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Lessons from Taiwan during COVID-19: Between politics and collective experience

COVID-19AsiaGlobalization

Taiwanese evacuees from Wuhan arrive in Taiwan on a charter flight. Photo courtesy of the Taiwanese government’s Central Epidemic Command Center.

Over the course of the last few weeks, with the exponential growth of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, the world has witnessed China’s remarkable progress in effectively controlling and halting the spread of the virus. Against this backdrop, a new debate has emerged in the media where it is argued that in such a crisis, an authoritarian state such as China has greater coercive capability to mobilize state resources than a liberal democracy.

Through an analysis of how Taiwan has successfully dealt with the coronavirus, we contend that such a binary in the public discourse is in fact misleading, and is one that conceals a central conflict in the contemporary world: the subjugation of politics to economics.

As of March 23, of 163 confirmed cases, two passed away from the virus and 28 were released from isolation. It is clear that the theoretical scaffolding surrounding the confrontation between the Chinese model and the neoliberal order can be easily dismantled. It is evident how Taiwan—a democracy with a huge population density—has contained the virus in an exemplary manner.

How did a capitalist democracy like Taiwan successfully achieve this? We argue that Taiwan’s strategy has been informed by three key societal and historic elements: Taiwan’s state formation during the 20th century, the political culture of its elites, and the collective experience of the Taiwanese population in dealing with the ‘forces of nature’.

The legacy of Taiwan’s state formation

One of the key elements needed to understand Taiwan’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic can be found in its historical process of state formation. This was led by the Japanese empire at the beginning of the 20th century. Japan understood the importance of constructing a strong state to mobilize resources to struggle against Western imperialism in East Asia and to catch up, economically and technologically, with those forces. Though at the end of the 19th century, Tokyo paid attention to the capitalist development that was taking place in the West, in the following century, the Chinese reformers—both the Qing elite and the revolutionary opposition—admired the socioeconomic and military reforms that imperial Japan was implementing.

Poster advertising the Taiwan Exhibition, 1935

Japanese development was indeed a model for Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek (CKS), the leaders of the Kuomintang (KMT). Both comprehended through their lived experiences in imperial Japan that advanced economic and technological development was only possible under the auspices of a strong state guided by politics and not simply market forces. In fact, despite the KMT never fully rejecting certain capitalist elements, they always had a skeptical position in regard to the virtues of economic liberalism. After all, like the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the origins of the KMT were deeply influenced by Leninism. During the 1930s, despite the increasing tensions between Nanjing and Tokyo, particularly after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, Japan remained the mirror of development for Chinese elites. For instance, in 1935, CKS sent Chen Yi to the Taiwan Exposition, where the achievements of the Japanese imperial government on the island were celebrated. In his report, he emphasized public infrastructure as well as economic development.

After the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, the KMT assumed that its defeat in the battlefields had been in part a result of its incapability to subsume the elites to the dictum of politics. This could not be allowed to happen again. When the KMT arrived in Taiwan in 1949, CKS reactivated the state political legacy of the Japanese empire. In the Taiwanese case, the construction of a strong state had two main aims—to protect against the vagaries of geopolitics, and to ensure effective economic and technological development that could catapult Taiwan into a position of prominence in East Asia.

In this light, the Taiwanese “economic miracle” cannot be understood without this particular conception of the state. “Economic miracles” do not exist; they are in fact the logical consequence of a specific state structure that has been reproduced in other East Asian countries such as South Korea and Singapore. The capitalist transition of the island, through developmental capitalism, was led by a political elite that did not question the centrality of the state to develop the productive forces. At the end of the 1980s, the democratic transition in Taiwan was also influenced by a political culture in which the state was the cornerstone of Taiwanese political life.

The political culture of the Taiwanese elite

Why have Taiwan and some European democracies like Denmark and Germany responded to the COVID-19 crisis in such a divergent fashion compared to the rest of the Western world? While Taiwan has not forgotten the centrality of politics due to its particular geopolitical situation and its developmental trajectory during the 20th century, Europe has succumbed to the economist outlook of globalization; forgetting the importance of the state as a key agent that can help guide and shape collective political life, especially during a crisis.

