Taiwanese officials sent more formal requests through various organizations, and still, nothing.
Then on Sunday, Chen finally heard — through Chinese state media — that a first batch of Taiwanese, about 200 of the 500 stranded in Wuhan, would return via a Chinese charter plane. He said his office was not informed about the development and was given scant details about who would be on board.
“China still focuses on unilateralism when dealing with Taiwan’s affairs, but this time, we aren’t complaining. This is an issue of urgency,” Chen said.
When Wuhan went into lockdown on Jan. 23 to control the spread of the coronavirus, thousands of foreigners were stranded. They included business people on short visits, students from elsewhere in Asia on scholarships at Wuhan University, American English-language teachers, and migrant workers in glass, auto and steel factories.
Their fate — how quickly they have been able to return home, how susceptible they have become to the virus and how their mental health has fared — has depended a great deal on their respective governments’ political relationships with China. With the outbreak sickening more than 20,000 and killing more than 420, critics have accused China of playing politics with people’s lives and of using its economic sway to save face and bolster its standing.
The predicament is most apparent in the case of Taiwan, which has an especially tense relationship with Beijing over disputed interpretations of the island’s status. The Chinese Communist Party considers the self-ruled democracy to be part of “one China” under Beijing’s authority.
But Taiwan says it is not and never has been part of the People’s Republic. Its government has fought back against Taiwan’s exclusion from international organizations, in particular the World Health Organization.
Taiwanese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou, speaking in Taipei on Tuesday, said Taiwan has received very limited information from the WHO, and she appealed to the body to include Taiwan’s officials in meetings. China, however, says it sufficiently represents Taiwan at the WHO.
“Internationally, the Chinese government, rudely and unreasonably, has been pressuring Taiwan and putting political considerations above human health,” Ou said. “This, basically, is extremely vile.”
China and the WHO say that Taiwan is getting the information it needs. Beijing has accused President Tsai Ing-wen, who won reelection last month, and her ruling Democratic Progessive Party of playing politics.
J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, said Beijing’s approach has been a hallmark of the way the Chinese Communist Party behaves.
“It never misses an opportunity to assail the Tsai administration and to split Taiwanese society,” he said. “Such crass behavior in a time of crisis can easily backfire and further alienate the Taiwanese public.”
Other regional leaders with strong ties to China could pay politically for perceptions that they have protected Beijing’s sensitivities rather than their citizens. Before Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte expanded a travel ban on people from Hubei province to include all of mainland China on Sunday, critics accused him of backing his allies in Beijing over the safety of Filipinos.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has been criticized for his decision not to evacuate about 500 Pakistani students and their families from Wuhan. The students have taken to social media and written to their officials, pleading for help and begging to go home. India and Bangladesh, meanwhile, have airlifted their citizens out of China.
Pakistan resumed flights to and from China on Monday, bucking a global trend of tightening travel restrictions. Explaining the decision to leave their citizens in Hubei province, Pakistani officials said China has better medical facilities to treat the outbreak.
At least four Pakistanis in Wuhan have tested positive for coronavirus.
“The Pakistani people are standing firmly with their Chinese brethren,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Monday, while condemning the United States for not providing “substantive help” to the Chinese side and for being among the first to withdraw consulate staff members from Wuhan.
And then there is Cambodian leader Hun Sen, who has not only refused to evacuate his citizens from Wuhan but has pledged to visit the virus-stricken city if Chinese officials allow it. The 67-year-old is Asia’s longest-ruling leader, and with China’s backing, he has undermined democracy and cemented one-party rule in his country.
“Why would Hun Sen not dare to go to Wuhan to visit Cambodian students,” he said at a summit in Seoul, referring to himself in the third person. He has declined to impose travel restrictions on visitors and flights from mainland China, saying it would “destroy ties with China.”
Hun Sen’s stance has left Phon Malis, a 20-year-old pharmacy student at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, feeling scared and isolated. One of about two dozen Cambodian students in Wuhan, she arrived in August, hopeful that the opportunity would chart a new future for her once she returned home.
Instead, a nightmarish situation began for her and other Cambodians when the city was locked down, leaving them with scarcely any food and confined to a tiny dormitory. It especially hurt, she said, to see friends from Thailand and Myanmar leave on chartered planes aided by their governments.
“When I heard our prime minister say such things, I feel so small and insignificant, like we don’t have any value,” Phon Malis said. “I just want to reunite with my family, and go home.”
Tiffany Liang in Hong Kong and Meta Kong in Bonn, Germany, contributed to this report.