The Streisand Effect, referring to “the act of trying to suppress information but simply making it more widespread as a result,” was coined in 2005. The term is named after singer Barbara Streisand because in 2003, Streisand sued photographer Kenneth Adelman for taking a photo of her home in Malibu while he was documenting California’s coast. Apparently, before the lawsuit was filed, the photograph had been only downloaded six times. Instead of leaving well enough alone, Streisand launched a cultural zeitgeist with her lawsuit. The explosion of social media since the early 2000s has made the Streisand Effect seem like a daily occurrence: Beyoncé, Pippa Middleton, and Tom Cruise have all fallen victim of trying to suppress something only for it to go viral.
Now, the Effect has moved into the realm of geopolitics. For decades, China has sought to suppress Taiwan’s image around the globe by keeping it out of international organizations, poaching its diplomatic allies, pressuring foreign companies to reclassify Taiwan as a part of China, and pushing the envelope militarily at air and sea. The situation almost has become comical during the continuing COVID-19 global pandemic. China’s move to keep Taiwan out of the spotlight—mainly through the World Health Organization’s (WHO) continued snubbing of the country—has only served to amplify Taiwan as a successful case study against the virus. Instead of successfully pushing Taiwan into the shadows, China is having its own Streisand Effect moment.
Taiwan announced its first confirmed coronavirus case on January 21. As of April 13, Taiwan has 388 cases, with only six deaths. The first confirmed case in the United States was announced on January 20. In that same time period, U.S. cases number over 500,000, with over 22,000 deaths. A more appropriate comparison to Taiwan population-wise would be Australia since both countries have over 23 million citizens. Australia confirmed its first case on January 25, and now has over 6,000 cases with 61 deaths. The factors that made Taiwan so successful in containing the virus stem from memories of the 2003 SARS epidemic. This time around, Taiwan was prepared and instituted sweeping responses, including banning the export of, ramping up production of, and rationing of medical masks; stopping flights to and from China; screening passengers; conducting regular public press conferences, often led by Vice President Chen Chien-jen, who is also an epidemiologist and led the 2003 SARS government response; and cooperating with civil society leaders. The government enforced strict quarantine measures for those entering Taiwan from abroad when it became clear that travelers were importing cases from the West. The government worked with the people, kept them informed, and most importantly, did not gaslight the population about the nature of the threat. These mechanisms make Taiwan a glowing example in the global pandemic response—which Beijing views as a threat to its goals to squeeze Taiwan into submission.
Since Taiwan responded so decisively in the early days of the outbreak, it is now able to offer greater assistance to Western countries now struggling with the virus. It is sending millions of masks and other personal protective equipment to the United States and Europe at a time when governors, mayors, and healthcare workers across the country take to television to complain about massive shortages.
Despite its stellar response and goodwill campaign, Taiwan has been curtailed by the WHO. The WHO has claimed that it is working with Taiwan and its government, but that is not really the case. According Legislator Wang Ting-yu, Taiwan applied to attend 187 WHO technical meetings between 2009 and 2019, but only was allowed to attend 57. Since Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, it is not granted permission to attend every meeting—it must ask permission to attend as a guest/observer, which means that China must give the WHO, other any other UN-affiliated organization, its blessing to allow Taiwan’s presence. Most importantly, Taiwan was the first country to ask the WHO whether or not the virus could be transmitted human-to-human on December 31. The WHO ignored Taiwan’s question. On January 12 (the day after Taiwan’s presidential election), the WHO said that there was no clear evidence, and then on January 20, China confirmed human-to-human transmission—almost one month after Taiwan first brought up the very important question.
In late March, perhaps the most egregious and emblematic example of how the WHO minimizes Taiwan was made public. A reporter for RTHK interviewed Bruce Aylward, a Senior Advisor to the Director-General of the WHO. During the interview, whenever Taiwan comes up, Aylward pretends that he couldn’t hear the question. It got so bad that he actually ends the Skype interview, pretending to have a poor connection. The reporter called him back, and Aylward continues to deflect when asked about Taiwan.
‼️WOW‼️ Bruce Aylward/@WHO did an interview with HK’s @rthk_news & when asked about #Taiwan he pretended not to hear the question. The journalist asks again & he hangs up!
She calls back & he said “Well, we’ve already talked about China.”
The video interview went viral because it showed the embarrassing lengths that the WHO goes to in order to avoid offending China. Throughout the crisis, the WHO has been extremely laudatory of China’s response and transparency to the virus outbreak—despite obvious early cover-ups.
Even though Beijing has tried to erase Taiwan from the COVID-19 conversation, the world is paying attention. Bill Gates, when interviewed on Fox News, pointed to Taiwan’s early testing and extensive procedures, and explained that because of testing, it will not experience as much of an economic hit as other countries. American politicians from both sides of the aisle also highlight Taiwan as a country to emulate. European politicians have joined the call for Taiwan’s inclusion in the WHO. Googling Taiwan brings up positive search results.
No matter how much China seeks to push Taiwan down, Taiwan continues to show its resilience. It has not been erased.
To bring things back full circle, on April 5, Barbara Streisand herself waded into the debate on Twitter. She quoted a video clip from a Democracy Now interview: “Taiwan, despite being just 100 miles from mainland China with regular flights to and from Wuhan, has successfully staved off the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. The country has so far seen five deaths and just under 350 confirmed cases, and most schools and businesses remain open.” President Tsai and Foreign Minister Joseph Wu both rushed to thank Ms. Streisand for her speaking out for Taiwan. It’s only a matter of time before we find out how many degrees Taiwan is separated from Kevin Bacon.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.