The KMT’s Vaccine Politics

The KMT’s Vaccine Politics
Photo Credit: CNA

What you need to know

The KMT has attacked all aspects of Taiwan’s vaccine policy, but it failed to garner support at every turn due to a lack of party-wide coordination.

Since Taiwan’s Covid-19 resurgence in May, the Tsai administration’s approval ratings have been on a steady decline. The government’s response plan, particularly decisions on vaccine acquisition and domestic production, have not sat well with the public. With the issue striking a chord, the major opposition party, Kuomintang (KMT), has been advocating for importing foreign vaccines, including those from China. Though the KMT lacks finesse in making its case, it has tapped into wider public discontent, which may harm the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the long run.

The party line

From as early as May 12, KMT chairman Johnny Chiang has urged the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) to review its vaccine policy, “diversify vaccine sources,” and “boost vaccine confidence.” On May 15, the CECC placed Taipei and New Taipei City under Covid-19 alert Level Three after reporting 180 cases of the virus, and in the following week, the alert was imposed nationwide.

As cases increased, the KMT ramped up its arguments, criticizing the government’s inefficiency in acquiring vaccines and later raising concerns about its over-reliance on domestically-produced vaccines and rushed clinical trials. These arguments have seemed to have had an effect on the public. The Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation’s polls indicated that confidence in domestic vaccines has dropped between March and June, and disapproval ratings of the governing DPP were on the rise.

While the KMT central standing committee’s press releases were intended to condemn the administration for its shortcomings in policy, actions taken by party members and affiliates have muddied its best attempts. Instead, the party has once again allowed itself to be associated with pro-Chinese sentiments. 

Vaccine politics

On May 24, the KMT’s Nantou Magistrate Lin Ming-chen made an appeal to the CECC for approval to procure 300,000 vaccine doses via the Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group, the distributor of the Pfizer-BioNTech (BNT) vaccine in China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. The CECC rejected the appeal, citing safety and legal concerns over vaccine procurement through unofficial channels.

President Tsai Ing-wen tweeted on May 26, warning against “outside interference” and attempts of exploiting Taiwan’s vaccine supply for political purposes. She seemed to be referring to China’s role in blocking Taiwan’s previous efforts to procure vaccines directly from the German company.

The KMT doubled down on accusing the DPP of politicizing vaccines and placing politics over the lives of citizens. The party allied itself with its local government heads to campaign for vaccines. It also supported attempts by Foxconn chairman Terry Gou and Sun-Yat Sen School founder Chang Ya-chung to purchase vaccines. Gou said he negotiated directly with BNT in Germany for the vaccines while Chang proposed to import both the Chinese-manufactured Sinopharm vaccines and Pfizer-BNT vaccines distributed by Shanghai Fosun. Although importing vaccines from China is banned under Taiwanese law, the KMT may have hoped to paint the administration as incompetent in vaccine acquisition by beating the government to the deals.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / 達志影像
Vials with Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine labels are seen in this illustration picture taken March 19, 2021. 

During this time, several KMT members openly supported importing Chinese vaccines, including former Taipei mayoral candidate Ting Shou-chung and former KMT chairperson Hung Hsiu-chu. The DPP countered the KMT’s plans by accusing the KMT of downplaying the fact that the Pfizer-BNT vaccines distributed by Shanghai Fosun were manufactured in China. However, the administration’s lack of tangible results in vaccine procurement remained an easy target for the KMT. 

Gou and Chang’s intervention amounted to immense pressure on the CECC. While Chang’s appeal to import Chinese vaccines was denied, the CECC agreed to assist Gou in purchasing BNT vaccines directly from Germany. This arrangement came to a halt when Gou was unable to obtain the manufacturer’s official dealership authorization document. Former president and KMT chairperson Ma Ying-jeou urged the administration to set aside ideological differences and remove “technical obstacles” to procure vaccines, insinuating that the hiccup was politically motivated.

The KMT’s original argument to diversify vaccine sources shifted to purchasing Chinese vaccines, shaped in part by its own members’ actions. The party has also fanned the public’s concerns over domestic vaccines, which passed phase two clinical trials in June and are likely to come on the market in August.

KMT efforts undermined

The political wrangling over vaccines dragged on until Japan announced the donation of 1.24 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. The United States followed suit by donating 2.5 million Moderna doses. 

While most KMT politicians voiced their appreciation for vaccine donations, a few stood out against the rest, including legislator Yeh Yu-lan, who derided the U.S. and Japan for making small donations in a Facebook post she later deleted after sparking outrage. Taipei city councilor Lo Chih-chiang criticized the president for making Taiwan a “vaccine beggar,” who had to rely on donations for vaccines. While the KMT questioned the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccines, several of its members, including legislator Lai Shyh-bao, admitted receiving the vaccine, further highlighting contradictions in the KMT’s position. 

Meanwhile, President Tsai has sat down with Terry Gou and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company chairperson Mark Liu to discuss plans for Pfizer-BNT vaccine procurement. Health minister Chen Shih-chung later confirmed the companies have clinched a deal with Shanghai Fosun.

Taiwan’s vaccine acquisition has involved the central government, foreign governments, and private corporations. The KMT has attacked all aspects of the efforts, but the opposition party failed to garner support at every turn, much of its own doing and due to lack of party-wide coordination. With its missteps, the KMT will continue to be labeled as pro-China.

The KMT may have fumbled in delivering of a unified stance on vaccine policy, but the administration has suffered more in its approval ratings than the opposition. Moving forward, the speed at which the ruling party recovers may come to influence the outcome of future political battlegrounds such as the referendums scheduled for December and the 2022 local elections.

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TNL Editor: Jon Hum, Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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