With a major epidemic on its hands, the Chinese government has not ceased its political warfare activities against Taiwan. It is now using the outbreak of coronavirus to divide Taiwanese society and to turn the public against the elected government of Tsai Ing-wen by forcing the latter to choose between public health and politics, writes J. Michael Cole. 

By J. Michael Cole, February 10, 2020

As the world teeters on the edge of a major pandemic China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, once again has demonstrated that it cannot not play politics when it comes to Taiwan. With the virus spreading across many provinces of China and local authorities struggling to keep the situation under control, Beijing feels compelled to allocate resources to continue to punish Taiwan and to exclude it from international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), using its influence there to keep Taiwan out in the cold.

Absurdly, Beijing and the UN specialized agencies that are directly involved in efforts to prevent the epidemic from spinning out of control, continue to argue that Taiwan doesn’t need a seat at the emergency meetings or to directly obtain information from their networks. Instead, those organizations and the Chinese government continue to emphasize that Taiwan is part of China and that the latter has been sharing all the information it needs with the authorities in Taipei. Over Lunar New Year, the Montreal-based ICAO blocked several dozens of Twitter accounts when those asked the organization whether it made sense to exclude Taiwan to all this, promoting official rebukes from the US Department of State and members of Congress.

With evidence mounting that China is not passing on crucial information to Taiwan as claimed, governments worldwide have once anew called on multilateral agencies to give Taiwan a seat at the table. Last week, both Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo expressed support for Taiwan’s inclusion. And this week, Andrew Bremberg, the US ambassador to the UN in Geneva, told the WHO Executive Board that the agency should deal directly with Taiwan. “It is a technical imperative that WHO present visible public health data on Taiwan as an affected area and engage directly with Taiwan public health authorities on actions,” he said.

The response by Qi Dahai, the Chinese delegate was, as expected, acrimonious. Qi claimed there is ample cooperation between China and Taiwan on the epidemic, adding that “we feel that the Chinese central government can say it is very sincere in protecting the health and well-being of Taiwan compatriots.”

Then the politics intervened: “I would like to reiterate that Taiwan is part of China, this fact cannot be changed,” Qi said. “China requests that the relevant countries should respect the guidance of the chairman to strictly abide by the rules of procedure of the conference. And stop hyping-up about the so-called Taiwan issue. Don’t waste our time.”

Minions like Qi and others at UN institutions can argue until they are blue in the face that Beijing is looking after the welfare of “Taiwanese compatriots” and that it is sharing with Taiwan all the information that it needs to properly deal with the situation (as of this writing there are 16 cases of coronavirus in Taiwan). The fact of the matter is, even with tens of thousands of cases in China and the threat of real instability as the contradictions in its political system come to the fore, Beijing still treats Taiwan with contempt, and it continues to exploit every opportunity that presents itself to wage its political war on the democracy of 23.5 million people.

No incident better highlights this than the controversy that has surrounded the repatriation of Taiwanese nationals from affected regions in China. After several days of refusing to send back to Wuhan-based businesspeople —  known as taishang — to Taiwan, a planeload of them finally made the journey earlier this week. However, the Chinese government refused to allow Taiwanese health workers to screen the passengers before they boarded the plane. What’s more, the list given to the Chinese by the Taiwanese government, which prioritized individuals with known health issues, children and the elderly, was ignored, and another one, ostensibly prepared by Hsu Cheng-wen (徐正文), a businessman who heads a support group for taishang who wish to return to Taiwan, was adopted instead.

Once again, even at the height of an emergency, Beijing had bypassed the central government in Taiwan and instead dealt directly with proxies.

When the plane finally landed in Taiwan, Taiwanese authorities not only discovered that the severely ill individuals it had put on their list (one suffers from leukemia) weren’t among the 247 passengers on board, but a number of them were not even Taiwanese nationals. Some were Chinese spouses. One passenger tested positive for the coronavirus. Adding insult to injury, the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) chartered its own flight rather than allow Taiwan to send an aircraft, and stated that rather than an evacuation, the flight consisted of taishang who desired to return to Taiwan after the Lunar New Year holiday — hence the lack of appropriate medical measures for the people on the plane.

Hsu, who has known ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and is reportedly close to the pro-Beijing China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP), then began giving press conferences and appearing on TV talk shows bemoaning the supposed heartlessness of the Taiwanese government when it expressed anger over Beijing’s playing politics. The opposition KMT initially amplified Hsu’s antics — and the man does deserve an award for his acting skills, tears and boogies and all — but then realized that his questionable connections, and the public’s response to his accusations, risked undermining its appeal and distanced itself from Hsu.

Undeterred, Hsu blasted the Taiwanese government when it stated that it didn’t have sufficient quarantine capabilities to handle the immediate return of additional taishang from China, not to mention that, given what had just happened, there was no guarantee that Beijing would not, once again, send back non-Taiwanese nationals. And the TAO, playing tag with Hsu, weighed in on Thursday, saying, “Some people in Taiwan have been bad-mouthing arrangements for the homecoming of Taiwan compatriots, which has fully exposed the vile nature of their ignoring of the Taiwan compatriots’ interests.”

This was political warfare: and attempt to divide Taiwanese society and to turn the public against the elected government of Tsai Ing-wen by forcing the latter to choose between public health and politics. By allowing hundreds more taishang to return all at once (without the ability to screen them prior to their leaving China), it would lower political pressure but risk overwhelming its health system and could face the real risk of the epidemic in Taiwan spreading; conversely, refusing to let them come home would be the rational thing to do from a public health perspective, but would inflict political costs by fueling the claim that it doesn’t care about the health of the taishang. Once again, China had manufactured a situation in which the Taiwanese government was damned if it didn’t, damned if it did.

On Thursday night, the TAO announced that it had three planes available and was ready to send back about 1,000 taishang from Wuhan to Taiwan, manifests presumably unknown. That is twice the amount of people on the list provided by the Taiwanese government.

J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. He is a former analyst with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service in Ottawa.

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