As a turbulent 2020 comes to an end, it can be easy to forget all that has transpired in Taiwan — especially before the pandemic.


We rang in the new year in anticipation of the country’s presidential election on January 11. President Tsai Ing-wen won a landslide victory, burnishing Taiwan’s reputation as a “beacon of democracy” in Asia amid a general decline in regional freedoms and human rights.


Despite the erstwhile Kaohsiung mayor’s early signs of mass appeal and Beijing’s disinformation campaign, the Taiwanese electorate demonstrated that populism and geopolitical coercion don’t always prevail. In a recall referendum in June, Han became the first-ever Taiwanese politician to be ousted from a mayoral office due to incompetence and the sense that he saw the position as nothing more than a platform to run for president.

Just 10 days after President Tsai’s re-election, Taiwan reported the first case of the novel coronavirus. In response to the escalating spread of the virus, the Premier Su Tseng-chang appointed Health Minister Chen Shih-chung as the commander of the Central Epidemic Control Center (CECC). Chen has since been hailed as a national hero who saved the country from a large outbreak. Over 77 million people have been infected with Covid-19 internationally, yet Taiwan reported zero locally transmitted cases for a record 253-day streak, all while withstanding isolation from international health bodies.


Alongside Chen’s effective leadership in enforcing a 14-day quarantine, contact tracing, and face mask policies, Digital Minister Audrey Tang was internationally celebrated for her efforts in developing digital strategies for containing the spread of Covid-19. When the government implemented a face mask rationing system, Tang promptly launched a real-time supply map for easier public access. She also created a text-messaging alert system to warn residents of their potential exposure to known cases.

As Taiwan’s response to the pandemic became recognized internationally as a success, many Taiwanese sought to use the media spotlight to bring attention to Taiwan’s international isolation. One such effort was responding to Director-General of the WHO Dr. Tedros for accusing Taiwan of complicity in racist attacks.


But the pandemic was not the only story that captured headlines around the world. Taiwan’s first democratically elected president, Lee Teng-hui, passed away on July 30 at the age 97. Nicknamed “Mr. Democracy,” Lee’s mixed legacy reflects Taiwan’s own soul-searching: What does it mean to be Taiwanese? For many, it means upholding the country’s hard-earned democracy and preserving its history and culture deriving from its many past lives, as a colony, as an authoritarian state.

As trade conflicts intensified between China and the United States, Taiwan played a significant role in the conflict between the two superpowers. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), the world’s largest chipmaker, became a silicon shield for Taiwan as well as a weapon for the U.S. in its technological tug of war with China. As TSMC found itself caught between China and the U.S., Taiwan’s relations with the U.S. reached a new height this year following multiple arms sales, the symbolic TAIPEI Act, and visits by high-ranking U.S. officials. Most of these efforts were applauded by the public, but one particular issue caused a domestic stir: The Tsai administration’s decision to ease Taiwan’s longstanding restrictions for U.S. beef and pork imports in hopes of securing a bilateral trade agreement. Thousands protested the policy, citing concerns over food safety and increased competition for domestic farmers.


In retaliation against closer ties between Taipei and Washington, China has amped up its military activities near Taiwan as part of its gray-zone tactics. After Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law to silence Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, Taiwan was the “last remaining obstacle to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power,” according to Reuters. Warplane operations designed to exhaust Taiwan’s defense capabilities have also been successful in sowing fear among the Taiwanese public.

Those who saw the U.S. as Taiwan’s safety net were thoroughly invested in the U.S. presidential election, especially betting on Donald Trump’s victory. His simplistic, straightforward anti-China messaging appealed to both local and international audiences, especially for the Taiwanese and Hong Kongers. But Trump’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic and his incitement of racial hatred amid the ever-growing Black Lives Matter movement helped to grant Joe Biden a win with record turnout.


The world is looking forward to a recovery to normality with Covid vaccines ready for mass distribution in 2021. Insulated from much of the pandemic’s wrath, Taiwan has transformed from a “small island” to one of the most sought-after places on earth. Everyone seems to be beating down the doors to get here.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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