The year 2020 will go down in history. Certainly, if for nothing else, it will be remembered as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic and the continuing impact it has had on the world. All nations have had to deal with it; none escaped.
As a virus, COVID-19 has known no bounds. It has no agenda or ideology; it champions no cause. There is no way to bully it, gaslight it or bargain with it. Impervious to any hype, posturing, propaganda or commands, it ignores such and simply attacks.
All nations, big or small, are on a level playing field when facing it. They either handle it or grapple with the consequences.
However, for Taiwan, China and the US, three nations that have had a complex triangular relationship since the end of World War II, there is more.
For them, it will also be remembered as the year of new exposure and unmasking; it has proven to be a turning point in their relationships.
As the source of the virus, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the most unmasked.
At first, its leaders, in true authoritarian fashion, tried to hide its existence. Just as with SARS, they hoped to contain the damage before it would spread far and wide, and the virus would realize its danger.
That failed. As COVID-19 spread, the next step was to try to shift the blame to its neighboring nations and hide the body count while punishing whistle-blowers.
The true number of deaths in China is still unknown and will probably never be known.
The PRC has published figures, but they are unreliable; the credibility of the PRC is gone. How could the most populous country in the world, where the virus originates and which has allowed it to spread, rank 82nd among all nations in total cases and deaths?
At the moment, WHO experts are in China trying to determine COVID-19’s true origins and examining the circumstances of its spread. However, it is doubtful that they will find out the full truth.
Because of the PRC’s inability to contain and/or hide the virus, that exposure has drawn the international spotlight back to its other problems.
With renewed mistrust, international public opinion is once again putting under the microscope the cultural genocides in Tibet and Inner Mongolia, the Uighur concentration camps in Xinjiang, and, of course, the situation in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong stands out because the long-standing promise of free, democratic elections from 2017 to 2047 has been revealed as a facade and has lately been totally abandoned. “One country, two systems” has become a joke.
The PRC forges ahead with mass arrests of Hong Kong leaders who express even a glimmer of desire for the promised 30 years of democracy.
The hopes that certain people in the West might have had that the PRC would become a responsible world player are also gone.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) will not change and he has no intention of going away.
In the meantime, the US has surprisingly fared little better than the PRC in its exposure.
From one perspective, the virus can almost even be seen as a blessing in disguise. In an ironic way, the erratic leadership of US President Donald Trump has been unmasked and the US rescued from four more years of his presidency.
One could go so far as to say that if COVID-19 had not exposed Trump’s incompetency, and his lack of preparedness and response, he would have probably been re-elected for a second term.
COVID-19 has unraveled a chain effect in the US, where even a gaslighting Trump could not twist the narrative.
Many of his words will haunt him. He bragged about how the virus would be gone by April last year and postulated that it was “little more than the flu” and that the warm weather would wipe it out.
Yet the body count mounted and continues to grow. The US has had the most COVID-19 cases (more than 23 million) and most deaths (more than 390,000) in the world.
On a different, ironic note, some good did still come out of this. While Trump’s erratic leadership and his subsequent anti-democratic refusal to accept the reality of losing last year’s presidential election were exposed in last week’s attack on the US Capital, his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, did help put an end to the false dreams that a hegemonic, autocratic China would over time become a responsible international player.
The US has finally dropped its long-standing, self-imposed restrictions on Taiwan vis-a-vis China — a step it should have taken long ago.
A new awareness of the PRC and its long-term goals is there; it is an awareness that would not have developed without the reality of the scourge of COVID-19 and all that it exposed.
Therefore, even as the world grapples with the virus, nations worldwide are also beginning to understand the high price that comes with trading with a clandestine PRC.
In this season of exposures, Taiwan has come off best.
Despite its proximity and constant interaction with China, Taiwan’s ability to contain the virus has been remarkable. As a mid-sized nation with a population larger than all but two US states, it has had fewer than 10 deaths and barely more than 800 cases, and its economy keeps rolling.
A boon of course has been its experience with SARS and its ongoing, unfettered knowledge of China. Taiwan has been ready for years; it has not had to pose in its relationship with China.
It also appreciates the democracy that it fought hard for. It has even weathered its own storm of populism with the recall vote of former Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜). The lure of China’s cash diplomacy had long been exposed in Taiwan.
The virus has told its tale. With more than 92 million cases worldwide and more than 2 million deaths, it continues to spread. It is time for the world to acknowledge these new exposures and see each of the three nations with new eyes. It is time for restructuring.
The PRC has not been a responsible player in the world arena. Whatever monetary profit has been gained from trading with it has been paid for with deaths from the virus. This will not be China’s last virus.
As for the US, Trump has proven to be the populist disaster that many foresaw. The US is not the stable democracy that it liked to consider itself; it has deep flaws that it must face, flaws that could endanger itself and the world.
As for Taiwan, it is time for the world to recognize this outlier nation as the responsible player that it is. The Taiwanese economy has remained stable; the nation has not had to impose any lockdowns. The time has finally come to give Taiwan its due place among the world’s nations. It is ironic that we have had to experience the COVID-19 pandemic to understand that.
Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.
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