by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: PXFuel/CC

THE CORONAVIRUS outbreak continues to unfold, with political ramifications likely in both Taiwan and China.

Much outrage broke out yesterday in China after the death of Dr. Li Wenliang. Li was one of the first to notice the initial Coronavirus outbreak and was summoned by Chinese authorities for “spreading rumors” online after posting about the Coronavirus in a WeChat group with other medical professionals, of which pictures were later circulated online. Li subsequently contracted the Coronavirus himself, due to his participation in efforts to fight the virus, and died. Lee was 34 at the time of his death and left behind a wife and child.

Confession signed by Li Wenliang confessing to spreading rumors. Photo credit: Weibo

The exact circumstances of Li’s death are unclear. However, Chinese authorities are accused of keeping Li’s dead body on life support for several hours in order that Li’s death would not come to public attention during peak Internet traffic hours, around 9 PM. As such, Li’s official time of death was reportedly listed as 3 AM instead. During the several hours of confusion as to whether Li had died or not, between 9 PM and 3 AM, more than 17 million people were checking a stream for updates on Li’s status.

Despite possible efforts by Chinese authorities to minimize reactions to Li’s death, news of Li’s death went viral on social media, with many expressing outrage at the Chinese government’s attempts to crack down on a whistleblower who tried to bring news of the Coronavirus outbreak to public attention and its handling of his death. This has included calls for the opening up of freedoms of speech in China, as observed in a popular hashtag on Weibo which was later removed, and numerous individuals posting quotes from Republican era Chinese writer and political dissident Lu Xun.

It is not impossible that outrage regarding Li’s death will lead to protests in some form in China, or at least a deepening of the current political crisis faced by the CCP regarding its handling of the Coronavirus outbreak. Social tensions regarding the outbreak are particularly acute at present, with individuals from heavily affected areas, inclusive of Wuhan and the province of Hubei writ large, as well as other heavily affected areas, such as Wenzhou, reporting discrimination.

In the meantime, controversy regarding the Coronavirus outbreak also continues to unfold in Taiwan. While the Chinese government initially refused to allow for Taiwanese trapped in Wuhan to be repatriated to Taiwan by plane, eventually this was permitted. One flight has departed from Wuhan to Taiwan so far.

However, controversy has broken out regarding the specific arrangements of that flight, with reports that passengers were not pre-screened for symptoms of the Coronavirus before boarding the flight. This led to one passenger confirmed to have the Coronavirus and three others with fevers being on the flight. Three passengers who boarded the flight were not pre-approved to board the flight and it is also believed that individuals with chronic conditions and the elderly were not allowed to board the flight.

Backlash against the arrangements of the flight has led to calls within the KMT to expel Central Standing Committee member Vincent Hsu, who arranged the flight in cooperation with a self-help group of Taiwanese in Wuhan. Hsu is accused of using backdoor connections with the Chinese government to arrange the flight, but that this may have also involved corrupt deal-making.

The exact number of Taiwanese in need of repatriation is also disputed between the Taiwanese and Chinese government, with the Taiwanese government claiming that around five hundred individuals are in need of repatriation but that 247 have been repatriated. By contrast, the Chinese government claims that around 1,000 Taiwanese are in need of repatriation and that it will arrange five flights to provide for their repatriation, despite having previously refused to repatriation flights for Taiwanese in Wuhan.

The Superstar Aquarius. Photo credit: Anna Frodesiak/WikiCommons/CC

With the Taiwanese government announcing a travel ban on all Chinese nationals and a mandatory fourteen-day quarantine on individuals who have traveled to Hong Kong, Macau, or China, it is also a question as to what will be done with passengers from a cruise liner, the Superstar Aquarius, which has over 1,700 passengers onboard. A passenger onboard the Superstar Aquarius tested positive for the Coronavirus, leading to negotiations between Taiwan and Japan about whether the ship would dock in Keelung, Taiwan or Naha, Okinawa, leading the ship to take several U-turns in the Pacific Ocean. 

To this extent, the central government also issued a warning yesterday via the nationwide emergency text-messaging system of places to avoid due to passengers from the Superstar Aquarius having traveled there. Medical mask supplies also remain scarce in many locations across Taiwan, despite a new rationing system being put into effect. It is to be seen whether the public will be satisfied with the government’s response to the crisis, however, with the possibility of backlash against the Tsai administration if the public views its response as insufficient.

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