Imagining a Post-Pandemic Taiwan: It’s time to discuss a restart (Part 1- Macro perspective)

Written by Kyoung M. Shin and Chan-Yuan Wong.

Image credit: 2010-12-30 16-08-22_74 by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As the initial shockwave ushered in by the COVID-19 pandemic is beginning to subsiding, it is imperative to start a more nuanced discussion about pertinent public policies. Even in countries such as Taiwan, who have thus far proven to be relatively more successful in stemming the tide, the government is still emphasising economic re-opening.  It is often touted across the globe that Taiwan has been one of the more, if not the most, successful countries in combating COVID-19—and rightfully so. As of October 1, 2020, there has been a total of only 514 documented cases in Taiwan, most of which have been “imported.”  While most countries around the world are still struggling to cope with the coronavirus, there has been no report of domestically contracted case in Taiwan since mid-April. As a small country, Taiwan was able to develop three vaccines that have already been clinically authorized for human trials.

Although these outcomes are laudable, as with all public policy issues—especially those that are related to public goods—we need to critically examine how they are being achieved. We need to ask the questions: what has been the cost? Have there been any missed opportunities? What kinds of trade-offs are being made by the current policymakers—consciously or inadvertently?  Are there unintended consequences to which we are blind in our singular and herculean effort to contain the coronavirus? As Taiwan moves forward, answers to such questions have to be an integral part of building the kind of post-pandemic society and economy we want. We strongly believe that what a post-pandemic Taiwan looks like will depend on what it does during the pandemic.

First, in many ways, COVID-19 was a perfect storm—indeed a perfect opportunity—for Taiwan to emerge as a leading liberal democracy and a more coveted destination, especially for talented individuals.  When the pandemic erupted, most countries around the world severely restricted human movement; some even decided to entirely close off their borders. When everyone was shutting their doors, Taiwan was well positioned to implement a (relative more) open door policy. Yet Taiwan chose to execute relatively more restrictive policies in a top-down and seemingly arbitrary fashion, even against its own people. For many months, Taiwanese citizens working abroad, including in mainland China, were forbidden from returning home. In June, the Taiwanese government caused an uproar among its ex-pat communities when its then-new policy forced foreigners entering Taiwan to attain and document negative results from a coronavirus test within three days of boarding their flights, including those who are legally authorized to live and work in Taiwan (i.e., so-called “Alien Resident Card” (ARC) holders). The coronavirus tests are not readily accessible in many countries (some of which include developed industrialized nations), even for those with major symptoms. Getting the test results within three days of boarding was a tall order.

Until recent weeks—months after China has become much more safe than most countries around the world (e.g., US)—mainland Chinese citizens remained apparently unwelcomed, including those who had a legitimate claim to be in Taiwan, such as students and the spouses of foreign nationals. While Taiwan is promoting better relations with South East Asia under its New Southbound Policy, some of those very countries are under its watch-list, and face more scrutinizing than that applied to developed Western nations. Until recent changes were implemented, citizens from Southeast Asian countries wishing to enter Taiwan were required to navigate through excessive and costly administrative procedures.

While some of these measures are understandable, we believe such reactive policies have cost Taiwan precious opportunities, such as the opportunity to stand out among its peers as a welcoming destination, become a bigger and more integral part of the international community, and attract global human capital – especially on account of its status as a “virus-free” haven. We have seen several cases in which top researchers with excellent credentials either turned down or thought twice about accepting job offers from elite academic institutions in Taiwan, precisely because of the island’s increasingly restrictive immigration policies. We have heard stories from Taiwanese engineers and scientists in top technology clusters in the US (e.g., Seattle and Silicon Valley) who felt indignant at the uncooperative, if not unwelcoming and combative, gestures they have received from the overseas Taipei Economic and Cultural Offices (TECO). This is not to mention international students, especially those from developing countries, whose rights to the education they were promised to and are entitled to were not upheld, many of whom had aspirations to stay and develop their careers in Taiwan.

Such missed opportunities are regrettable, especially in light of recent trends. An abundance of anecdotal evidence suggests that Taiwan is becoming less and less cosmopolitan and increasingly more insular. For the last decade or so, we have met many Taiwanese colleagues in top universities bemoaning the loss of human capital in Taiwan. Perhaps a part of the reason is the drop in the birth-rate. But, we argue other processes are at play and are much more relevant.  After all, the decline in birth-rate can always be addressed by more open immigration policies.  We routinely hear from our Taiwanese colleagues that, whereas it used to be common for the Taiwanese to go to top universities in the West when they were young, Taiwanese youth today are reluctant to study abroad.  In fact, now as educators in a Taiwanese university ourselves, we frequently see that even when they do go abroad, Taiwanese students prefer to go to mainland China. Of course no one can say that there is anything fundamentally wrong with such a choice. Yet, on balance, the differences between mainland China and Taiwan are discernibly less compared to the differences between Taiwan and other countries. As such, it is doubtful that the level of exposure to new experiences, new learning, and new knowledge that they could transfer back to Taiwan would be higher compared to going to other countries. That is, if they come back at all. It is not a secret that the kind of “brain circulation” that scholars such as AnnaLee Saxenian documented in the past in relation to Taiwanese diaspora (e.g., those that circulate between Silicon Valley and Hsinchu) has been gradually atrophying. These is not simply subjects for dry academic debate; they have serious implications for the future vibrancy of Taiwan’s economy and society.

Undoubtedly, the restrictive policies have been effective in controlling the spread of coronavirus. Taiwan attained the status of a virus-free haven as well as the ability to restart the economy much sooner than most countries. However, such measures, which are being carried out arbitrarily and largely without dissent, can easily become an institutional norm. So far, there is no sunset clause attached to these policies, and they may pave a path towards non-progressive, insular chains of institutional processes. No country has been spared from the uncertainties precipitated by the current pandemic. Yet, policy responses do not have to be homogeneous. Taiwan, as the beacon of liberal democracy in Asia, has the opportunity—and, in our opinion, the capacity—to configure a contrary path in this time of great maelstrom. It needs to adopt a more open-door, “compassionate” policy, which can be instrumental in attracting promising talented individuals—including those disenchanted by restrictive policies across the globe, or those rendered redundant in their own national economies.

As it readies for a post-pandemic society and economy, Taiwan is at a critical juncture. Can this be a new window of opportunity for Taiwan to stand out as a policy and economy of hope, compassion, and resiliency? Or will Taiwan choose to fall into a vicious cycle of becoming increasingly insular?

Kyoung M. Shin is an Associate Professor at the Institute of Technology Management, National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan.

Chan-Yuan Wong is an Associate Professor at the Institute of Technology Management, National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan.

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