The Geopolitical Streisand Effect: The More China And The WHO Try To Silence Taiwan, The More Attention Its Success Fighting COVID-19 Gets
from the streisanding-taiwan dept
Last week, a full page advertisement appeared in the NY Times, that was crowdfunded by nearly 27,000 people (mostly from Taiwan), with the provocative line: “WHO can help? Taiwan.” Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen posted a picture to her Facebook page:
The story behind the ad and the companion TaiwanCanHelp.US website is quite fascinating in its own right, and is reflective of the impressive digitally-aware political movement that has really grown up in Taiwan over the last decade. If you’re unaware, over the last five years or so, Taiwan has been perhaps the most interesting experiment to watch in using technology to build more effective participatory government, pushed forward by a bunch of open source/open government activists who realized that working towards real solutions rather than pure partisan rancor, was a good way forward. And that shows in how this new campaign came about.
Much of it was designed in response to the WHO’s continued efforts to box Taiwan out of the COVID-19 conversation, even as Taiwan seemed to be one of a very small number of countries which appeared to be dealing with the onslaught of COVID-19 quite well (and this was despite its closeness to China, and many people regularly travelling back and forth between Taiwan and China). The WHO’s efforts to ignore Taiwan went really viral in late March when a major news program in Hong Kong, RTHK, interviewing Assistant Director-General at WHO Bruce Aylward, showed Aylward’s ridiculously awkward attempts to avoid responding to questions about Taiwan:
She calls back & he said "Well, we've already talked about China."
— ?Hong Kong World City ???? (@HKWORLDCITY) March 28, 2020
The reporter asks whether or not the WHO would reconsider Taiwan’s membership. Because Taiwan is not a member of the UN (because China still insists it’s a “rogue province” rather than an independent country), it is not a member of the WHO and has to petition to attend meetings — which is sometimes allowed, but frequently denied. Aylward first stares in silence, and then when asked again says he couldn’t hear the question. She tries to ask again and he says “no, that’s okay, let’s move to another question.” But the reporter asks again, and suddenly the Skype session “disconnects” (though you see Aylward move a bit right before the disconnect happens). The reporter calls him again, and this time instead of asking about WHO membership, just asks about how Taiwan has done regarding containing COVID-19. Aylward then gives a cringe-worthy response obviously trying not to respond to the actual question:
Well, we’ve already talked about China. And, you know, when you look across all the different areas of China, they’ve actually all done quite a good job.
And then he quickly ends the interview. But of course, much of China has not done a very good job at all, while Taiwan, which (contrary to what the Chinese will claim) is not a part of China has done a very good job. And that’s kind of important. To make matters worse, the news station that aired the interview was reprimanded by Hong Kong officials which, of course drew even more attention to not just the interview, but the overall situation.
As a recent piece by Thomas Shattuck at the Foreign Policy Research Institute notes, this kicked off a Streisand Effect for Taiwan’s successful handling of the pandemic, bringing a ton of new attention on the country.
The video interview went viral because it showed the embarrassing lengths that the WHO goes to in order to avoid offending China. Throughout the crisis, the WHO has been extremely laudatory of China?s response and transparency to the virus outbreak?despite obvious early cover-ups.
Even though Beijing has tried to erase Taiwan from the COVID-19 conversation, the world is paying attention. Bill Gates, when interviewed on Fox News, pointed to Taiwan?s early testing and extensive procedures, and explained that because of testing, it will not experience as much of an economic hit as other countries. American politicians from both sides of the aisle also highlight Taiwan as a country to emulate. European politicians have joined the call for Taiwan?s inclusion in the WHO. Googling Taiwan brings up positive search results.
No matter how much China seeks to push Taiwan down, Taiwan continues to show its resilience. It has not been erased.
Amusingly, Shattuck also highlights that Barbra Streisand herself weighed in with support for Taiwan’s response to COVID-19, bringing it all full-circle.
After this all went viral, the director of the WHO, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, made things much worse by accusing Taiwan of being behind racist attacks and death threats directed at himself… which did not go over well at all. The big NY Times ad actually began as a response to Dr. Tedros’ weird attack on Taiwan, but those behind it quickly realized that simply responding angrily to a weird national ad hominem attack would likely escalate things, rather than trying to approach the campaign by highlighting not just the successful results in Taiwan, but also how Taiwan can help others survive the pandemic:
?We only wanted to respond to Dr. Tedros?s false accusations when we released our first draft of the public letter, but as everyone could see a few days ago, we had a lot to improve upon,? Du wrote in an online forum today reflecting on the publication process.
