What the United States must Learn From Taiwan


As of the time of writing, Taiwan has recorded thirty consecutive days with no domestic transmission of Covid-19. Since the beginning of the pandemic in January, Taiwan has recorded only 440 cases and 7 deaths. This is a remarkable achievement considering that the majority of Taiwan’s 23 million citizens live in densely packed cities and that its economic prosperity has relied heavily on close ties with China. Every year, hundreds of thousands of trips are made across the narrow straits that separate Taiwan from mainland Asia. Yet despite the fact that tens of thousands of Taiwanese residents returned from both mainland China and from other parts of the world hard-struck by the coronavirus, daily life in Taiwan has remained relatively unaffected by the global pandemic. There have been no large scale lock-downs or closures of businesses. So how has Taiwan accomplished this and what can we learn from their success? 

I arrived in Taiwan in mid-January on a previously scheduled sabbatical from Georgetown University in Qatar. As a historian of pre-twentieth-century China, I’d come here with the intention of spending my time in the libraries of Academia Sinica—Taiwan’s premier scientific research institute—reading documents from the 1700s. Instead, I’ve been watching the Taiwanese people as they’ve coped with the unprecedented challenge posed by Covid-19. 

Taiwan’s success is significant because it demonstrates that the tragic deaths that have been suffered in places as diverse as China, the United States, and Iran were entirely avoidable. Moreover, the Taiwan model proves that suppressing the virus does not require the repression of human rights. We do not need to choose between life and democratic government. We need not fall back on the authoritarian measures of the “China model” to beat Covid-19 or prevent future pandemics.

The communist party of China prioritized self-preservation over the free flow of information and as a result, a novel coronavirus was able to metastasize into a global pandemic. While the draconian social distancing measures of the PRC have been undeniably effective, they have also been accompanied by the accelerated development of ever more comprehensive and invasive systems of social and health monitoring. In the hands of an unaccountable and opaque party-state, these tools will undermine even the limited liberties that Chinese citizens have come to enjoy since the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976.  

Taiwan proves that democratic states are highly effective barriers to disease. But by comparing Taiwan with other states we can also see that not all democratic states are equal. In fact, deaths from the coronavirus pandemic can serve as a morbid but accurate proxy measurement for the health of their democracies. And by this measure, the United States is clearly a failing, post-democratic state.  

So what did Taiwan do right? First of all the government was proactive. In mid-December, as soon as news of a poorly understood virus emerged from Wuhan, the government activated its task force on pandemic diseases and began a coordinated, whole-of-government response.  Much of the initial measures were low-tech, yet human-capital intensive: they ramped up domestic production of key medical equipment such as protective clothing, limited travel from virus-affected regions of China, and implemented extensive screening and documentation of all travelers. By the time I arrived on January 26, citizens returning from mainland China were expected to self-quarantine for two weeks; visitors like myself were expected to practice elevated health monitoring and limited social contact for a similar period. The key to the success of these measures was the mobilization of public sector employees into teams that could monitor public health and track down cases and contacts as they emerged. By mid-February, simple health inspections had become a common experience whenever you entered public spaces or large-scale businesses. 

The government also moved quickly to establish a system of rationing face masks and other protective equipment. Although daily queues in front of pharmacies became another prominent fact of life, it meant that the population had sufficient masks to slow the spread of the disease, and hospitals had ample supplies. By the end of February, a comprehensive system of quarantines and health monitoring, in tandem with a new set of high-tech tools tied to mobile phones and integrated into the public health system, allowed both the government and the general public to track the spread of the disease. In sum, the government cast nets of varying sizes—from mouth-sized masks to island-sized border controls—to sift the disease out of society. 

As the pandemic began to cut a path of death through Europe and then the United States in early March, tens of thousands of Taiwanese citizens returned to the country from abroad, testing the strength of the nets. Yet they held firm. Over the course of March, the government promoted more systematic social distancing measures to limit transmission in places where large numbers of the public might congregate such as parks, markets, and arenas, and also in large institutions or businesses. At my research institute, employees were urged to keep to their own floors, avoid the elevators, or work in separate rooms when possible. Libraries were limited to pick up only and tables separated in the cafeteria. But unlike most other parts of the industrialized world, public transport continued running, schools and workplaces remained open and other than recent travelers or people exhibiting Covid-19 type symptoms, freedom of movement remained unrestricted. People went on vacation.

But much of what has been described above represents only the is the superficial side of Taiwan’s effective response.  We’re all now familiar with the forms of social distancing pioneered in East Asia but now employed in much more drastic and dramatic ways in Europe, North America, and the Middle East. But why were these measures so successfully implemented in Taiwan but not the United States, and especially not at the federal level?  

The Taiwanese government was able to not simply gather accurate information and expert advice, it was able to do something far more difficult: discern which advice was accurate and appropriate, transform it into effective policy, and maintain social cohesion and support. The contrast with the United States could not be more stark. In the US case, the chief executive had the world’s most sophisticated system for making public health policy at his fingertips, yet he was not only unable to choose an effective policy but actively denigrated and ignored this expertise.

The root of the problem, however, lies not with President Trump, as easy and satisfying as it might be to place the blame with him. Rather the root of the problem is the fact that the United States is no longer a representative democracy and its politicians are no longer directly accountable to the American public. Designed for the America of 1820, not 2020, the US constitution has facilitated the domination of the legislative branch by a minority party (the GOP in the Senate), the election of a president by a minority of voters, and a judicial branch packed with their appointees. Wealthy donors and monopolistic corporations have much more influence over politicians than the increasingly impoverished citizenry. In such a system there is little incentive for ruling politicians to place public health over personal gain. 

