Feature

2020 on Hiatus

Will Taiwan Still Be the 'Orphan of Asia' After Covid-19?

2020/05/22 , Opinion
Brian Hioe
Brian Hioe
Brian Hioe was one of the founding editors of New Bloom, a freelance writer on social movements and politics, and an occasional translator.
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“As the world burns, Taiwan soldiers on” is our collective experience of the pandemic. Will this make Taiwan even more isolated or connected than before?

For a brief period, I lived in a windowless box. It was a glimpse of what it must be like to be trapped in a tiny apartment under lockdown for days, weeks, on end.

I often think about how Taiwan will be cut off from the world by Covid-19. Taiwan has not been severely affected by Covid-19; there have been less than 500 cases and no expansive lockdowns. We will be cut off, not so much by travel restrictions, but by our radically different collective experience of this world-altering event.

This sense of subjective distance between Taiwan and the rest of the world will solidify as the pandemic rages. For Taiwan, long described as a society isolated, the “orphan of Asia,” Covid-19 will help form a distinctive sense of Taiwaneseness in the eyes of the people here and those outside.

Taiwan’s government, unlike many governments, has earned the trust of its people. The state intervened in the private sector to requisition medical supplies, whereas in the United States, the invisible hand of the free market was left to its own destructive devices. 

The only running baseball season in the world, before the start of South Korea’s league, was Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League. The increased attention on baseball in Taiwan since the start of the Covid-19 has transformed the league from a mere curiosity to the lone succor of baseball fans internationally.

中職開門打第2天 再向世界說哈囉
Photo Credit: CNA
Taiwan's Chinese Professional Baseball League opened its stadiums to the public again in May, 2020. 

While film crews around the world are searching for ways to work around quarantines, the Taiwanese film industry has continued apace. An inadvertent effect of Covid-19 is that it may give Taiwan’s film and television products a wider audience. 

The rise of Taiwan-related film and drama series has mostly been relegated to Netflix, but other platforms are stepping up. Taiwan’s LGBTQ-focused streaming platform GagaOOLala launched worldwide earlier this month. Greater attention, domestically and from abroad, to Taiwanese cultural productions, imparts Taiwan with a cultural recognizability that distinguishes the country from China. 

Though some may dismiss the rise of Taiwanese baseball and film as mere public relations coups, beneficial only to Taiwanese business, these resonate throughout Taiwan. 

“As the world burns, Taiwan soldiers on” is our collective experience of the pandemic. 

But as Taiwan becomes more distant from the lockdowns, illness, and death in the rest of the world, Taiwan paradoxically will become more globally connected.

Daily life under Covid-19 for me is fielding questions from journalists abroad prodding me to attribute Taiwan’s Covid-19 successes to “Confucian values” and a “Confucian” proclivity to surrender power to the government.

My coverage of Covid-19 has gone from being pilloried on online forums for reflecting poorly on Taiwan, to being cited by the President’s social media team. Both reactions seem like two sides of the same coin, arising from the same impulse to uncritically celebrate Taiwan’s successes.

Yet if now is a time for Taiwan to embrace the international spotlight, we must abandon this complacent self-adulation. Complacency doesn’t allow for progress or innovation.

The Chinese military has stepped up military activity near Taiwan attempting to intimidate the country, but it is likely to accelerate Taiwan’s decoupling from China. This withdrawal was already set into motion by the U.S.-China trade war driving up production costs in China and pushing Taiwanese factories to relocate. 

shutterstock_1597123762
Photo Credit: Shutterstock / TPG Images

Reducing Taiwan’s reliance on the Chinese economy will push Taiwan closer to western countries. An early indicator of this is Taiwanese semiconductor manufacturing giant Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.’s plans to build a US$12 billion plant in Arizona, and suspension of future orders to Huawei. 

To borrow the words of the anarchist and political scientist Wu Rwei-ren, the circumstances beckon Taiwan to “reclaim the world,” to seek to overcome its historical dependence on larger powers. It’s a moment to expand the international space for Taiwan and aspire toward greater self-determination. 

Leaving China’s orbit should not simply imply dependence on the U.S. and western powers. The U.S.’s history of treating Taiwan as a catspaw for its geopolitical aims, not to mention the Trump administration’s grotesque mismanagement of Covid-19, should serve as a warning against this temptation. 

This is looking ahead to the longue durée future. In the meantime, we’re a long way off from utopia.

Apart from the sober reality that self-satisfaction may result in new outbreaks of Covid-19, this is a moment that demands giving free reign to our imaginations of a Taiwan cut off from its old bonds, joined to the world anew. 


TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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Will Singapore Search for Its Soul After Covid-19?
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2020 on Hiatus:

Our world has been plagued by things beyond the coronavirus itself: panic, disinformation, racism, unemployment, and loneliness. In a series of essays, we’re going to talk about the social and psychological impact through personal anecdotes and observations. Together, we would imagine the possibilities that await us after the pandemic.

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