In Praise of Taiwan

In a world going crazy with pandemics and authoritarianism, the "beautiful island" is showing the way

One year ago, I spent three weeks in Sichuan and a week in Taiwan. I returned energized and engaged, brimming over with story ideas that connected China, the U.S. and the rest of the world (and Sichuan food!). A year later, I am struggling not to feel paralyzed. The combined impact of trade war tensions, the nightmare that is Xinjiang, the relentless tightening of Xi Jinping's surveillance and censorship state, the mind-boggling criminal incompetence of the Trump regime, and, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic have all but overwhelmed me. Over the last month, in between freelance deadlines, I've been trying to write a goofy story about Sichuan fried rice and Daoist enlightenment, but who gives a shit about such frivolity when all hell is breaking loose? Wrenching myself away from the drumbeat of apocalyptic news to engage in any kind of creative act has become more difficult than ever.

But in the midst of all of this, it has become clear that my beloved Taiwan is emerging as a beacon of democracy and common sense. The first step was January's reelection of President Tsai Ingwen. Her landslide victory was a powerful rebuke to the Chinese Communist Party, which had made it clear that it considered a vote for Tsai to be a vote for independence. But the majority of Taiwan's citizens, mindful of the CCP's ongoing repression in Hong Kong, wanted no part of Xi Jinping.

But even more remarkable has been Taiwan's incredible success in containing the coronavirus.

Taiwan should be one of the world's most dangerous hotspots for the virus. In 2019 alone, 2.71 million people from mainland China visited Taiwan. In January, there were a dozen direct flights from Wuhan to Taipei every week. Taiwan's business community is deeply embedded in mainland China. But as of this Monday, Taiwan had only 45 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

The reasons why can be found in a remarkable paper released a week ago by a team of researchers led by Stanford University's C. Jason Wang, Response to Covid-19 in Taiwan: Big Data Analysis, New Technology, and Proactive Testing. (Vox published an informative interview with Wang earlier this week.) The bottom line: Taiwan was prepared, started aggressively acting as the first news reports about the virus trickled out of Wuhan, leveraged new technology to the hilt, and was completely transparent every step of the way. It also didn't hurt that the vice president is an epidemiologist and Tsai has a PhD from the London School of Economics, posing a brutal contrast to the United States, where our vice president is a champion of creationism, and our president, to quote his first Secretary of State, is "a fucking moron."

Here's the nut-graph:

Taiwan quickly mobilized and instituted specific approaches for case identification, containment, and resource allocation to protect the public health. Taiwan leveraged its national health insurance database and integrated it with its immigration and customs database to begin the creation of big data for analytics; it generated real-time alerts during a clinical visit based on travel history and clinical symptoms to aid case identification. It also used new technology, including QR code scanning and online reporting of travel history and health symptoms to classify travelers’ infectious risks based on flight origin and travel history in the past 14 days. Persons with low risk (no travel to level 3 alert areas) were sent a health declaration border pass via SMS (short message service) messaging to their phones for faster immigration clearance; those with higher risk (recent travel to level 3 alert areas) were quarantined at home and tracked through their mobile phone to ensure that they remained at home during the incubation period.

Oh, and "The government addressed the issue of disease stigma and compassion for those affected by providing food, frequent health checks, and encouragement for those under quarantine."

In other words, the government of Taiwan did exactly what people living in the 21st century should expect their leaders to do. And along the way, this nation of 23 million shamed both China and the United States. If China's leaders had not attempted to repress information about the earliest outbreaks, they would have had a chance at avoiding the drastic containment measures necessary later (not to mention thousands of deaths). And if the Trump administration had acted with a fraction of the efficiency and forthrightness demonstrated in Taiwan, perhaps markets wouldn't be crashing as we tumble towards one of the sharpest and most devastating recessions in memory.

As someone who was deeply influenced by the swift democratization of Taiwan that started in the mid-1980s, when I lived there, it is beyond gratifying to see how well the country has responded to this crisis. But I am also cautioned by how contingent and fragile all of this is. It didn't have to happen this way. A little over a year ago, President Tsai's approval ratings were in the dumpster and as the campaign got under way there was legitimate fear that she would lose the election to a Trumpist "populist" who prided himself on his anti-intellectualism and advocated closer ties to Beijing.

But then Hong Kong happened. Tsai's strong pro-democracy protester stance resonated with a majority deeply distrustful, with good reason, of reunification with the PRC. She coasted to victory, and today, in the wake of the nation's so-far successful response to Covid-19, enjoys sky-high popularity.

See how it all ties together? China's heavy hand in Hong Kong bolstered democracy in Taiwan, and its impulse for censorship and control in Wuhan undermined its ability to respond to an outbreak. Meanwhile the embrace of anti-intellectualism in the United States in 2016 has been an unmistakable factor in shaping what is increasingly looking like the world's most bungled response to the pandemic.

In Taiwan, 23 million people freely exercised their democratic right to choose their leaders, and kept a couple of smart people in place who have done the right thing. The rest of us should be so lucky.