Chen Chi-chuan was grateful when his hotel near the epicenter of the China coronavirus outbreak offered him three free meals a day, from rice porridge breakfasts to specially prepared vegetarian dinners, while he remains barred from leaving China to return to Taiwan.
But after nearly a month in the same room at the state-owned Vienna International Hotel in the city of Shiyan, a six-hour drive from the outbreak epicenter of Wuhan, his patience for China is running thin.
For the past two years China has tried to win the affections of Taiwanese citizens by enticing them to China for work and investment. China’s economy is growing faster and Taiwanese can earn more in China in professional posts.
But aggravation is mounting among the nearly 1,000 visitors, investors and workers from Taiwan stuck behind closed doors this month in the disease outbreak zone.
The stranded Taiwanese say they notice a slew of infuriating differences in China. They cite state television newscasts thin on specifics, controlled internet access, lack of adequate medications, a ban on going outside and their being blocked from flying home from the outbreak zone as Americans and Europeans have done.
They can’t leave, they have been told, because of disputes between Beijing and Taipei on how to arrange charter flights.
Chen, a 51-year-old electrician and pipe installation contractor, needs to refill five anti-cholesterol prescriptions for a long-term heart condition. He has asked relatives in Taiwan to mail the drugs to him because he has no access to them in China.
He suspects he’s receiving incomplete news about the disease formally called COVID-19 even though he is quarantined within the outbreak zone. The Chinese TV channels he watches in his room carry only state-controlled information that he worries might downplay seriousness of the outbreak. The Chinese internet is no better, he says.
“Chinese TV is really boring, and the media reports are not as free and open as they are in Taiwan.” Chen said via China’s state-monitored WeChat social media app. “We are really restless in here, so our moods get pretty bad.”
He and his wife, 48, traveled to China last month to visit her relatives. Now they watch televised dramas all day in their room with two single beds. A hotel staffer would block any effort to leave the room. Everyone in the hotel is confined to their rooms until further notice, he said. They are not supposed to use the lobby or the piano bar; to mix with others would risk spreading the illness. They see police officers on the street from their 24th-floor window.
Liu Ruo-yu, 40, also worries that she is receiving insufficient information. She arrived with her two children on Jan. 22 to visit her parents in Huangshi City, adjacent to Wuhan, and now is not allowed to walk through the apartment door except every three days to receive food deliveries within the compound of the seven-story apartment block. Once she saw posted signs that said four people in the compound have caught the virus. She doesn’t know who they are or where they went.
“I’m really nervous,” she said.
Liu is confined to a three-bedroom apartment with her 12-year-old son, 14-year-old daughter, her parents, her brother and his 2-year-old. It’s crowded, straining people’s patience at times.
Liu, a naturalized Taiwan citizen through marriage, has joined a social media group with 200 other Taiwanese quarantined in or near Wuhan since Jan. 25. That day was Lunar New Year, a major Chinese holiday and the reason she went back to visit. Her husband, a teacher, remained behind.
“The city closure is stricter every day,” she said last Tuesday via WeChat.
Her children can only play video games much of the day. And they don’t like the food. “They’re just coping with it,” she said.
China feeds and houses the stranded Taiwanese, said Chung Chin-ming, who is chairman of the Chinese Cross-Strait Marriage Coordination Assn. in Taipei and part of a protest group urging the Taiwanese government to help people come home. But his stranded countrymen and women “are getting restless, and I’m sure that’s a problem,” he said.
Taiwan’s government will take back its citizens if they stay in quarantine on the island for 14 days.
But the only Taiwan-bound charter flight to date left on Feb. 4. Three of the 247 people who boarded the plane were not on a list that Taiwan gave to the Chinese authorities, and one tested positive for the virus. Before any more charters can leave, the Taiwan government’s Mainland Affairs Council wants China to first reach agreement with Taiwan on which passengers — for example the elderly or people with chronic health problems — should have higher priority to return. Chinese officials have challenged whether certain people on the lists should be allowed to leave first.
China claims sovereignty over Taiwan despite the island’s self-rule for more than 70 years and insists that the two sides will eventually unify.
Consequently, Chinese officials pay extra attention because of the potential for a “public relations nightmare,” said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.
In 2018 the Chinese government began offering Taiwanese citizens dozens of work, study and investment incentives, as a way to interest them in eventual unification. Younger Taiwanese entertainers, tech professionals and managers in multinational firms have moved to the mainland for wages that employment consultancy ManpowerGroup says average 1.2 to 1.3 times higher than at home, prompting Taiwan’s government to respond with its own incentives for locals to stay.
Hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese citizens were living in China as of last year.
“From the mainland [Chinese] government perspective, they have every reason to treat these people with the best conditions they can offer, because they want to buy people’s hearts and minds in Taiwan,” Sun said.
But the ongoing quarantine angers the 1,000 Taiwanese who ventured to Hubei province as late as mid-January for travel, Lunar New Year family reunions and visits to work-related facilities, including factories.
Communication between the two governments is difficult because China cut off high-level dialogue with Taiwan in 2016 after a pro-independence party president took office in Taipei. Government polls in Taiwan last year showed Taiwanese continue to oppose unification with China.
Now neither side wants to make the other look good, Sun said.
“As soon as I open my eyes every morning, I check for news,” Liu said. “But every time it’s just, ‘We’re arranging things, we’re arranging things.’ The two sides are kicking us back and forth. I can’t stand it.”
Jennings is a special correspondent.