by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: pedist/WikiCommons/CC
TAIWAN MANAGED to remain COVID-free for the majority of the pandemic, due to swift action by the Tsai administration that kept COVID-19 outside of Taiwan’s borders. However, with Taiwan now seeing near-lockdown conditions across the nation, COVID-19 has finally made its way into Taiwan. It is believed that Taiwan’s lack of any domestic vaccination, combined with more transmissible variants that developed over the past year, is why Taiwan has finally been hit by COVID-19.
Much finger-pointing has ensued at the Tsai administration, particularly given the slow pace of vaccinations in Taiwan. A first shipment of 117,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine arrived in March, followed by a further 199,200 doses in April.
However, the Taiwanese public did not seem particularly interested in using the vaccines, to the extent that there were concerns that the vaccines would expire before they were used. It is thought that Taiwanese were afraid of getting the AstraZeneca vaccine due to international media reports of blood clots caused by the AstraZeneca vaccine, or because Taiwan seemed COVID-free, and so there seemed to be no pressing need for Taiwanese to get vaccinated.
Moreover, at that point in time, it appeared as though ample supplies of other vaccines would soon be on their way to Taiwan, including five million doses of the Moderna vaccine and possibly other vaccines. As a result, many members of the public may have been hoping to wait for other vaccines to arrive in Taiwan.
It has become a trope in international media reporting to criticize the Tsai administration for its slow pace of vaccinations, then, calling this complacency—particularly seeing as the rest of the world has begun vaccination programs and this has allowed for gradually restarting normal activity. Nevertheless, one notes that even if all of these doses of the then-available 316,200 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine had been quickly used up, soon after arrival, that would have only covered just over 1% of Taiwan’s population—this would very likely not prevent Taiwan from seeing an outbreak.
Criticism of the Tsai administration for failing to get Taiwan’s population vaccinated often misses the point; Taiwan simply did not have vaccines. While much of the western world previously idealized Taiwan for its COVID-19 response, as an idealized Other, this quickly gave way to strident criticisms—neglecting that, unlike resource-wealthy western countries, Taiwan did not have access to or the ability to produce vaccines. This can be seen, in many ways, as a form of victim-blaming, or the two views can be better understood as two sides of the same coin.
Nevertheless, one notes that in domestic Taiwanese politics, there is also increasingly the attempt to attack the Tsai administration for what is phrased as its lack of effort in obtaining vaccines. This claim is leveraged on by the pan-Blue camp and also seems to be increasingly circulated by efforts that may have their roots in Chinese disinformation.
This operates on multiple levels. The Tsai administration has alleged interference from China that prevented it from obtaining vaccines. The pan-Blue camp has tried to make this into a failure of the Tsai administration as though it were at fault, by claiming that the Tsai administration’s vaccine acquisition strategy did not take into account that the Asia market distributors of western-produced vaccines are Chinese companies. The pan-Blue camp has otherwise tried to dismiss allegations of interference from China by claiming that this simply reflects the Tsai administration’s lack of effort in trying to obtain vaccines.
Although one might expect the KMT to allege that Taiwan should turn toward using Chinese vaccines, polling shows that the majority of Taiwanese distrust Chinese vaccines—though this has not prevented outliers, such as former party chair Hung Hsiu-chu, from announcing that she would be willing to request vaccines from China. Former gangster turned pro-unification politician “White Wolf” Chang An-le’s China Unification Promotion Party is currently threatening to stalk Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung until he accepts Chinese vaccines. As a result, this is why the KMT has instead focused on the claim that China would not interfere in attempts by Taiwan to obtain western-produced vaccines if it were in power.
Yet Taiwan is not the first country in the region to experience delays for vaccines it has on paper. South Korea ordered enough doses to vaccinate its population twice over, but delays in vaccines arriving have led it, like Taiwan, to request aid from the US.
In last November, the Tsai administration announced that it had purchased ten million doses of vaccine from an unannounced supplier, which later turned out to be AstraZeneca, followed by announcing in February of this year that it had purchased five million doses of Moderna and was negotiating with other suppliers, as well. The Tsai administration would also receive 4.76 million vaccines through the COVAX vaccine sharing agreement.
The Tsai administration should have ample vaccines by now, except for delays out of its control. Of the three shipments of the AstraZeneca vaccine that Taiwan has had so far—the initial shipment of 117,000 doses in March, the second shipment of 199,200 doses in April, and a third shipment of 410,400 doses in May, the first came from the AstraZeneca purchase order while the second and third shipments were from COVAX.
But, as the pan-Blue camp has suggested that if it were in power, China would not interfere in efforts to secure western-produced vaccines, this proves a new version of the KMT’s traditional justification why it and not the DPP should hold political power in Taiwan. This is the claim that it is the only political party able to maintain cross-strait relations because of its special relationship with the CCP.
This has particularly become a point of contestation regarding the Biontech vaccine. Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung stated in February that Taiwan had tried to purchase vaccines directly from Biontech, without going through a distributor, but that Biontech’s distributor in the Asia market, Fosun, had interfered. Chen did not state that Fosun had done so because of Chinese state pressure, but could have been trying to defend its market interests in Asia. Biontech was evidently one of the other companies that Taiwan had been negotiating with to try and purchase vaccines beforehand.
After Chen’s allegations, likely hoping to avoid the charge of caving into Chinese political pressure, Biontech stated later in February that it would be willing to provide Taiwan with vaccines. This deal later fell through, as reported on in a recent Reuters article, with Taiwan alleging Chinese pressure on Biontech as the cause. However, one notes that Fosun has also made a U-turn, alleging that it was always willing to provide Taiwan with vaccines. While it is unclear whether Fosun’s earlier actions were due to Chinese state pressure, it is probable that Fosun is acting to try and make it appear as though the Tsai administration was simply inept or unwilling to go through a Chinese company in trying to purchase vaccines.
