‘WHO can help?’ demanded the full page ad in April 10th’s New York Times. ‘Taiwan,’ came the answer. ‘In a time of isolation, we choose solidarity’. Taiwan Can Help was no government sponsored publicity drive, however. The ad and its subsequent social media campaign were the initiative of a few Taiwanese internet personalities and the combined crowdfunding force of a nation bullied, marginalised and excluded.
Since its foundation in 1949, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has refused to acknowledge the Republic of China (ROC / Taiwan) as an independent sovereign state. To engage with China politically is to abide by these terms - you cannot establish diplomatic relations with Beijing if you also wish to maintain an embassy in Taipei. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also mandate that Taiwan be kept from international organisations. From the moment Nixon established relations with the PRC, Taiwan was thrown from the UN and is unlikely to gain reentry unless there is an enormous shift in the global power balance. Beijing also keeps Taiwan from the World Health Organisation (WHO), hindering the flow of medical supplies while stunting knowledge exchange and endangering lives. Taiwan’s health system has dealt with Covid-19 (officially known as Wuhan Novel Coronavirus by the Taiwanese medical authorities) more effectively than almost any other despite their immediate proximity to the virus’ source, but there is no public forum from which the Taiwanese medical authorities might share this experience.
Alleged illicit relations between China and the WHO have become common access meme material across Taiwan. The organisation is often referred to as the ‘WHO with Chinese characteristics’ in parody of ritualised ‘Xi Jinping thought,’ while many have suggested that Tedros himself could do worse than ‘joining the party’. The German Mercator research institute provided weight to such claims of untoward involvement, pointing out consistent and exaggerated praise of China’s response to the virus, often to the detriment of expressing other vital information. Before the WHO had even classified Covid-19 as a public health emergency in late January, Tedros took the opportunity to describe Beijing’s efforts in controlling the virus as ‘encouraging’ and urged the rest of the world to learn from their example. He also insists that the Chinese government have remained ‘beginning to end, open, transparent and responsible,’ despite the deep bureaucratic failure that covered up a pandemic-in-waiting while branding its whistle-blowing medical staff ‘subverters of national rule’.
Certainly, the CCP response to Covid-19 was decisive and effective once state machinery finally acknowledged its existence. They have so far even averted the spectre of secondary outbreaks now erupting across an already tired and broken Europe. Yet looking at Taiwan, Korea, Thailand and Japan, it is clear that these nations also produced extraordinary results despite relative geographic proximity to China. As “host” nations for the virus, examples from any of these countries could have provided far better disease prevention models to follow for the rest of the world. Lessons learned from China about effective internal control are far less useful to a country in the early stages of an international pandemic than those from a country like Taiwan about limiting viral arrival and border spread. Why, then, did Tedros not seize the opportunity to promote Taiwanese, Korean, Thai or Japanese methods of pandemic control to the rest of the world?
At the WHA (world health assembly) in mid-February, Thailand representative Suwit Wibulpolprasert suggested that Tedros should be in quarantine rather than before the assembly - sharp reference to the director general’s trips to China and publicly cordial meetings with Xi Jinping. Widespread claims of Beijing-WHO conspiracy were bolstered just days later when the Chinese sci-fi writer Fang Zhouzi pointed out a difference between the English and Chinese versions of the WHO’s pandemic guidelines. In the English version, several practices not useful in the treatment of Covid-19 were listed: smoking, taking antibiotics and ‘seeking traditional medicine’. In the Chinese version, the latter instruction was missing. When discovered, WHO officials scrambled not to fill in the missing Chinese, but delete the “offending” English. Fang Zhouzi concluded: ‘choosing a politician to lead the WHO is guaranteed to turn his professional organisation political, because a politician has eyes for profit and not principle.’
