Taiwan adopted a widely acclaimed, successful strategy to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. This tempered criticism from civil society organizations (CSOs). Unlike in most other countries covered in this compilation, in Taiwan the pandemic did not trigger a major political crisis or polarization in civil society. Nevertheless, Taiwanese civic activists have engaged strongly to make sure the government respects fundamental rights in its responses to the coronavirus. On several specific issues, this has involved heightened civic mobilization during the pandemic.
A Success Story
Despite its geographic proximity to China and high flows of travelers to and from the mainland, the island nation of 23.7 million people had recorded only around 500 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and seven related deaths as of mid-September 2020.1 Because of rigorous preventive measures, Taiwan’s residents did not experience lockdowns or stay-at-home orders, and most commercial and civil activity went on as usual. While the world’s economy plunged, Taiwan’s gross domestic product has continued to grow in 2020.
In April, as Western countries began to experience rapid spikes in infections, Taiwan launched an international aid campaign, branded online with the hashtag #Taiwancanhelp, and donated face masks and medical supplies to countries in need. The campaign garnered significant attention, raising Taiwan’s profile as an international actor during the pandemic and effectively neutralizing attempts by China and the World Health Organization to isolate the nation. Taiwan’s success has broader implications: a democracy that honors information transparency can generate effective responses to the health crisis without resorting to draconian measures, and citizens are voluntarily complying with the government’s directives without giving up their rights and liberties.
There are several ingredients in Taiwan’s successful recipe for responding to the pandemic. The government adopted early and proactive measures, such as travel bans and border screenings, to prevent the virus from entering the island. After its experience with the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a disease caused by an earlier coronavirus that came from China, Taiwan already had legal and physical frameworks in place for responding to a public health crisis. Once news of COVID-19 broke, Taiwan’s government leaders activated the Central Epidemic Command Center on January 21, 2020, two days before a lockdown was imposed in Wuhan, China.2 Taiwan’s public healthcare system, National Health Insurance, played a critical role in this emergency. It provided universal protection for citizens and residents, and the system’s database and pharmacy networks were vital in distributing rationed face masks.3
Taiwan’s strong machinery industry was a valuable asset in helping to combat shortages of medical masks, goggles, and protective clothing. Before the outbreak, Taiwan relied heavily on imports of masks, but with concerted action by officials and industries at the outset of the pandemic, Taiwan quickly set up new manufacturing lines that dramatically increased the daily production of masks. With this, Taiwan became the world’s second-largest producer of face masks, not only achieving self-sufficiency but also producing a surplus for international aid and export.
Finally, due to its previous experience of contagious diseases, particularly SARS, the Taiwanese public generally embraces a hygienic lifestyle. Hand washing before meals is rigorously promoted in kindergartens and elementary schools, and hand sanitizers are commonly available at the entrances to public buildings. Wearing a face mask does not carry an unwelcome stigma but is seen as a considerate gesture to protect one another’s health. Adherence to government guidelines on quarantine, physical distancing, and the compulsory wearing of masks is generally seen as a civic virtue and duty.4
On January 11, 2020, Taiwan held presidential and legislative elections, which yielded landslide victories to the incumbent, independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). President Tsai Ing-wen won a second term, and her party maintained its legislative majority. If the elections had taken place after the coronavirus outbreak, politics could have prevented coordinated responses. And if the China-friendly opposition Kuomintang party had won the elections, government officials might have been reluctant to issue timely travel restrictions and regulations for passengers entering Taiwan from China.
What is more, the winning DPP government boasted public health specialists among its top brass. Former Taiwanese vice president Chen Chien-jen is a leading epidemiologist with hands-on experience in the SARS crisis, and Chen Chi-mai, a former vice premier, has a background in preventive medicine. These specialists were instrumental to the government’s ability to craft a robust package of responses.
Taiwan’s civil society, however, did not have to play a prominent role in the nation’s crisis response, simply because the government reacted preemptively and generated creditable results. It is sobering to see that many affluent democracies have failed to deliver sufficient personal protective equipment to frontline medical workers and that charities and other CSOs have had to take care of these basic provisions instead. While some democratically elected leaders have flouted the expertise of scientific communities and promoted contradictory and inconsistent messages, Taiwanese civil society has been spared the thankless task of correcting misinformation and disseminating scientific knowledge about personal hygiene.
The trend of civil society repurposing itself to fulfill urgent needs is absent in Taiwan.5 Yet, Taiwan’s civil society is not lying dormant in the ongoing health crisis. It has closely monitored the government’s coronavirus policies and decrees to make sure that these temporary measures do not violate the fundamental principles of democracy and human rights or unnecessarily marginalize vulnerable groups. And Taiwanese civil society has collaborated with government agencies to ensure citizens receive undistorted information and rationed face masks. In short, Taiwan’s civil society remains active simultaneously as a watchdog to, and a partner of, the government.
