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Island Utopia

In Taiwan, COVID-19 is a different story.

Words: Catherine Chou
Pictures: Esther T.

Even in ordinary times, Taiwan – the sweet potato-shaped isle my family has called home for generations – possesses something of a mythic and unreal quality. It is famously coveted by the People’s Republic of China, which has taken to advancing its claims by forcing a series of disguises on the nation of 24 million. Thus the many different names that Taiwan is burdened with (“Chinese Taipei” at the Olympics; ”Taiwan, Province of China” on website menus; even “Southeast China’s Taiwan” in Chinese state media) – and the protean nature of its geopolitical status, which shifts with the level of knowledge and especially the national allegiances of the beholder. Google the phrase “Is Taiwan…” and the first suggested response is “a country.” The unspoken word preceding “country” is of course: real.

In the time of COVID-19, Taiwan appears more than ever like a mirage. It has arguably handled the coronavirus outbreak better than any other country, but it is excluded from effective participation in the World Health Organization (and other United Nations specialized agencies) due to Chinese pressure. In recent weeks, stung by accusations that it mismanaged the crisis out of deference to the PRC, the WHO has tried instead to shift the spotlight away from Taiwan’s domestic accomplishments and the medical aid it is now providing to the United States, Europe, and Southeast Asia. In an interview with the Hong Kong broadcaster RTHK that aired March 27, the Canadian epidemiologist and WHO advisor Dr. Bruce Aylward sidestepped a question about Taiwan’s potential membership by pleading difficulty hearing. Then he hung up the call. When the reporter dialed him again, he had only this to say: ”Well, we’ve already talked about China.” The effect was akin to shadowboxing: the WHO desperately trying to avoid a plucky contender whose existence it frequently denies. (For a time in February, the WHO even resorted to describing Taiwan as “Taipei and environs.”) Soon after his interview inadvertently drew greater attention to Taiwan, Aylward’s own profile was scrubbed from the website introducing the WHO’s leadership team.

These days, however, it is not merely a sleight of hand by United Nations technocrats that makes Taiwan seem less than real. With a third of the global population subject to some form of shelter-in-place order as of April 13, and nearly 90% of students around the world “out of class,” who would believe in an island nation where life continues more or less as normal? Where schools and restaurants are open and there has been virtually no community spread of the novel coronavirus – despite its closeness to the original epicenter of the pandemic? Where the populace just resoundingly re-elected its first female president (Tsai Ing-wen) and the current vice president (Chen Chien-jen) is a celebrated epidemiologist? You would have to see it to believe it, only now you cannot, for the borders are shut as of March 21st to nearly all foreigners in a bid to prevent new cases of the virus.

The empty airports are an especially difficult sacrifice for a place that relies heavily on tourism to counter its politically-enforced isolation. In 2019, Taiwan received more than 11 million visitors, an all-time high. For the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, the hope was that these sojourners would see the country for what it actually is – a place with its own government, currency, passport, customs, and most importantly, a unique sense of identity and history. They hoped visitors would, charmed, tell this story to their friends and governments back home.


The appeal and believability of that story depended on Taiwan’s likeness with the rest of the nations that make up our world. The goal was mutual recognition, the currency for participation on the global stage. But for most of us in the West, there is little to recognize in the stories coming out of Taiwan right now, stories of rigorous contact tracing and factories producing masks by the millions every day. Instead, as we queasily eye the logarithmic curves in our own countries and seethe against incompetent and uncaring leaders, the news about Taiwan takes on the timbre of a fairy tale. The appeal has been flipped: the story draws us in precisely because Taiwan stands apart, and that difference only serves to make it shimmer slightly, to seem less like a model that might actually be followed than a comforting fable set somewhere far, far away, where human life is still flourishing. It reminds me that this week I will teach my students Thomas More’s 1516 book “Utopia” from my couch instead of my seminar room. In this early modern classic, the traveler Ralph Hythloday (his made-up last name translates roughly to “nonsense purveyor”) regales his hosts – despairing of the social and economic abuses in their own societies – with tales of a mysterious, hitherto unknown island whose citizenry can boast of many things, including a well-ordered government and robust good health.

