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Strained Political Relations Strand Nearly 1,000 Taiwanese in China’s Coronavirus Outbreak Zone

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen speaks about the coronavirus situation in Taiwan, during a news conference at the Centers for Disease Control in Taipei, Taiwan February 7, 2020.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen speaks about the coronavirus situation in Taiwan, during a news conference at the Centers for Disease Control in Taipei, Taiwan February 7, 2020.

Alice Liu of Taipei flew to her old homeland, China, last month for an overdue family visit and is now literally blocked from leaving her parents’ apartment. The Chinese government has shut off entries and exits into their city bordering Wuhan to stop the spread of a deadly coronavirus that originated there.

The mother of two can’t even go downstairs to use a park in the building yard. Four people in their compound have caught the coronavirus, according to notices posted outside their flat.

The 40-year-old owner of a Taipei beauty salon wants to get on a charter flight of the type that has taken Americans, Europeans and Japanese home from Wuhan’s surrounding Hubei province, the virus outbreak’s origin. “We’re all healthy at the moment,” Liu said in an interview Tuesday by social media. “I’m afraid, really afraid, of being infected, because the rate of infection is too strong.”

But Taiwan and China don’t get along. That strains communications and makes charter flights hard to arrange. For that reason, Liu, her 12 and 14 year old children, and some 1,000 other Taiwanese citizens have been stranded indefinitely in apartments and hotel rooms in the outbreak zone, unable to meet work or study commitments.

“It’s really horrible,” said Liu, who checks the news and her social media groups for updates as soon as she opens her eyes each morning. “We’ve gotten to a dead end. I think we’ve reached a point of desperation.”

Communication broke down after the only Taiwan-bound charter flight to date left on February 4 with 247 passengers. Three on board were not on a passenger list that Taiwan gave to Chinese authorities and one tested positive for the virus, the government-backed Central News Agency in Taipei reported.

The Taiwan government's Mainland Affairs Council now wants China to step up quarantine work and agree with Taiwan on the names of people on “priority” lists for any future return charters, a council media liaison said Friday.

Chinese officials have challenged the lists. Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office accused Taiwan in a statement February 12 of “using all kinds of excuses to obstruct and delay” flights.

China sees self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory rather than a country. The Communist leadership cut off formal dialogue with Taiwan in 2016 after a pro-independence party president took office in Taipei. Intermarriages are common, however, and those families often travel back to China for visits with relatives to celebrate the Lunar New Year, which fell on January 25.

Under friendlier governments, charter planes could be arranged “very quickly,” said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center research organization in Washington. Now, she said, each side is using “technicalities” to blame the other and it’s not always clear which people or agencies are supposed to do the negotiating.

“To begin with, the fact that the official communications channel is blocked already makes this very difficult,” Sun said. “They don’t trust each other. They don’t want to work with each other and they don’t want to make the other side look good.”

About 100 family members of people stuck in Hubei province protested Friday outside the Mainland Affairs Council headquarters in Taipei. They donned facemasks and wave signs that read “I want to return home.”

Families are nervous about missing work and school for their children, who are due back in class February 25, said protester Chung Chin-ming, chairman of the Chinese Cross-Strait Marriage Coordination Association in Taipei.

Liu’s fifth-grade son and seventh-grade daughter are no exceptions. Liu herself owes rent on her salon space by February 20 and says she needs to pay it herself. “I’m getting really antsy,” she said. All day at her parents’ apartment, she said, the three just go “from bedroom to living room, living room to bedroom” and use their mobile phones.

Tourists, workers and business people in China as well as family members are among the people stranded.

Taiwanese contract electrician Chen Chi-chuan is moored in a Hubei province hotel room six hours from Wuhan. He and his wife were seeing her relatives nearby when the city closed down. They pay $23.55 (165 yuan ) per night and the hotel places three free meals a day outside their hotel room door.

Chen stands to lose projects in his Taiwan hometown, Kaohsiung, and pay contract violation fees. He has no aides who can stand in for him.

“We are not sick people,” he said in a social media interview Tuesday. “We don’ t have viruses on our bodies. We’re normal people. Less politicking, less rhetoric, receive us back in Taiwan, that would be best.”

Chinese authorities have stepped up care for the stranded Taiwanese, the Taiwan Affairs Office statement says.

The viral respiratory disease, called COVID-19, had sickened some 75,000 people and killed more than 2,000 as of Tuesday.