Wuhan virus: Taiwan's decision to temporarily halt mask exports stirs controversy at home

A face mask production line at the Motex Healthcare Corp in Changhua, Taiwan, on Jan 28, 2020.
A face mask production line at the Motex Healthcare Corp in Changhua, Taiwan, on Jan 28, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TAIPEI - A decision by the Taiwanese authorities to impose a month-long halt on exports of medical-grade face masks has sparked a controversy on the island.

Some Taiwanese celebrities criticised the decision, saying that the island's government should show more empathy towards those hit by the coronavirus outbreak in China. But they were slammed on social media for the criticism.

Face mask sales have risen tenfold since the outbreak of the Wuhan virus, with many retailers running out of masks in the past two weeks.

The announcement of Taiwan's eighth confirmed case of an infected person on Tuesday (Jan 28) has no doubt further fuelled demand.

The government, led by Premier Su Tseng-chang, in January on a number of occasions sought to reassure Taiwanese about the supply of face masks. But the spike in infections everywhere, coupled with the pause in manufacturing for Chinese New Year, led Mr Su on Jan 24 to announce the temporary halt in exports to ensure enough supplies on the island.

"Please don't panic and stock up. There are enough masks in Taiwan for everyone," he said.

But Chinese netizens were up in arms over the "politicised" decision, with many complaining on Weibo about how "Taiwan wants (them) to die".

A few Taiwanese celebrities agreed. Singer Christine Fan Wei-chi blasted Mr Su on her personal Facebook page, denouncing him as "inhuman" and a "thug", and television presenter Dee Hsu said on Weibo that people should help one another.

"Hate is more awful than a virus," she said, while expressing support for her sister, actress Barbie Hsu, who has been buying masks in Japan to donate to Wuhan residents.

But the celebrities found themselves on the receiving end of a backlash, with many social media users saying they cared more about China because of their ties to the mainland. Barbie Hsu's husband is Chinese entrepreneur Wang Xiaofei, who praised her mask donation work on Weibo, and Ms Fan has often performed in China, where she has 47 million followers on Weibo.

One comment posted on Ms Fan's Facebook page said: "Taiwanese people's lives are not important enough for you?" A comment posted on Dee Hsu's Weibo account read: "I really admire you, but I hope you can understand we need to protect ourselves before we can do that for others."

 
 
 

Mr Su too defended his policy, saying: "To save others, we must save our own first."

Many Taiwanese also posted appreciative comments on Mr Su's official Instagram and Facebook accounts.

"It's great to have a government that actually does good work!", one said, while others expressed gratitude for the government's work in preventing the virus from spreading rapidly.

Amid the backlash, Ms Fan on Tuesday posted an apology for "using emotional words".