How Taiwan differs from China after pandemic missteps

Mistakes during Covid-19 brought election losses for Taiwan’s ruling party. The party leader accepted the people’s judgment with humility.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (left) and a colleague bow Nov. 26 after she announced she has resigned as Democratic Progressive Party chair to take responsibility for the party's performance in the local elections.

Last weekend, when protesters across China called on Communist Party leader Xi Jinping to step down over his strict “zero-COVID” policies, just 100 miles away in Taiwan, the leader of the island nation’s ruling party did just that. On Saturday evening, President Tsai Ing-wen resigned as head of the Democratic Progressive Party following the party’s major defeat in local elections.

“We humbly accept ... the decision of the people of Taiwan,” Ms. Tsai wrote on Facebook. She’ll remain president until the end of her second term in 2024. In a 2020 national election, she won by a landslide.

One key reason for the party’s defeat in the city and county races was Ms. Tsai’s fumbled response to a surge in COVID-19 cases earlier this year. Also, the government faced controversy over its handling of vaccines after an initial success against the pandemic in 2020.

In China, the official response to public anger over COVID-19 policies – especially citywide lockdowns – has been a severe police crackdown. In sharp contrast, similar discontent in Taiwan has been peacefully channeled through a thriving democracy, resulting in victories for the main opposition party, the Chinese Nationalist Party, also known as KMT. Even the former top official in the fight against the pandemic, Chen Shih-chung, lost in his bid to become mayor of the capital, Taipei.

China touts its authoritarian model as best for the world. Yet Ms. Tsai’s reaction to her party’s loss shows a key quality rarely evoked in a dictatorship. Just after her election in 2016, her first instruction to her party and supporters was to “be humble and be more humble.”

She needed it herself. In June last year, after Taiwan saw a surge in the pandemic, Ms. Tsai said, “As your president, I want to take this opportunity to convey my deepest sorrow and apologies.”

Elected leaders – unlike in China – must accept either the admiration or admonishment of voters. “Humble human beings feel themselves to be dwellers on earth (the word humility derives from humus),” wrote John Keane, professor of politics at the University of Sydney, after Ms. Tsai’s 2016 speech.

“They know they do not know everything; they are well aware they are not God, or a minor deity,” he wrote in The Conversation.

The protesters in China have said as much.

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