Fosun’s claims have a suspicious timing. It is rumored that FoxConn, which is known for its China-friendly ties, has indicated interest in purchasing Biontech vaccines through Fosun, and that FoxConn has asked the Ministry of Health and Welfare for permission to do so. Pan-Blue politicians such as Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je have similarly attempted to claim that the Ministry of Health and Welfare was covering up that local governments and companies can purchase vaccines from vaccine manufacturers or their distributors on their own—though the Ministry of Health and Welfare has countered that it alone has authority to approve vaccine purchases from abroad, as Taiwan’s central health authority.
Otherwise, one has seen conspiratorial attempts to claim that DPP factionalism was responsible for Taiwan’s failure to obtain vaccines. One conspiracy theory revolves around the claim that DPP factionalism prevented Taiwan from acquiring vaccines sooner. A Taiwanese firm chaired by former Tsai administration premier Lin Quan hoping to secure rights to distribute Biontech in the Asia market previously announced that it had initially acquired 30 million doses in October, but this deal seems to have later fallen apart in favor of Fosun. Lin Quan’s firm, TTY Biopharm, could not have acted without the approval of the CECC.
The conspiracy claims that DPP factions were hoping to get their cut of the deal, resulting in it collapsing. But while what happened exactly is opaque, there are far simpler explanations for this. For example, the Chinese market is many times larger than the Taiwanese market, and so market rationality generally dictates choosing a Chinese distributor over a Taiwanese one.
Taiwan’s inability to acquire vaccines cannot be solely blamed on China, given that issues with vaccine access are global. The Biden administration was likely waiting for domestic vaccinations to finish before sending vaccines abroad to avoid being labeled as prioritizing foreigners ahead of American citizens; Biden took power in the wake of the backlash against “globalism” under the Trump administration and still has to reckon with the protectionist turn of large segments of the American public. This is also true of Europe, with export restrictions making it harder for vaccines being sent outside of the European Union (EU) in a time of rising right-wing nationalism.
However, Chinese interference cannot be ruled out, with regards to Taiwan’s vaccine acquisition strategy. One notes that the COVAX vaccine sharing agreement is partly coordinated by the World Health Organization, which Taiwan is excluded from due to Chinese pressure. Likewise, Taiwan is mostly trying to obtain from EU vaccines, at a time in which the EU is caught between the US and China and internally divided on how to respond to both sides.
Nevertheless, some of what has been deemed to be Chinese interference could actually be the result of actions by western companies hoping to get into the Chinese market, who fear that supplying the Taiwanese market—or declining to supply Taiwan through a Chinese intermediary—may jeopardize access to the Chinese market. China’s program for vaccinations using domestically-produced vaccines is vast—if the numbers are to be trusted, China has now vaccinated over 400 million individuals.
It can be expected that Chinese authorities will act to try and benefit Chinese-produced vaccines over western ones in a protectionist manner; notably, in requirements that were later relaxed, China briefly only allowed foreigners who had taken Chinese-produced vaccines to enter the country, blocking individuals who had taken other vaccines. Nonetheless, vaccination was initially slow in China, something believed to be due to fear of reported side effects from the public. There could be a sizable market for western vaccines yet.
The Chinese authorities are still likely to act to block western vaccines, or allege that they are unsafe—as the Hong Kong government has been accused of doing, halting use of the Biontech vaccine on what some Hongkongers deemed to be trumped up concerns over safety at the time. But western companies have long desperately sought to enter the Chinese market despite the low odds, no matter what the compromises made are; one thinks of the actions of tech companies such as Facebook or Google.
It is probable that the Tsai administration is playing up the narrative that Taiwan’s access to vaccines is blocked because of Chinese interference to try and increase the odds of the US coming to its aid. Perhaps the Tsai administration is hoping to frame providing vaccines to Taiwan as a way of sticking it to China, leveraging on a framing that seemed to benefit Taiwan during the Trump administration, or otherwise suggesting that this is a way to signal US commitment to Taiwan and affirm US-Taiwan ties. Relatedly, some have suggested the centrality of Taiwan to global supply chains as a reason why Taiwan should receive vaccines.
But either way, it should be clear that it is not true that the Tsai administration made no effort to obtain vaccines for Taiwan. It is true that the Taiwanese public was uninterested in vaccinations after the first two shipments of AstraZeneca. This can rightly be seen as a failure of the Tsai administration to persuade the public to get vaccinated—even if Taiwan did not have enough vaccine supplies to prevent an outbreak, to begin with.
However, it is not due to lack of effort that Taiwan does not have enough vaccine supplies—again, it is not as though the Tsai administration simply sat on its haunches and had no interest in buying vaccines after the initial shipments of AstraZeneca arrived. Rather, efforts to buy vaccines dated back to months prior, and Taiwan should in theory already have enough vaccines to vaccinate the majority of Taiwan’s population—if not for delays.
Still, the narrative of the pan-Blue camp, as well as Chinese disinformation efforts, seems to leverage on the fact that the majority of the public may not be aware of these longstanding efforts by the Tsai administration. The Tsai administration will instead be blamed for not having made moves to acquire vaccines, as though it simply gave up on acquiring vaccines after April, due to the lack of interest of the Taiwanese public—when it had already taken action to purchase vaccines long beforehand. Reporting by international media to this effect will be used as ammunition.
But victim-blaming Taiwan for acts Chinese aggression, or events out of its control is nothing new. This should be expected even in the middle of a pandemic.