On Feb. 3, the first charter jet sent to evacuate Taiwanese businessmen stranded in Wuhan was found to have someone on board infected with the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) as well as dozens of "uninvited" passengers believed to be the Chinese spouses of Taiwanese businessmen instead of the elderly, children, and those with medical emergencies, leading to merely half an evacuation.
A backlash mounted on the island as the government officials involved in the operation and the public were surprised to learn that those in need had not returned on the jet and that a man confirmed to be infected had arrived without the knowledge of Taiwanese authorities, putting other passengers and Taiwanese as a whole at risk.
China's Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) spokesman Ma Xiaoguang (馬曉光) criticized the Taiwanese government four days later, accusing it of overreacting and of being politically motivated when it blocked subsequent flights from returning the remaining stranded Taiwanese. His remarks coincide with a popular petition launched by professional medical workers calling for the government to carefully select and schedule passengers on subsequent charter jets before they board the planes.
Let's hear what those on the front line have to say. A petition launched by medical professionals titled "Medical workers supporting the Taiwan government's insistence on medical defense" urges the authorities to allow only citizens to board evacuation jets, as many other countries do, and to limit the number of flights to a certain period of time, as Taiwan is not able to deal with every compatriot in Wuhan coming back all at once.
As the petition points out, there are only 1,100 beds available in Taiwan's isolated negative-pressure wards and shelters at the moment, and a reckless evacuation would be a gargantuan burden on medical workers given the limited manpower and medical facilities.
The petition garnered more than a million signatures across the country in less than a week amid the ongoing virus scare and the populace's panic hoarding of masks to protect themselves from person-to-person transmission. In a manner of speaking, the government's suspension of evacuations is backed up with overwhelming support from its people, while Beijing and the TAO have underestimated public sentiment.
Moreover, Hsu Cheng-wen (徐正文), the so-called coordinator of the first flight, is being viewed as guilty of increasing people's risk of infection by unilaterally arranging for dozens of unvetted passengers at the last minute. It wouldn't be a huge stretch of the imagination to associate that Chinese Communist Party-affiliated Taiwanese businessman with a conspiracy to bring fear and sickness into the country as a means of sabotage.
In the face of the wrath of the Taiwanese public, China's TAO has opted to keep itself ignorant of this sentiment, which only pushes the office further from its end goal of reunification with the island country. It is, in the end, unwittingly sabotaging itself in front of the Taiwanese people.
Or maybe we got the TAO and Beijing wrong. Could it be that the Taiwanese government is overreacting, or is Beijing underreacting?
This can be observed from its hasty construction of hospitals to accommodate people infected in Wuhan, the center of the deadly outbreak, and from these facilities concentration camp-like design that gathers the majority of their patients in the open rather than in the isolated negative-pressure wards required by Taiwan and other countries.
This episode exposes China's reckless attitude in addressing risks and combating epidemics. It has reportedly led to growing dissatisfaction and simmering anger within the country of 1.38 billion — a shattered trust that could derail China's social stability and, in the end, Xi Jinping's "Chinese Dream."