Why the WHO under Tedros’ leadership lean so heavily towards Beijing is not quite so simple to understand. The Liberty Times suggest that astronomical Chinese investment in Tedros’ home country of Ethiopia might colour his opinion, but the article also pointed out that pro-Beijing sentiment at the WHO did not begin with the current director general. His predecessor Margaret Chan concluded her posting at the WHO to serve in China as chair of the National Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
Meanwhile, Mercator point out Beijing’s traditional sensitivity to humiliation. If Tedros and the WHO had spent time holding the CCP to account at the beginning of the year, they suggest, Beijing might have responded defensively, limiting the outward flow of information and thereby worsening the pandemic overall. Xi Jinping and his cohort are certainly famed for their ‘glass hearts’ (玻璃心—bōlí xīn) - a Chinese internet term meaning much the same as ‘snowflake’ in the English speaking world. Glass hearts certainly are easily shattered - criticism from a public body like the WHO might have pressed Pooh’s buttons. Nonetheless, none of this analysis covers Tedros’ litany of fawning excuses and excessive praise.
Under attack from the international community, Tedros accused the Taiwanese diplomatic office of complicity in ‘cooperating with the people’ to launch a racially motivated ‘ad hominem’ smear campaign against himself. Tsai Ing-wen strongly refuted any claims of racial targeting the following day, extending Tedros an invite that he might ‘get a better view from the ground’. The Taiwanese public were less tactful, immediately venting their frustration across the PTT forum (a popular message board) and various Line groups. ‘This clearly has nothing to do with race,’ wrote one highly upvoted commentator, ‘and everything to do with Tedros and the CCP.’
Just days after Tedros charged the entire population of Taiwan with racism, a popular movement began to stir on the internet. ‘We might as well,’ came the rallying cry, ‘call them the CHO [China Health Organisation]’. Within days, the Taiwan Can Help campaign had raised almost a million US dollars from 27,000 donors. Its figurehead, language education youtuber Ray Du, described the outpouring of funds as an outpouring of feeling - ‘the eternally quiet calling out’ less with anger than simply the desire to be heard. The Taiwanese identity - particularly the Taiwanese democratic identity - is young and therefore fragile. Many millennials struggle with self-identification, especially as some of their parents and grandparents feel more “Chinese” than Taiwanese. As democracy finds its footing so close to an autocratic powerhouse once and potentially still the ‘motherland’ of that democracy, actualising a new sense of nationhood is not a straightforward process. Polls this year demonstrated that the “Taiwanese” identity has finally come to predominate on the island, but what that means and how that identity defines itself is very much still in the process of formulation. It was no accident that Taiwan Can Help took youtubers and social media stars as its proponents and figureheads: the youtuber is a phenomenon only possible in Washington’s free world. In China, where homegrown social media platforms are dominant and Google products inaccessible without the use of a VPN, there are not many who can make a living on YouTube. Internet creators like Ray Du and Chang Chih-chyi are not simply representative of Taiwan’s alliance with the democratic powers - their very existence is predicated on it. Such visible beacons of “difference” call strongly to people struggling with self identity - ‘this is Taiwan,’ those voices came together to shout. WHO can’t help! We can.
Was Taiwan Can Help a successful campaign? Their ad ran in the New York Times on April 10 and probably caused many readers to stop for a second between pages. With only a fraction of the 20,000,000NT$ raised spent on that publication, graphic designer and project head Aaron Nieh posted on facebook to announce where the remaining funds would go: 31.97% towards domestic medical equipment, 22.20% to supply foreign markets and 45.82% to internet-based promotion of Taiwan Can Help. Their NYT ad was followed with a social media drive eventually seen by over 100 million people. Analysis after the campaign found that the NYT ad drove 130,500 independent searches for information on Taiwan and its exclusion from the WHO, but tracing effectiveness for the subsequent social media advertising is more difficult. Most videos pushed good numbers, but little beyond click-rates common for a given creator.
Nonetheless, even if the campaign failed to tap into an international zeitgeist, its plucky cry in the face of injustice can safely be added to the history of steps Taiwan has taken on the path to a nation.