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Taiwan

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From Lock-Down to Whack-a-Mole

It’s wrong to say that there is no exit strategy from the anti-coronavirus lock-downs that have proliferated across the world. There is, and the first phase is to keep the lock-downs going long enough to bring new Covid-19 infections down to a manageable number. Maybe by June.

Then you start playing whack-a-mole until there is a vaccine (minimum 18 months). If there is no effective vaccine, then you have to keep doing it until your population has developed ‘herd immunity’ (two to four years for most places, but only if surviving the infection confers lasting immunity). But at least you can reopen most of your economy.

These are the best options left for the countries that missed the bus when the coronavirus first appeared three months ago – which is to say practically all of them, with the exception of the East Asian countries: China, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The most important (and startling) statistic of the current pandemic is that Americans are 120 times more likely to die of Covid-19 than Chinese citizens.

We know how many Chinese died with some precision, because the dying has stopped in China, at least for the moment. The total is 3,331, most of them in Wuhan or the surrounding province of Hubei. The only new cases now being reported in China are in citizens returning from abroad.

The predicted death toll from Covid-19 in the United States, according to no less an authority than President Donald Trump, is 100,000.

You may be sure that that is the lowest number Trump thinks he can get away with. His chief infectious disease adviser, Dr Anthony Fauci, actually said “looking at what we’re seeing now, I would say between 100,000 and 200,000 … deaths” on 29 March, but let’s stick with the lowball figure.

One hundred thousand American deaths is a toll thirty times higher than 3,331 Chinese deaths, but that still leaves one important factor out. The population of China is four times larger than that of the United States. So in proportion to its population, Covid-19 will kill Americans at 120 times the rate it killed Chinese people.

That is shockingly high, but the comparable rates for major European countries are just as bad. Italy and Spain have just passed the peak rate of deaths – the daily rate has been falling since last week – and will probably end up with around 20,000 deaths each. The United Kingdom is still climbing the curve, but will probably end up in the same place.

Each of these countries has about one-fifth the population of the United States, and is facing about one-fifth the number of deaths. If the American death toll climbs well above 100,000, then you can start blaming Trump for the excess deaths, but there is something more fundamental happening here.

All these countries only moved very late to act against the virus, so late that their only remaining option was lock-down. Whereas all the east Asian countries reacted at once.

China, where the coronavirus originated, was blind-sided by the wave of deaths in Wuhan, but as soon as the virus had been identified Beijing locked the city down, and soon after the whole country.

A week or two were lost to the Chinese regime’s denial and its reluctance to damage the economy, but the reaction was still fast enough. The lock-down worked, and most Chinese are now back to work.

South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong got the warning at the same time as everybody else. No country other than China needed to go into lock-down at that point, because the coronavirus had not yet gained a firm foothold in their populations.

The East Asian countries have some serious experience of pandemics, however, so they immediately started testing frantically to identify new clusters of infection, tracing all the contacts of the infected people, and isolating everybody involved to break the chains of infection.

These methods never detect all of those infected, and the ones that are missed will cause new clusters of infection to emerge a few weeks later, so this is a never-ending game of whack-a-mole which requires a small army of testers and contact tracers. But it keeps the death toll down and the economy open.

Western countries did not use the ample time they had to put a similar system in place. They didn’t even stock up on masks, ventilators and protective clothing. They let the infection spread so widely that only a long, full lock-down could contain it. Why? Arrogance, wishful thinking, and a fierce determination not to harm economic growth.

A great many unnecessary deaths later, when the remaining number of infections is down to Korean levels, Western countries will finally be able to reopen their economies and join the game of whack-a-mole. But by that time, of course, the pandemic will be rampaging through Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Latin America.

Back to normal is still a long way off.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“You may…figure”; and “Each…here”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Taiwan Election 2020

“Over the past few years, China’s diplomatic offensives, military coercion, interference and infiltration have continued unabated,” said Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen on New Year’s Day, as the January 11th election neared. “China’s objective is clear: to force Taiwan to compromise our sovereignty.” But every leader of her Democratic People’s Party (DPP) has always said that.

