As COVID-19 and its new variants continue to surge in the West, Taiwan continues to excel in its response to the global pandemic. Despite recently reporting its own first case of a new variant, Taiwan remained virus-free from April 12 to December 22. Overall, Taiwan boasts objectively world-beating statistics: 843 total cases and only seven deaths, with 746 of those cases imported from abroad. Most notably, this was accomplished without imposing a single lockdown.
While scholars have debated why several East Asian countries were more successful than their Western counterparts, Taiwan has largely continued to remain an anomaly. Casual observers quickly offered explanations for this global outlier, including Taiwan’s political system, geography, and population size. Considering both democratic (such as New Zealand and Taiwan) and authoritarian countries (like Vietnam) have kept the virus in check, a country’s political system does not appear to determine COVID-19 success. While Taiwan was originally hailed as successful because it lacks contiguous land borders as an island, this premature claim was debunked when other islands across the world struggled with surging cases and transmission (for example, the U.K.). Similarly, crediting the island’s success to its relatively small population of 24 million ignores the success of larger countries (for example, China).
A more plausible explanation for Taiwan’s success involves lessons learned from earlier health emergencies; most notably changes associated with Taiwan’s traumatic experience during the SARS epidemic. As a group of scholars at King’s College London argue in a recent report, “Preventing The Next Pandemic: Lessons From East Asia,” countries that experienced SARS (2003), H1N1/swine flu (2009), and MERS (2015) built critical institutional capacity in the wake of those crises. Even though SARS only resulted in 37 deaths in Taiwan, it nonetheless caused Taiwan (and others) to make changes to legal authorities, crisis communication and command structure, public health preparation, and the use of technology. As a practical response to the chaos of SARS, Taiwan stockpiled personal protective equipment (PPE) in preparation for the next potential respiratory virus. When COVID-19 broke out, masks were available for Taiwanese thanks to mask distribution and export restrictions. Mask compliance was high and not muddled by political debate, and a full lockdown was never necessary. These preemptive measures provided a critical headstart and undoubtedly led to the normalcy that Taiwan has enjoyed throughout COVID-19.
Taiwan’s use of technology — particularly electronic surveillance — has also contributed to its unprecedented success in addressing COVID-19. The island has a world-class contact-tracing system that ensures new arrivals from abroad do not cause local transmissions. This system will link 20 to 30 contacts per confirmed case, and each one of those links has to undergo a 14-day quarantine. More than 340,000 have been asked to quarantine under this system so far.
Beyond contact tracing, a key aspect of the island’s digital surveillance pandemic response is called an “electronic fence,” or active government tracing that triangulates cell phone signals in order to enforce quarantines. Using Taiwanese SIM cards, the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) ensures new arrivals remain in their place of quarantine through location monitoring, texting, and phone calls to check-in and inquire about travelers’ symptom status throughout quarantine. Beyond the CECC, other local officials check in with quarantined travelers on a regular basis. Quarantined travelers who do not respond in time may receive a knock on their hotel room door to verify their location. Milo Hsieh, whose phone battery briefly died during quarantine, was contacted by four administrative units within an hour.
Similar to other countries, violating quarantine can incur hefty fines up to $35,000. In one famous case, a man in quarantine left his hotel room for eight seconds and took six strides into a hotel corridor, landing him a $3,500 fine. Nonetheless, fewer than 1,000 fines have been issued and compliance is high (estimated at 99.7 percent), as evidenced by a 253-day streak with no local transmissions.
Even with a world-class technological system, public compliance with COVID-19 policy and electronic surveillance proves to be a make-or-break factor in reducing transmission. Following reports that contact tracing data in Singapore is now being used for criminal investigations, critics of digital surveillance remain concerned about the data being collected and how it will be used. Despite foreign concerns over data privacy, Taiwan has yet to report any major violations of privacy to date. Taiwanese are largely accepting of location monitoring because it uses triangulation rather than GPS, a form of surveillance that other cultures and countries consider to be particularly intrusive.
It remains an interesting question as to why East Asian countries have exhibited greater general compliance with government-controlled digital surveillance than their Western counterparts. Theories include Taiwan’s authoritarian past and a strong cultural legacy of Confucianism; however, these approaches have been criticized for exocitizing Asian success as “the inevitable result of millennia of cultural accretion.” Taiwanese willingness to obey authority and accept digital surveillance has more to do with its recent experience with health emergencies and trust in an increasingly transparent government seeking to incorporate technology as a pillar of their democracy. These three critical factors shaped Taiwan’s unique political culture at the onset of COVID-19.
Political culture in Taiwan has been deeply influenced by cross-strait relations over the past decade. During the Ma Ying-jeou presidency (2008-2016), many Taiwanese criticized his opaque approach to deepening economic ties with the PRC considering the associated security risks. This came to a head in 2014 with the Sunflower Movement, a series of protests driven by students and activists who opposed the Taiwanese Parliament’s incoming Cross Strait Service and Trade Agreement (CSSTA). The following administration under Tsai Ing-wen (2016-present) turned to innovative ways to listen and engage citizens, particularly using online tools to express views, publish crowdsourced facts, and hold multi-stakeholder forums.
Considering Taiwan is a relatively young democracy — it held its first presidential election in 1996 — Tsai believes the country must rely on “rough consensus,” or “democracy [as] a conversation between many diverse values… [not] as a clash or showdown between two opposing values.” This approach is an effort to create a marketplace of ideas that recognizes well-argued positions and enables democracy to produce better outcomes. Tsai’s consensus-oriented political style encourages civil society to take part in government solutions. This aspect of political culture factored heavily in the COVID-19 response, when Taiwanese actively crowd-sourced “mask maps” for the public to find the nearest stock of PPE in real-time, ultimately preventing a run on masks.
Audrey Tang, a participant in the 2014 Sunflower Movement, sees technology as the solution. Now, as Taiwan’s first digital minister (2016-present), Tang has a distinct interest in making the internet a healthy part of a functioning democracy that promotes civic participation, fosters genuine dialogue, and facilitates consensus building. Tang operates on the principles of “radical transparency” and digital openness, whereby citizens of a democracy get extraordinary insight into the behavior and speech of a minister. To accomplish this, Tang meets with citizens on a set day every week and releases a transcript of each meeting.
This level of government transparency is rare, even in the most liberal forms of representative democracy. In contrast to the dystopian stories of autocratic governments using digital technology to monitor their populations, this model of “digital democracy” allows citizens to optimally find consensus around issues and better monitor their elected officials. It also enhances trust between civil society and government, which paid massive dividends for Taiwan during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Taiwan’s recipe for pandemic response success is nonetheless proving nearly impossible to replicate. The past experiences, lessons learned, and institutional capacity created after SARS are hard to duplicate. The modern concept of radical transparency and the cultural proclivity to accept enhanced digital surveillance from a governing authority are difficult to reproduce in normal times, let alone in the midst of a global pandemic. Even with an open playbook of a successful pandemic response, few — if any — countries could effectively recreate Taiwan’s unique political culture.
Marc Marmino is a Ph.D. student researching the role of China and Taiwan’s political culture in consent to digital surveillance. Please contact Marc via his Twitter account @MarcMarmino.
The authors would like to thank Bo-jiun Jing (@jingbojiun) for his comments on Taiwan’s pandemic control measures for this article.