16.

Taiwan was, with Hong Kong, the most exposed to a mass infection. Mainlanders are its largest group of tourists and business travellers; more than one million Taiwan living in the mainland were likely to want to return home.

The government acted decisively. It used data from its national health system, immigration and customs to identify carriers, screen flights from the mainland and track individual cases. As from March 19, it banned foreigners from entering the island, with a few exceptions.

It was helped by its experience of the SARS outbreak in 2002/2003 and the fact that Vice President Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) is an epidemiologist; he was Minister of Health during SARS. As of April 7, it had conducted 39,011 tests, with the vast majority showing negative.

As a result, it has been one of the safest places in the world, with just 388 cases and six deaths as of April 12. It has earned international praise for its prevention measures.

But it has not been a smooth ride. Taiwan was excluded from the WHO at the demand of Beijing. After the epidemic began, it urgently requested that it be readmitted, but to no avail. Many countries, including Italy, Vietnam and the Philippines, briefly banned flights from Taiwan in January and February, even though the virus had not reached epidemic status on the island. They believed Taiwan people came from the PRC.

“Taiwan is at the forefront of global epidemic prevention. There needs to be room at the WHO for Taiwan’s participation,” President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) said in January.

For its part, Beijing says it passes relevant information to Taipei and that no-one cares more about Taiwan people than the central government.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation, part of the United Nations, also rejected Taiwan’s request to join. It was excluded in 2013.

These exclusions enrage the Taiwan public, who see Beijing putting
politics and ideology above their health and safety. They play into the narrative of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which says that the mainland is a hostile power.

Another cause of anger was the plight of Taiwan residents of Wuhan. While both sides agreed in principle to their evacuation, disputes over who should leave and what planes they should fly delayed the departure. Flights left on February 3, 21 and March 10. The most recent one, carrying 153 Taiwan people and their families, arrived home on March 29 – more than two months after the lockdown.

On the first flight, one passenger was confirmed with the virus and three others had fever. Their presence “created a tear in virus prevention”, said Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council.

Such is the public hostility to China that, when the opposition Kuomintang elected Johnny Chiang (江啓臣) as its new chairman on March 7, he made no mention in his acceptance speech of the “9.22” consensus which China regards as the basis for cross-straits relations.

This means that Beijing now has no interlocutor in Taiwan.

Tsai has been eager to build on the international goodwill created by its control of the virus. Taiwan is donating 16 million surgical masks to the U.S., European nations, Australia, New Zealand. and countries in the Caribbean, Latin America and Southeast Asia.

The first seven million, for Europe, arrived in Luxembourg and Frankfurt on April 9 in two cargo planes. “Taiwan can play an indispensable role in overcoming coronavirus,” its Foreign Ministry said.

This level of donation is higher than that given by China.

Cross-straits relations have been deteriorating since Tsai was first elected in 2016. Beijing’s policy has made them worse. If it does not change this policy, the only way Taiwan will be united with China is by military attack – and God save us from that catastrophe.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.

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