The COVID-19 disaster offers Taiwan the rare opportunity to demonstrate that mutual care and coordination need not be limited by formal diplomatic ties or the lack thereof.

In mid-March, I had to make a choice about a spring break trip to Taiwan that would by necessity have turned into a much longer stay, so quickly was the window closing for even nominally-safe travel. I am a professor at a small liberal arts college in the rural Midwest. With the abrupt end of in-person classes came the possibility of spending an extended period of time in a place I am hopelessly in love with but live nowhere near. At the last moment, however, I could not bring myself to drive to the airport and get on the plane. I had been teaching full classes of students all week. I had woken up with unusual aches in my body, after thirteen uninterrupted hours in bed, three days in a row. I could not say with certainty that I was not a carrier of the virus – I could not say for sure that I would not fall ill on the suddenly full flight. Either scenario would have made me a vector of disease in a place whose lack of official diplomatic support renders it vulnerable and thus, by necessity, self-sufficient. In the quietness of the prairie spring I have had plenty of occasion to regret my choice, now that I know I am not sick and that my American passport and expired Taiwanese one will no longer gain me admittance. But this is just the starkest reminder to date of what it means to be the second generation of a diaspora, drawn to a homeland constructed in my mind out of longing and nostalgia – a place that often bears little resemblance to its reference point and is therefore always out of reach, no matter the moment.


Among those who care deeply about Taiwan’s uncertain fate in a world system that all but shuns it, there has been hope that its stellar performance in pandemic control and the evident danger of excluding so many people from global health coordination will win it more diplomatic space. Seventeen years ago, the outbreak of the first SARS virus provided an opportunity for Taiwan to gain limited access to the WHO. Initially, the WHO denied requests from Taiwanese officials and scientists for virus samples, antibody tests, and the latest research on treatment and vaccines. SARS was ultimately implicated in the deaths of 73 people in Taiwan. Not until the first fatalities occurred there did the WHO send specialists (and only after the PRC lifted its initial objections). Then, as now, there was an outcry against leaving Taiwan out.

Nonetheless, all this was followed in 2005 by the signing of a secret memorandum between Beijing and the WHO Secretariat that explicitly limited the latter’s interactions with Taiwan to times of “acute emergency,” and which requires the pre-approval of the Chinese Ministry of Health. Thus, Beijing has already shown it can respond to calls for Taiwan’s participation in the WHO by employing this same organization to acquire new methods of control over Taiwanese citizens. This time around, the result of the positive press covering Taiwan’s heroic efforts to save its citizens and donate personal protection equipment to hard-hit countries might well be the drafting of new WHO memoranda by the PRC to actualize its claims over Taiwan – in other words, the heaping of unreality onto illusion, of misrepresentation on to the lack thereof.

Yet a different outcome is possible – however remote it may be. In a post-World War II order that rations dignity, access, and protection to an artificially low number of nation states, it is no wonder that the highest political aspiration of many Taiwanese is for their homeland to be accepted as a normal country. But Taiwan’s predicament also points the way to a more flexible and inclusive way of thinking about “the global,” one that makes room for the emergence of new polities and for a variety of multilateral relationships. The COVID-19 disaster offers Taiwan the rare opportunity to demonstrate that mutual care and coordination need not be limited by formal diplomatic ties or the lack thereof. To showcase these humanitarian efforts, nearly 27,000 Taiwanese and their allies crowdfunded an advertisement that appeared in the April 14th print edition of the New York Times. It begins: “In a time of isolation, we choose solidarity.” A place so often dismissed as unreal and lesser knows what it means to adapt in the face of difficult circumstances. As we think about how to reorganize our broken world after the pandemic, here is a clarion call to let the anomalies and the exceptions, the outcasts and the “nowheres” lead the way forward.

Catherine Chou is an assistant professor of early modern European history at Grinnell College. She tweets at @catielila and is in the very beginning stages of a book on decolonizing Taiwan in the era of the PRC’s rise.

Catherine Chou

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