“Moreover, at the beginning of last year China’s President Xi Jinping proposed the one country, two systems model for Taiwan,” Tsai continued, as though it were some new horror. But every leader of Communist China since Deng Xiao-ping has promoted the one-country, two-system model. What’s new here?

What’s new is that a year ago Tsai Ing-wen was universally seen as doomed to lose this election, but now she’s expected to win it hands down – and the reason is that Hong Kong, the territory for which the one-country-two-systems formula was originally invented, has been engulfed by chaotic and increasingly violent protests against Beijing for the past seven months.

The protests are driven by the belief of most Hong Kongers that the mainland Chinese regime is cheating on that sacred formula. When Britain returned its Hong Kong colony to Beijing’s rule in 1997, the two parties agreed that, for fifty years, the prosperous city-state could keep its existing more-or-less democratic system, including free speech, independent courts, and the full panoply of human rights.

Taiwan was promised the same terms if only it would ‘reunite with the motherland’. But early last year, only 23 years into the 50-year deal, Beijing forced the Hong Kong government to introduce a law making it possible to extradite Hong Kongers to face trial in mainland courts. And Hong Kong, so peaceful for so long, blew up in Beijing’s face.

Chinese Communist courts have a 99.9% conviction rate and the police have a record of extorting confessions or manufacturing evidence. Hong Kongers saw the new law as a direct assault on their freedoms, and although the proposal was eventually dropped by a frightened HK government, the demonstrations have continued and intensified.

Now the protesters are demanding full democracy. They will never get that in Hong Kong, ‘two systems’ or not, because those ideas might then spread to the rest of China and undermine the Communist monopoly of power. Whereas the people of Taiwan have already had democracy for three decades, and they don’t want to lose it.

China is a monolithic, authoritarian surveillance state of 1.4 billion people, but just 130 km off its east coast 26 million Chinese people live in a society as democratic (and sometimes as turbulent) as Italy or the United States. Moreover, they have three times the per capita income of mainlanders. And the harder Beijing tries to gather Taiwan into the fold, the greater the support for Tsai’s pro-independence DPP.

Exactly one year ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned that Beijing “makes no promise to renounce the use of force and reserves the option of taking all necessary means” to achieve unification and implement “one country, two systems” in Taiwan. That was when Tsai began her electoral come-back: from thirty points behind the opposition Nationalist Party (KMT) then to twenty points ahead now.

The KMT was the ruling party that came out of the 1911 revolution that ended several thousand years of imperial rule in China. However, it lost a long civil war against the Communists in 1949, and at least a million of its senior members and its troops withdrew to Taiwan (which they ran as a dictatorship) to plan a comeback.

The KMT insisted it was still the legitimate government of all China, but the comeback never happened. By 1996, after a decade of reforms, it lost Taiwan’s first fully free election to the pro-independence DPP, and the two parties have alternated in power ever since.

The curious thing, however, is that neither party ever really comes down off the fence. The DPP never says outright that it would like to make Taiwan a separate and independent country. And the KMT never says that it would accept reunification under the ‘one-country, two-systems’ formula, just that it would like closer relations with the mainland.

That’s because the electorate would never vote for reunification with a Communist-ruled China, but Beijing would invade rather than allow Taiwan to declare independence. A recent opinion poll showed that 85% of all Taiwanese voters support either the status quo or a declaration of independence, while only 6% want reunification with China

There are other, mostly domestic issues in Taiwan politics, which is why the KMT sometimes wins, but whenever the main question is reunification with China the DPP wins easily. That’s why Tsai Ing-wen will win the election next Saturday: nobody in Taiwan can ignore what is happening in Hong Kong.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“The KMT…since”)

Target: Taiwan

3 January 2019

“Independence for Taiwan would only bring profound disaster to Taiwan,” said China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Wednesday, and he ought to know. He is the one who would make sure the disaster happened.