In contrast, Taiwan has built a political system that meets the three core requirements of a democracy: it is representative, accountable, and transparent. The current head of state, Tsai Ying-wen, was directly re-elected by the Taiwanese voters in January by a large margin (57%).  The Taiwanese legislature is composed of representatives either directly elected by district or appointed from party lists by percentage of votes cast for each party. This unique constitutional arrangement, which reflects the amalgam of two different parliamentary traditions (one Anglo-American and one continental European), allows voters to benefit from representation both by region of residence and by party of affiliation. In other words, a Taiwanese voter doesn’t entirely lose representation if their local candidate of choice loses the regional election—a strong contrast to the US, where a “blue” voter in a “red” state has essentially thrown away their vote. 

Like other democracies, the Taiwanese political system distributes power both between and within various branches of government. But there are significant differences. One such difference is the fact that unlike the US, the president’s power over the executive is inherently limited by the fact that day-to-day governance is in the hands of a premier who is appointed by the president but can be recalled by the legislature with a simple majority. Similarly, the initiative for appointing ministerial chiefs begins with the premier, not the president, and by custom, many of these appointments are of people who were not members of the ruling party (or any party in many cases). The result is that in moments of crisis, such as the coronavirus pandemic, policy-making is less likely to become “politicized”—i.e. distorted by the short term political goals or considerations of the president. 

For the past three months, the Taiwanese news has been dominated by one person—Chen Shih-chung, the minister of Health and Welfare, a career public health official who, like the vice-president and, fortuitously, several other members of the current government, cut their teeth handling the SARS epidemic in 2003. Chen’s regular news conferences are now must-see TV; and the minister’s gruff, frank, thorough, and consistent messaging combined with effective policy-making (the closest American analogy might be if Dr. Anthony Fauci and NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo had a love child) have made him not only a celebrity in Taiwan but also a symbol of the Taiwanese’s new-found confidence and assertiveness on the global stage. The president, Tsai Ying-wen, clearly assured of her own electoral mandate and public image, has largely avoided the spotlight and limited herself to symbolic, nay—“presidential,” inspections and rare public speeches of support for the work of Chen Shih-chung.     

As a genuinely democratic government—transparent, accountable, and representative—Taiwan has taken advantage of public trust and confidence to temporarily implement restrictive emergency measures and ask the citizenry to make real sacrifices for the common good. In contrast to the bread and circus politics of the late Roman Empire or the United States, where the national response to national crises over the last two decades has generally consisted of lowering taxes and going shopping, Covid-19 has clearly been a nation-building exercise in Taiwan. 

Covid-19 reveals how little nation-building the US has done in the last thirty years. The end of the Cold War left the American public complacent. Buoyed by a victor’s faith in its way of life and blinded by the apparent imperfectability of the US constitution, American democracy withered on the vine. Over the same thirty years, Taiwan evolved from a dictatorship to a prosperous democracy. 

From 1949, when the US-allied Nationalist Party of China lost the civil war to the Chinese Communist Party and fled to Taiwan, to the late 1970s, the island essentially functioned as a military base from which the re-conquest of China would begin. The end of the Cold War and US rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China sparked an existential crisis in Taiwan. What was the point of the rump by Republic of China in Taiwan now that it was no longer recognized as a sovereign state and key ally of the United States? Lacking substantial natural resources, the government of Taiwan could also not purchase international recognition or public support like the oil monarchies of the Middle East. Taiwan’s rulers thus faced a stark choice: submission to the PRC or rebuilding the state in Taiwan with a new purpose. In the end, Taiwan’s authoritarian leaders chose the latter and decided that democracy and indigenization, not the return to mainland China, would be Taiwan’s new raison d’être. 

The grave and ever-increasing threat posed by a resurgent China has forced the Taiwanese to build a liberal state and work ceaselessly to deepen its legitimacy. Much like the original founders of the United States, the Taiwanese have understood that the foundations of a liberal order must be constantly scrutinized, reformed, and renewed. Whereas the United States has largely failed to reform its constitution (there has not been a substantive amendment to the US constitutions since 1967), the Taiwanese have completed two major overalls of their political system since the 1990s.

Taiwanese critics of their current system complain that there is much work still to be done to reduce corruption and vote-buying patronage systems in their elections. But in general, the Taiwanese have also done a much better job than either the United States or China at preventing the accumulation of wealth—and therefore political power—among its elites. Distributions of wealth and economic opportunity are far closer to the egalitarian societies of northern Europe than the United States (Gini coefficients of 33, 32, 46, and 47 respectively for Taiwan, Germany, PRC, and the US).

While one cannot fairly argue that the more authoritarian the state, the worse the eventual crisis, one can argue that the more democratic a society is, the greater its chances of preventing pandemics and mitigating their consequences. 

A hundred years ago at the Paris Peace Conference, the victors of the First World War wrote off the democratic ambitions of East Asia, condemning these societies to continued colonialism and opportunistic meddling by the Soviet Union. It is a remarkable state of affairs that on this anniversary, Europeans and Americans must now turn to Taiwan (and a number of other neighboring states in Asia) to restore their faith in the fundamental virtues of the liberal political tradition. 


Article by Max Oidtmann, Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University in Qatar.


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