Taiwan has a frequently acrimonious relationship with the government of China, but the country’s response to the novel coronavirus outbreak has almost entirely steered clear of the discrimination toward Chinese nationals seen in countries throughout the world.
Taiwan’s government has also shied away from politicizing the virus, focusing mainly on a successful domestic containment strategy and calling on the international community to back its inclusion in the World Health Organization (WHO). A Taiwanese presence at the WHO is supported by many countries but staunchly opposed by Beijing.
This week, however, there was a domestic uproar over a controversial decision by Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) not to allow the children of Taiwanese and Chinese couples to be repatriated to Taiwan from China.
The decision, made on Wednesday and defended by prominent figures in the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), reversed a decision made one day earlier by Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), which oversees cross-strait affairs.
The MAC decision to repatriate the children of Taiwanese and Chinese couples – who are Chinese nationals, as the People’s Republic of China does not allow dual citizenship – had also drawn harsh criticism among those believing Taiwan nationals should be repatriated first.
DPP chairman Cho Jung-tai told reporters Wednesday that “the public believes that the government must prioritize protection of its citizens, and that their welfare must come first.”
Wang Ting-yu, a DPP legislator, said the MAC had been “foolish” in its Tuesday announcement.
“Right now, most Taiwanese are very worried about the ‘Wuhan virus’ and they are distrustful of the Chinese government,” Wang said, using a term for the coronavirus that has fallen out of favor among those worried it contributes to the stigmatization of people from Wuhan, but is still used by others who believe it is important to remember the source of the virus.
(Taiwan’s CECC said Wednesday it would continue to use the term “Wuhan coronavirus” rather than COVID-19, the official name given to the virus this week by the WHO, in order to minimize public confusion – a decision that itself drew a polarized reaction.)
“People were riled up and criticized MAC officials,” Wang said of the initial decision to allow children of Taiwanese-Chinese couples to be evacuated. “I see this reaction as a very good thing for Taiwan.”
The CECC justified its decision to bar those children from being evacuated to Taiwan by saying it could place a greater burden on Taiwan’s domestic resources to fight the coronavirus.
Taiwan has confirmed 18 cases of the virus, and no people have died. The number of confirmed cases has remained static since late last week, a possible indication that control measures, such as entry bans for travelers from China, Hong Kong, and Macau, have been effective.
The spat over the children of Taiwanese-Chinese couples, however, became a political debate and drew criticism from a vocal minority insisting that the children should be considered Taiwanese nationals, despite not holding Taiwanese nationality.
Taiwanese people have criticized the parents of the children for not previously ensuring they would be considered Taiwan nationals. But this is easier said than done in China, and the parents surely did not anticipate having an urgent need to evacuate to Taiwan.
Fear of the coronavirus has gradually subsided in Taiwan due to the lack of new confirmed cases and a public health response widely perceived as robust and efficient. After an initial shortage of face masks, the government implemented a rationing system and this week said it had a surplus of masks.
The disagreement over repatriation, along with the CECC’s insistence on using the term “Wuhan coronavirus,” indicate a risk of the virus becoming politicized should the domestic health fear continue to subside.
President Tsai Ing-wen, re-elected with a record number of votes last month, retains a mandate to counter Chinese aggression. And the Chinese government has not endeared itself to the Taiwanese public during the coronavirus outbreak.
Earlier this week, China’s People’s Liberation Army flew military aircraft near Taiwanese airspace. China had also previously refused to allow Taiwan to send planes to evacuate its citizens for Wuhan, although it later reversed that decision.
Taiwanese people hold disdainful views toward the Chinese Communist Party, but generally do not have animosity toward the people of China. Taiwan’s government has said it would allow Chinese nationals currently in Taiwan to stay beyond the expiration dates of their travel permits as the outbreak continues.
Taiwan’s public attitude in the days and weeks to come will indicate whether the virus becomes a political issue, or whether politics are sidelined in favor of empathy for the people of Wuhan.