Speaking on the 40th anniversary of US diplomatic recognition of the Chinese People’s Republic, Xi said that Taiwan was “sacred territory” for Beijing. He would never tolerate “separatist activities” there: “We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means.”

Well now, that would be exciting, wouldn’t it? Start with Chinese air and missile strikes on Taiwan, presumably reciprocated by the Taiwanese forces. Probably no nukes, although China does have them, but the first major sea battle since the Second World War, followed by a Chinese assault landing on Taiwan involving several hundred thousand troops. Quite a lot of death and destruction, in fact.

No? That’s not what he meant? Okay, then, what did Xi mean by “all necessary means”? Harsh words and a trade embargo? Then why not say so? Is the Trump thing catching?

There is a peculiar ambiguity to Beijing’s official statements on Taiwan. On the one hand, nobody in the Communist regime is in a great rush to gather Taiwan back into the fold. It will happen eventually, they believe, and they can wait.

On the other hand, the regime’s credibility (such as it is) comes from only two sources: its nationalist posturing, and its ability to deliver rising living standards. With the latter asset rapidly depreciating – the Chinese economy is heading south – the nationalism becomes more important, so a bit of chest-beating is inevitable.

Many people will therefore discount Xi’s words as mere rhetoric that the Chinese Communist leader was obliged to use on a significant anniversary, but not a real threat to invade. After all, the deal made 40 years ago pretty much ruled out the use of force.

The US agreed in 1979 that there is only one China, and that it includes Taiwan. There just happened to be two rival Chinese governments at the time: the Communist one in Beijing that won the civil war in 1949 and has controlled mainland China ever since, and the previous Nationalist government that retreated to the island of Taiwan when it lost the war.

Both of these governments agree that there is only one China. In practice, the one in Taipei can never regain control of the mainland, but it claims to be the legitimate government of China, not of Taiwan. Almost everybody else, including the United States, agrees that there is only ‘one China’ and recognises the Communist regime in Beijing as legitimate.

The 1979 deal assumed that this conflict would be resolved peacefully at some unspecified future time, and Beijing made some helpful comments about how Taiwan could enjoy a special status if it reunited with the motherland: democracy, a free press, the rule of law – the same promises made to Hong Kong when Britain returned it to China in 1997. Then everybody settled down to wait for time to pass and the generations to roll over.

Beijing assumed that the Taiwanese would eventually see the light and rejoin the mainland. The Taiwanese assumed that Communist rule on the mainland would eventually either mellow or just collapse. Either way, we’ll all just get on with our lives in the meantime. It was a very sensible, moderate deal – but those assumptions proved to be wrong.

Communist rule in China has not collapsed, and Xi is the most powerful and authoritarian leader since Mao. Taiwan has not grown resigned to reunion with the ‘motherland’; on the contrary, a separatist Taiwanese nationalism has grown stronger with the years. At the moment, in fact, the party in power in Taipei is separatist, though it is careful not to say so explicitly.

It can never happen: China has 1.3 billion people, Taiwan has 23 million. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen takes positions that appeal to the local nationalist/separatists, but she’s never going to declare independence. Xi Jin-ping threatens bloody murder if she declares independence, but he knows that she will never actually do that.

What Xi is really trying to do with his fierce talk is to reinforce the anxiety many Taiwan voters feel about defying China too openly. They don’t want reunification, but they do want a quiet life. And his strategy is working: Tsai’s party lost badly in the recent local elections, and may be voted out of power in the national elections next year.

It’s just a game, most of the time, and each player plays his or her allotted role safe in the knowledge that the script has not changed for decades. The status quo is more secure than it looks. But let just one player deviate from the script, and everybody would suddenly be in a new and very frightening world.

