Taiwan’s unlikely path to public trust provides lessons for the US

Date: September 15, 2020
Rorry Daniels

Editor's Note: 

Taiwan has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention for its COVID-19 response, but the seeds of its success were sown long before the pandemic outbreak. What the U.S. needs to develop now is not just “herd immunity” but what Taiwan’s Minister Audrey Tang calls “nerd immunity.” This piece is part of the Taiwan-U.S. Quarterly Analysis series, which features the original writings of experts from the United States and Taiwan, with the goal of providing a range of perspectives on developments relating to Taiwan.

As the world continues to struggle with managing the myriad challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic — public health, economic, socio-political — Taiwan’s response has stood out as a model of excellence. Contributing factors well-covered in the media include an early and forceful response and the integration of tech tools with new rules and procedures. But while Taiwan’s policy decision making process since January 2020 is a commendable feature of its response, the roots of its success in implementing those decisions were in the making for years.

Taiwan was suffering from extremely low public trust in government when President Tsai Ing-Wen came to power in 2016, due to complaints manifested in the Sunflower Movement opposing the Ma Ying-jeou administration’s more opaque approach to managing cross-Strait relations. The movement’s occupation of the Legislative Yuan for more than three weeks in 2014 and its success in pausing the cross-Strait trade services agreement buoyed Tsai’s electoral victory in 2016 and gave new energy to citizen participation in politics, including the formation of new political parties.

However, that election was no panacea: Increased citizen participation did not lead to a bipartisan reconciliation between the two major parties, nor did a change in political power ease cross-Strait tensions. In fact, quite the opposite — identities hardened on both partisan extremes (although the number of non-partisan moderates grew) and cross-Strait exchanges were increasingly shut down as Beijing sought to, in its view, deter Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) from taking further steps toward de jure independence.

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