In contrast, Taiwan has not hesitated to mobilize state resources to tackle this unprecedented health emergency, while much of Europe and the United States remain constricted by the straightjacket of neoliberalism. The stark reality and popular anger that have arisen as a result have compelled the ruling classes to temporarily ease their fixation on austerity politics and their dogma about the inefficiency of the state.

Some have praised the transparency of the Taiwanese government in its fight against COVID-19. However, this narrative has been presented as a distinctive feature of the ethos of the Taiwanese government, particularly in contrast with the “draconian” nature of the Chinese state. Though it is true that such transparency has been crucial to combat the pandemic, one cannot neglect the democratic deficiencies that still exist on the island and in the decision-making apparatuses of the European Union and its member states. In this sense, the effective transparent policies carried out by the Taiwanese government have been the result of a political elite which does not hesitate to mobilize the state machinery to solve collective problems, elevating the role of politics above that of economics.

Consequently, this political practice does not necessarily reveal the existence of a consolidated democratic tradition in Taiwan, but a political legacy that sees the role of the state in a very concrete way. In all, China, Taiwan and South Korea are not as divergent as much of the mainstream liberal media has made them out to be. After all, their developmental and political traditions have been shaped by similar historical processes that were kicked off by the global capitalist transformation of the 19th century.

Collective experiences in dealing with the ‘forces of nature’

In addition to these elements, there is another key factor that can help us develop a broader picture of both Europe’s underestimation of the dangers of the coronavirus and the success of the Taiwanese government in tackling it: the collective experience of the Taiwanese population in dealing with the ‘forces of nature’. Unlike what happens in China, Taiwan or in other parts of the world, Europeans have been living in a way that is almost completely disconnected from nature. This disconnection skews the capacity for an efficient and effective response to pandemics like COVID-19.

For instance, Europeans do not experience earthquakes, typhoons or health crises on a regular basis. As a result of being sheltered by a privileged geography, climate and modern infrastructure, Europeans have forgotten that nature still is an important factor that shapes our societies. We cannot escape the ‘forces of nature’. In this light, Craig Murray, the former British diplomat, clarified that the collective hysteria that we are witnessing in Europe has been “driven by a societal rejection of the notion that the human species is part of the wider ecology, and that death and disease are unavoidable facts, with which it ought to be part of the human condition to come to terms”.

The civic spirit that we have seen in China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan not only has to do with some cultural elements of individual responsibility towards the community, but also to the collective experience of dealing with the ‘forces of nature’. In this sense, Taiwan began to prepare against the coronavirus in 2004 after the SARS crisis. The Taiwanese government created a Center for Disease Control that integrated and coordinated multiple agencies and protocols to act against epidemics and bioterrorism. In the case of Europe, this state of vulnerability is something novel. In effect, Eurocentrism has made unthinkable the current state of affairs.

What will the post-coronavirus world look like? History tells us that in times of crisis, large corporations and the most vulnerable in society seek refuge under the protection of the state. The 2008 financial crisis already made clear that markets alone cannot drive competitiveness and prosperity. On the contrary, state intervention is crucial.

At this current historical juncture, we are at the gates of an adjustment of the process of the period of neoliberal globalization that began in the 1990s. The question is whether Europe will confront this new phase, emphasizing politics as the main foundation of collective life, or if politics will remain captured by the dictums of economic orthodoxy. We are witnessing a “Polanyi moment”. Populations are desperately seeking protection and safety from the state in the midst of a geopolitical reordering, a looming recession and a tragic health crisis. Who is going to provide such protection? Place your bets.

Andres Herrera-Feligreras is a Doctor in History at the Public University of Navarra in Spain.

Ferran Pérez Mena is a PhD student in International Relations at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom.

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