Monitoring Government Responses
With its stellar management of the coronavirus emergency, the DPP government is enjoying high public approval—an unusual phenomenon for a second-term presidency. In a June 2020 poll, 97 percent of respondents assessed the Taiwanese government’s response positively, while 80 percent judged the Chinese government’s performance negatively.6 Chen Shih-chung, Taiwan’s emergency commander in chief and minister of health and welfare, emerged as a household name and Taiwan’s most popular politician, receiving a startling approval rating of 94 percent in a May 2020 opinion poll.7
By contrast, those critical of the government’s policies have been met with a public backlash. The Kuomintang party’s approval rating has continued to nosedive since its electoral setback in January. One of the reasons for the slump is that opposition politicians are perceived to have politicized the government’s responses to the coronavirus, from banning exports of face masks in January to rationing them in February to donating them internationally in April.
Taiwan’s advocacy groups have stepped up their watchdog functions. The groups have been largely free from short-term political considerations because their missions are inspired by universal values or commitments to underprivileged groups. One concern of advocacy groups has been the pervasive use of digital technology by authorities to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. In a health emergency, Taiwan’s laws allow the government to link databases of immigration, household registration, and national health insurance to improve the surveillance of individuals with suspected travel and contact histories.
The government also accessed the global positioning system information of mobile network operators and sent text messages to people who might have been in the same place at the same time as those who were reported to be infected with the coronavirus.8 The government enforced a strict fourteen-day quarantine order for people who had recently returned from abroad and those who were permitted to enter Taiwan. These people were put on a rather intrusive scheme of electronic surveillance by a mandated use of government-issued SIM cards in their cell phones.
While many officials appeared complacent about these new digital tools and their efficacy, CSOs such as the Taiwan Association for Human Rights expressed grave concern about the pernicious implications of suspending privacy protections in favor of tracing the spread of the virus. Such human rights advocates have issued many statements to remind the Taiwanese government that temporary measures need to be proportionate and terminated in due course and that collected personal data must be properly disposed of after the pandemic.
Another concern flagged by civil society was that an existing law authorized the government to reveal, if necessary, the personal information of those who had violated a quarantine order. Taiwan’s human rights activists urged the government not to invoke this emergency authorization. Many feared that these reinforced measures of surveillance might become permanent features, because they had popular support and were perceived as necessary for safeguarding public health.
In February 2020, several illegal migrant workers were found to be infected with the coronavirus, which quickly generated a nationwide wave of nervousness. Many migrants had either stayed beyond their permitted period or changed employer without due process during the pandemic. Taiwan’s civil society activists and academics urged the government not to stigmatize these illegal migrants or escalate deportation measures, because, the activists argued, such steps would be counterproductive by driving the migrants further into hiding.9 Taiwan’s health officials took heed and formally promised not to take further action against illegal migrant workers.
Because the job of sex workers involves intimate contact with customers, the government ordered the immediate suspension of related businesses, such as karaoke clubs and dancing halls. The decree brought about acute economic distress to many sex workers and their coworkers because of the lack of cash income. Feminist scholars and women’s rights groups argued that the order was disproportionate and discriminatory, pointing out that confirmed cases in universities, hospitals, accounting firms, and other workplaces outside the sex industry were not shut down and were treated differently. In June, the restrictions were lifted, although it remained unclear whether CSOs’ criticisms had been influential.
Some activism and protests erupted around Taiwanese-Chinese family links. Affected family members took the lead in organizing these protests, and their voices were amplified with the endorsement of Kuomintang politicians. In what became a controversial move, certain Chinese nationals with kinship ties to Taiwan were forbidden from entering the island from late January 2020 onward. The DPP government initially attempted to lift the ban in late February, but an outpouring of negative opinion brought about a policy U-turn. Protests by the affected families followed, and the ban was finally lifted in mid-July.
Collaborating for Disease Prevention
Clarity and accuracy of information about the pandemic has been another focus of emergent civic activism. In Taiwan’s experience, transparent information has been necessary to maintain citizens’ trust in the government’s emergency responses. One of the reasons for Chen Shih-chung’s surging popularity is that he held daily press conferences over one hundred consecutive days. In this period, tuning in to his daily announcements became an everyday routine that helped people manage their anxieties. Chen was not a charismatic speaker, but his willingness and patience to answer all the reporters’ questions, including some patently hostile and misinformed ones, made him an effective political communicator during the crisis.
However, despite officials’ commitment to transparency, rumors and fears were bound to circulate in the present age of disinformation. Starting in February, news that purported to reveal mass deaths in Taiwan began to spread on several online platforms. Lurid and untrue information, such as a claim that mass graves had been dug in many places to bury the dead hastily, went viral. Additionally, unfounded conspiracy theories were abundant, for example that officials kept a secret stash of face masks from which to profiteer during nationwide rationing. Many of these rumors were found to have been generated by online chatbots based in China and deliberately spread by pro-China collaborators based in Taiwan.
