Taiwan is a democracy. It’s imperfect, as all democracies are, but it will take more than SARS to destroy that democracy.
What have we learned about the impact of the SARS epidemic in Taiwan?
For one thing, all other nations that have effectively controlled SARS are not democracies as we in Taiwan understand the term – Vietnam is one of the world’s last remaining communist states, Singapore is an authoritarian regime and Hong Kong – where it looks as if SARS is under control – is Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. Governments in these entities are used to getting their way by issuing orders.
Taiwan people have been described as selfish, but the response to the SARS epidemic is more than selfishness, it’s an assertion of rights that the people of Taiwan hold dear. Taiwan people don’t like being told what to do, by anyone.
There’s a touch of the anarchist in all Chinese, and in the classical Chinese tradition, the people really just want the government to keep things running smoothly and then let them get on with living their lives.
Taiwan has been criticised for being heavy-handed, but the regulations in force are about the minimum necessary when faced with a major public health crisis.
Sure, Taiwan for a while was a little smug and self-satisfied that SARS was happening across the Taiwan Strait and not here, but that’s long gone.
The role of the government in a democratic state, as Taiwan is, is to rally the people behind a policy to stamp out SARS – but it is an authority that cannot stem from coercion. There has been no call for an imposition of martial law, but people must co-operate. The way to get people to co-operate in a democracy is to be open and truthful and convince the people that Taiwan is now in a state of war – not against any other state or country, but against a very tough opponent, the disease SARS.
It’s clear that the public is looking for leadership and will support action. Bars, restaurants, movie theatres – they are all deserted, because people won’t take chances with their health. People don’t need convincing that the outlook is grave and they support resolute steps to overcome this insidious threat.
The other SARS hot spot is mainland China. It was a refusal to face unpleasant facts that allowed the disease to spread from southern China’s Guangzhou Province in the first place and spread world-wide. The lack of openness and transparency enraged those responsible for bringing the disease under control.
The response from across the Taiwan Strait might look deceptively similar to Taiwan, but that’s not the case.
The mainland Chinese Government is letting the press off the leash because they know that only when people realise the gravity of the situation will they cooperate. But the way they are attacking the problem, with draconian penalties and fierce words, is no more than a mobilisation campaign similar to the Cultural Revolution, the nationwide drive to condemn the Tiananmen democracy protests and the more recent campaign against the meditation sect, Falun Gong.
Thus, it is a mobilisation campaign that will be led by the Communist Party with the aim of restoring order. It’s similar to any other mobilisation campaign launched by the Communist Party against any other enemy, internal or external.
Thus, it would be a mistake to think that the anti-SARS campaign is a step closer to democracy for the long-suffering people of mainland China. The leash will be shortened savagely when the Communist Party wants the press to be shut down again.
What’s mainland China really like? Cyber dissident Huang Qi, arrested for exposing his political views on the Internet, was sentenced to five years for subversion recently – so much for liberalisation.
No democracy would condemn a dissident group to suffering and possible death, as Beijing has done with Taiwan by trying to minimise the assistance the World Health Organisation (WHO) could render to Taiwan. And what happened to Taiwan’s WHO membership application? No surprise, Beijing mobilised its forces and has kept Taiwan shut out of the WHO – even as a non-state observer.
So, SARS for Taiwan is a test of its democratic leadership. How it copes with this major public health issue will define both how its people respond to their government – and how the outside world sees Taiwan.
Taiwan is a new democracy, but it is a proud one. With President Chen Shui-bian recently celebrating the third anniversary of his rise to power, this test will define how he is regarded by history.
While SARS is a major test for Taiwan, in the end the spirit of democracy will lead the way in overcoming this threat.
- Jeff Babb writes for the China Post, Taiwan’s leading English-language newspaper