Taiwan’s foreign minister has backed China’s anti-Covid protesters but also expressed concerns that Beijing could seek to scapegoat Taiwan if demonstrations restarted.
Joseph Wu said Taiwan stood alongside other democracies in calling for China to “respect basic human rights” regarding the extraordinary protests that spread across China last week and the swift police response to close in on those involved.
“When the people’s livelihood is restricted or people’s lives are made inconvenient because of the government policies, I think it is the right for the people to stand up and say that they demand some basic rights,” Wu told the Guardian in an exclusive interview.
“Freedom of expression, freedom of speech, is a basic right, and we certainly hope the Chinese government will observe that kind of basic right.”
However, Wu said Taiwan had paid “close attention” to the rallies to see how they would “evolve” and expressed an “additional concern” that they could restart.
“We are always concerned that the Chinese government might try to create an external crisis to divert domestic attention,” said Wu. “We are concerned that the Chinese government will aim at Taiwan, will accuse Taiwan of being the cause for the unrest in China.
“The government seems to be willing to moderate some of its measures,” said Wu. “So in the future, these might cause more demonstrations among the Chinese people because they think that when there are major grievances, this is probably a very effective way of changing the government policy.”
Last week saw some specific mentions of Taiwan amid claims of foreign involvement in China’s protests, but none from official Chinese voices. One communication from a residential building manager in Guangzhou, seen by the Guardian, blamed the unrest of American and Taiwanese “trolls”, and there were sporadic mentions on social media, suggesting some acceptance of the claim.
Communist party (CCP) disinformation campaigns and cognitive warfare are a major element of Beijing’s attempts to destabilise Taiwanese government and society, and are of increasing concern to the island’s government.
There is no evidence the protests have been incited by foreign forces. The accusation was ridiculed by protesters attending at least one rally, with a widely shared clip showing a man questioning how they could be communicating with foreign forces when they could not connect to foreign internet services.
China’s government appears to have largely shut down the protests, the most significant acts of protest there since the Tiananmen rallies in 1989, which were brutally crushed by the military. Authorities have offered a carrot-and-stick response of eased restrictions for the broader population alongside a police crackdown on protesters and citizens with illegal VPNs and messaging apps.
Major cities have lifted restrictions, reduced testing requirements, and the government has shifted its official messaging to emphasise the lower severity of Omicron. However there are concerns about the large outbreak of Covid-19 that could be yet to come, if China’s trajectory follows that of other countries that abandoned zero-Covid.
Taiwan also operated what was essentially a zero-Covid response for most of the pandemic. It did not impose lockdowns, but maintained closed borders and strict quarantine requirements for positive cases and their contacts, with the aim of eliminating outbreaks. Its success kept death rates low, but also meant there was very little natural immunity when a “tsunami” of the highly transmissible Omicron variant hit. Like China’s now, Taiwan’s elderly population was also vastly undervaccinated, and many died when the virus spread.
Asked what advice Taiwan could offer China, Wu said going through the first wave was “not easy”. He noted China’s poor vaccination rates and the lower effectiveness of China’s domestically produced vaccines.
“Under these kinds of circumstances, the Chinese government, in my opinion, is caught in a dilemma,” he said, but advised China against returning to lockdowns.
“On the one hand, they understand that the lockdowns will cause their economic slowdown and inconveniences of the people, and may cause resentment of the regular Chinese people. But on the other hand, if they open up without proper vaccines to fight regular people, they are going to be caught in a major disease crisis.”