Vaccines become latest frontline in China's campaign to win hearts of Taiwanese

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Beijing is touting a state programme that gives Taiwanese in China priority for COVID-19 vaccines, prompting concern within Taiwan’s government which sees it as the latest Chinese tool to win over the island’s population.

FILE PHOTO: Soldiers prepare to spray disinfectant outside the Taoyuan General Hospital, where a cluster of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) infections was detected, in Taoyuan, Taiwan, January 19, 2021. REUTERS/Ann Wang/File Photo

China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory, is making the free-of-charge offer at a time when the democratic island has yet to begin vaccinations of its own, with Chinese government departments and state media quoting Taiwanese in China in support of the programme.

“This shows the mainland’s warmth and affection towards us,” a Taiwanese teacher surnamed Wang was quoted as saying in a post this month by China’s United Front Work Department, which is in charge of co-opting overseas Chinese and non-communists.

Beijing has for decades offered incentives such as tax breaks and subsidies to the estimated 400,000-strong Taiwanese business community in China, but the move underscores a greater push to curry favour.

Wang Yang, the Communist Party’s No. 4 leader, this week instructed government officials to offer Taiwanese comprehensive benefits in a bid to give “a sense of gain” among Taiwanese in aid of the “reunification with the motherland”.

It is unclear how many Taiwanese in China have been vaccinated but in Taiwan, officials are unnerved by the programme and say vaccines have become the latest frontline in China’s charm offensive.

“The tactic is to reinforce Taiwanese businessmen’s allegiance towards the mainland and further add pressure to the ruling Democratic Progressive Party,” a Taiwan security official investigating the matter told Reuters.

The official was not authorised to speak to the media and declined to be identified.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said in a statement to Reuters that vaccination is a matter for the medical profession and “should not be used as political propaganda.”

Taiwanese should “cautiously evaluate the safety and necessity” of receiving vaccines in China, it said, adding it will continue to monitor the situation.

Taiwan government officials have repeatedly reminded people of health “risks” related to Chinese vaccines and said those who get the vaccines in China must still undergo 14-day quarantine when returning to the island. Imports of the vaccines are banned.

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office referred Reuters to recent remarks it made that Taiwan’s government was spreading “baseless concerns” over the Chinese vaccines for “political purposes”, and that China’s vaccines were “very safe”.

While Taiwan has kept the pandemic well under control thanks to early and effective prevention methods, the government has come under increasing pressure amid a rare outbreak of domestically transmitted COVID-19 cases.

Taiwan has ordered nearly 20 million COVID-19 vaccine doses, including 10 million from AstraZeneca Plc, but none will start arriving until March at the earliest.

Reporting by Yimou Lee; Additional reporting by Beijing newsroom; Editing by Edwina Gibbs