Dispute leaves Taiwanese stuck in locked-down Chinese cities
TAIPEI – Beauty salon operator Shelly Chen flew from Taiwan to her hometown in China last month to see her aging parents for the Lunar New Year holiday. Two days later, their city in the heart of a new virus outbreak was locked down to stop the fast-spreading infection.
At first, Chen didn’t leave her parents’ house in Huanggang because she didn’t want to get sick and be barred from boarding a charter flight home. She assumed a government-organized plane would evacuate her the same way hundreds of Americans, Europeans, Japanese and others were flown out early on.
A month later, she is still there, with flights to Taiwan bottled up in the perennial tug-of-war between China and the self-governing island that China claims as its territory. Her salon in Taipei, the Taiwanese capital, has lost about $3,000 because of her absence, she said, and she worries how her two daughters will fare as they return to middle and high school this week with no one to pay tuition or give moral support.
“My daughters keep asking me when Mom is coming back. I don’t know what to say, and the most important thing a parent can give a child is her company,” said Chen, a 40-year-old single mother. She gave only an English first name she uses because she feared being trolled on social media for her comments. “I think (the governments) should use less politics and be more humanitarian,” she said.
About 1,000 Taiwanese are caught up in the lockdown of about 60 million people in Hubei province because their government cannot agree with China on the arrangements for charter flights home.
Taiwan has asked China to step up health checks and approve the names of passengers after the only charter so far on Feb. 4 brought back an unlisted passenger who was infected. “The hinderer is China, not Taiwan,” Taiwanese Premier Su Tseng-chang said last week.
China has said that Taiwan is “using all kinds of excuses to obstruct and delay” the flights.
“We just have confrontation, not cooperation,” said Chao Chien-min, dean of social sciences at Chinese Culture University in Taipei. Taiwan's government “can blame mainland China, but can’t solve the problem."
Chen Chi-chuan, a Taiwanese electrical and plumbing contractor, has been trapped with his wife in a 24th-floor hotel room for four weeks. They are not allowed out except to get meals left on a chair outside their door by staff who knock and leave to avoid any contact that could risk infection.
The couple was ordered to go to the hotel in Shiyan, a Hubei city that was locked down as they were wrapping up a visit to see his wife's parents. Marriages between Taiwanese and mainland Chinese are common and both sides see Lunar New Year as a time for family reunions.
They pay 165 yuan ($25) a night, three meals included, and wash their clothes by hand in the bathroom. “We just watch TV programs, to hear some sort of sound, otherwise it’s boring,” the 51-year-old Chen said.
He is not related to Shelly Chen, the hair salon franchisee. Both spoke with The Associated Press via video on a messaging app.
Chen Chi-chuan worries about his business too. “I’m going to be fined, and there’s contract breach fees,” said Chen, a resident of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan. “Plus, I’ve got to come up with payment for my workers.”
His five prescription medications for a heart condition have run out, and a shipment he requested from relatives in Taiwan hasn’t arrived. He constantly checks groups he belongs to on WeChat, a popular Chinese social media platform, for updates on possible flights.
“Taiwan is always providing info and changing it but they haven’t progressed in saying when, just telling us to patiently wait," he said. “They’ve been saying to wait since Feb. 5. I can’t stand this — I’m almost out of money.”
Taiwan faces unique barriers to arranging flights, said Alexander Huang, a strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. Negotiations have fallen to special appointees from two semi-governmental bodies, not the governments themselves, he noted.
“Probably there are people in Taiwan, especially in politics, who want to show other countries we evacuated our own citizens just like you, and that’s exactly what China cannot swallow,” he said.
Conversely, China might agree to flights only if there’s a way to “teach Taiwan a lesson,” he said.
"This is an almost unresolvable challenge for Taiwan," Huang said.
From the rooftop of her parents’ house, Shelly Chen, the hair salon operator, sees empty, dusty streets void of the usual tangle of parked cars and people on their way to work. Residents are only allowed out every three days to get groceries, based on preorders that are rationed to prevent hoarding.
She can see a blue-roofed Ministry of Civil Affairs shack across the street, whose occupants would tell her to go back inside if she tried to leave.
“The psychological pressure is huge,” she said. “The whole night last night my head hurt and I didn’t sleep. I cry every day. I’ll tell you, I’ve given up hope.”
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