As Western countries later experienced, China’s propaganda machine was at full throttle, even when the coronavirus was killing thousands of people on a daily basis. In response, the Taiwan FactCheck Center (TFC), a nonprofit set up by communication scholars and activist journalists, launched a project to monitor coordinated inauthentic behaviors in cyberspace and respond with fact-checked clarifications. TFC attempted to cultivate digital media literacy so that users were less likely to be misinformed. TFC also collaborated with Facebook, and as a result, more than sixty accounts were taken down because of their role in spreading coronavirus-related disinformation.10
Another area of partnership between the government and civil society focused on providing information about the distribution of face masks when the government began to ration them in February 2020. G0v, an open-source platform for digital activists and programmers, worked with the government to design several free cell phone apps that gave real-time information about the locations of face mask distribution centers and stocks of masks so that citizens could find and buy their rations. This collaboration was made possible by Taiwanese Digital Minister Audrey Tang, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur and a pioneer of Taiwan’s civic technology. It was due to her intervention that software engineers could access the government’s database and build accessible platforms for cell phone users.
The worldwide coronavirus pandemic is far from over, and Taiwan’s achievement in containing the virus remains precarious at best. Yet, Taiwanese civil society has been an integral part of the country’s effective strategy for dealing with the unprecedented health crisis and is an often-ignored source of the island nation’s resilience.
CSOs can assume different roles vis-à-vis the government. They can scrutinize the executive’s policies and raise red flags when those policies have consequences in the form of human rights violations or discrimination. Alternatively, CSOs can enter into partnership with the government to improve legislative measures. Whether Taiwan’s civic activism can maintain these two sources of vitality and resourcefulness remains to be seen for the post-pandemic era.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed democracies’ vulnerabilities across the globe. Many popularly elected leaders have either ignored scientific expertise or hesitated to implement necessary but unpopular preventive measures for political reasons. Unfortunately, the universal guarantee of citizens’ rights has often been abused for frivolous lawsuits, divisive protests, or the spread of inauthentic information, which all stand in the way of a coordinated response to the health emergency. In the spring of 2020, China promoted the narrative that its decisive yet draconian lockdown in Wuhan province was instrumental in flattening the curve of contagion. Yet, Beijing’s claim was met with universal skepticism because it was precisely the dictatorial regime’s lack of transparency that had led to the global spread of the virus.
Authoritarianism is emphatically not a solution to the common threats that confront human beings, be they climate change or the coronavirus pandemic. In this regard, Taiwan’s success story stands out as a vindication of democracy. Democratically elected leaders are obliged to abide by the norm of transparency so that official figures are unlikely to be doctored. What is more, a vibrant civil society can thrive only in an environment that fully respects human rights and the rule of law. As such, while robust and timely government responses make up the necessary frontline defense against the coronavirus, CSO efforts embody the resilience that can sustain a democratic nation over the longer term.
1 Paula Hancocks, “Taiwan Led the World in Closing Down for Covid-19, Now It Wants to Do the Same With Opening Back Up,” CNN, September 22, 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/09/21/asia/taiwan-model-coronavirus-hnk-intl/index.html.
2 C. Jason Wang et al., “Response to COVID-19 in Taiwan: Big Data Analytics, New Technology, and Proactive Testing,” Journal of the American Medical Association 323, no. 14 (2020): 1341–1342, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2762689.
3 Ya-wen Lei, “National Health Insurance, Health Policy, and Infection Control: Insights From Taiwan,” Contexts Magazine: Sociology for the Public, March 25, 2020, https://bit.ly/2C6KM99.
4 Ming‑Cheng Lo and Hsin‑Yi Hsieh, “The ‘Societalization’ of Pandemic Unpreparedness: Lessons From Taiwan’s COVID Response,” American Journal of Cultural Sociology, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1057/s41290-020-00113-y.
5 Saskia Brechenmacher, Thomas Carothers, and Richard Youngs, “Civil Society and the Coronavirus: Dynamism Despite Disruption,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 21, 2020, https://bit.ly/2DeeM3z.
6 Radio Taiwan International, June 2, 2020, https://bit.ly/2DbVKux.
7 Newtalk, May 13, 2020, https://bit.ly/3e2ZGe2.
8 Chi-Mai Chen et al., “Containing COVID-19 Among 627,386 Persons in Contact With the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship Passengers Who Disembarked in Taiwan: Big Data Analytics,” Journal of Medical Internet Research 22, no. 5 (2020): 1–9, https://www.jmir.org/2020/5/e19540/.
9 Ming-cheng Lo, “Taiwan’s State and Its Lessons for Effective Epidemic Intervention,” Contexts Magazine: Sociology for the Public, March 25, 2020, https://bit.ly/2C6KM99.
10 Yi-ting Lien, “Why China’s COVID-19 Disinformation Campaign Isn’t Working in Taiwan,” Diplomat, March 20, 2020, https://bit.ly/3e53yLm.