The organizers eventually rewrote the draft to reflect what Taiwan has always promoted, using ?Taiwan can help? to signal empathy for victims of the crisis.
?In the end, we realized we don?t have to play tit for tat with Tedros. We should rise above it and just reiterate #TaiwanCanHelp properly,? Du wrote.
And, to some extent, this goes back to what I noted up top about Taiwan’s embrace of openness and transparency (often via the internet). Indeed, the TaiwanCanHelp website discusses information sharing and open data that Taiwan is willing to share:
In the end, the WHO’s terrible attempt to ignore Taiwan has, as Shattuck noted, only called much more attention to Taiwan and its efforts. The country’s President has recently written a column for Time Magazine explaining how Taiwan handled COVID-19 and the Washington Post recently stated what should be obvious by now, that everyone — especially China and the WHO — need to get over their politicking over the sovereignty of Taiwan and let the country join the WHO, because saving lives right now is a hell of a lot more important than continuing this silly political charade.
Today, Taiwan?s contribution to the fight against covid-19 has been publicly recognized by Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, and Shinzo Abe, prime minister of Japan. State Department officials have conducted high-level virtual briefings with Taiwanese epidemiologists and government officials. U.S. officials have praised Taiwan for sending millions of masks to the United States. But, true to form, China has reacted in typically small-minded and aggressive manner, accusing Taiwan of engaging in ?mask diplomacy? and seeking to profit from the pandemic to push its independence agenda.
As that article notes, if China wants to continue its silly politicking there’s at least another fig leaf it can put over this situation to make it more bearable — and it has done so in the past:
Beijing won?t be happy, but there is a model for this. In 2001, China entered the World Trade Organization. Literally five minutes after Beijing?s formal accession to the trading body, Taiwan was allowed in under the name ?Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu (Chinese Taipei).? Taiwan won entry to the WTO because of pressure by the United States and other major trading nations, which told Beijing not to mess around. The global trading system was considered too important to let it be held hostage by Beijing.
I think a strong case can be made that global health in the midst of a pandemic is more important than “global trading systems.” As Shattuck notes, for now, Taiwan needs to separately apply to attend each and every WHO meeting, and its requests are frequently denied:
Despite its stellar response and goodwill campaign, Taiwan has been curtailed by the WHO. The WHO has claimed that it is working with Taiwan and its government, but that is not really the case. According Legislator Wang Ting-yu, Taiwan applied to attend 187 WHO technical meetings between 2009 and 2019, but only was allowed to attend 57. Since Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, it is not granted permission to attend every meeting?it must ask permission to attend as a guest/observer, which means that China must give the WHO, other any other UN-affiliated organization, its blessing to allow Taiwan?s presence. Most importantly, Taiwan was the first country to ask the WHO whether or not the virus could be transmitted human-to-human on December 31. The WHO ignored Taiwan?s question. On January 12 (the day after Taiwan?s presidential election), the WHO said that there was no clear evidence, and then on January 20, China confirmed human-to-human transmission?almost one month after Taiwan first brought up the very important question.
That issue with that initial email in December has also turned into yet another sort of Streisanding. The WHO came out last week denying that it ignored Taiwan’s email and claiming that the email did not indicate human-to-human transmission of the disease. Except that the Taiwanese government responded and had receipts in the form of the email it sent:
— MOHW of Taiwan (@MOHW_Taiwan) April 11, 2020
While the email does not explicitly state person-to-person transmission, the very fact that they told the WHO that these individuals were being isolated clearly was an indication that they were concerned about person-to-person transmission. More importantly, as the Taiwanese government points out, part of its early success in stopping a massive outbreak was merely assuming that it was likely there was person-to-person transmission — something the WHO didn’t admit for almost another month:
Even though Taiwan strongly suspected that human-to-human transmission of the disease was already occurring at the time, we were unable to gain confirmation through existing channels. Therefore, on the day the aforementioned email was sent to WHO, the Taiwan government activated enhanced border control and quarantine measures based on the assumption that human-to-human transmission was in fact occurring. These measures included screening passengers on flights from Wuhan prior to disembarkation.
We’ve talked a lot about the problems of general Chinese censorship in the time of COVID, but it’s been incredible to watch this moment of geopolitical Streisanding in which the efforts by the Chinese and the WHO to stick their collective heads in the sand over Taiwan is only serving to highlight the details of Taiwan’s success even more.