It probably won’t happen, but it could.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“Well…catching”)

Counting Sperm

“I tried counting mine once, but I went blind with exhaustion,” tweeted one reader of the BBC website after it reported that sperm counts were down by half in the past 40 years all over the developed world. And it’s true: they are hard to count. The little buggers just won’t stay still.

The report, published by Human Reproduction Update on Tuesday, is the work of Israeli, American, Danish, Spanish and Brazilian researchers who reviewed almost 200 studies done in different places and times since 1973. It’s called “Temporal trends in sperm count: a systematic review and meta-regression analysis”, and the authors are working very hard to get the world’s attention.

Dr. Hagai Levine, the lead researcher, told the BBC that if the trend continued humans would become extinct. “If we will not change the ways that we are living and the environment and the chemicals that we are exposed to, I am very worried about what will happen in the future,” he said. “Eventually we may have a problem with reproduction in general, and it may be the extinction of the human species.”

I think I’ve seen this movie a few times already. There was “Children of Men”, and then “The Handmaid’s Tale”, and I was even in a sperm-count movie myself thirty years ago. (It was a would-be comedy called “”The Last Straw”, but happily it isn’t available online.)

Among the many varieties of end-of-the-world stories we like to tell ourselves, the infertility apocalypse is the least violent, and therefore (in good hands) the most interesting in human terms. But the sperm crisis really isn’t here yet, or even looming on the horizon.

What the scientists did in the meta-regression analysis was very useful from a general public health point of view. There have been many estimates of what is happening to sperm counts, but they are conducted under different circumstances, usually with fairly small groups of people, and often in clinics that are treating couples with infertility problems.

This big review of the existing research did no new work, but it did extract rather more reliable data from the many studies that have been conducted by other groups, and there definitely is something going on. Compared to 1970s, sperm counts now in the predominantly white developed countries (North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand) are between 50% and 60% down now.

It has been a fairly steady decline in those places, and and it is continuing in the present, but no such fall has been found in the sperm counts in South America, Africa and Asia. So maybe it’s just whites going extinct.

Probably not, though. Most people in South America are white, but there has been no fall in sperm counts there. And there’s no separate data in the survey about what’s happening in the heavily industrialised Asian consumer societies like Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan, but one suspects that there have been declines in sperm counts there. It’s almost certainly an environmental, dietary or lifestyle effect, and therefore probably reversible.

As to which of these possible causes it might be, the jury is still out, but a 2012 study by researchers at the Universities of Sheffield and Manchester concluded that smoking, drinking alcohol, recreational drug use and obesity had little or no effect on sperm counts. Other reports, however, have suggested that eating saturated fats, riding bicycles, watching too much television and wearing tight underpants do adversely effect sperm counts.

In any case, there’s no immediate cause for panic, because all of the studies showed that sperm counts, though lower than in the 1970s in some parts of the world, are not “sub-fertile” anywhere. They are still well within the normal range, just lower on average than they used to be. There’s no shortage of human beings at present, and there’s lots of time to sort this out.

It will almost certainly turn out, when more research has been done, that the main cause of reduced sperm counts is the presence of various man-made chemicals in the environment. Not just one or two chemicals, but more likely a cocktail of different ones that collectively impose a burden on the normal functioning of human metabolism.

We are breathing and ingesting a lot of toxins, and have been since shortly after the rise of civilisation (lead-lined water pipes, etc.). The sheer volume of visible pollutants (particulate matter, etc.) has probably peaked and begun to decline in the most developed countries, but the variety of new chemicals in the environment continues to rise. Further nasty surprises probably lie in wait for us.

Unfortunately, that’s the way human beings work: ignore the problem or put up with it until it becomes unbearable, and only then do something about it. It’s a strategy that has served us well enough in the past, but will do us increasing damage as the problems become more complex. It’s very unlikely, however, that falling sperm counts will be the one that finally gets us.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“What…problems”; and “As to…counts”)