When Taiwan became a rare island of normalcy during the pandemic, tech entrepreneurs flocked here to dodge the brunt of the coronavirus in their home countries. But now as it struggles to reign in its own Covid-19 crisis, Taiwan is seeing a sudden exodus of these arrivals.
For months, after early success in taming Covid-19, cases were down to zero and deaths remained in the double digits. Save for a few fever checks and mask-wearing rules, Taiwan’s residents relished a life mostly sheltered from the heavy toll of lockdowns and isolation that befell the rest of the globe.
That freedom attracted more than a thousand skilled professionals, according to Taiwan’s National Development Council, a government policy body, including high-profile Taiwanese-Americans like celebrity restaurateur Eddie Huang. Others, like YouTube’s co-founder Steve Chen, by happenstance arrived just before the pandemic and rode it out here. They called themselves “Covid refugees” or “Covid migrants,” according to those inside the small, albeit fledgling, community.
But in the era of Covid-19, fortunes can change quickly.
On Wednesday (June 2), Taiwan’s local case count crossed 8,000 since the start of the pandemic—6,000 of those cases were recorded in the last two weeks alone. Now, with normal life screeching to a halt as the island edges toward a full lockdown, those same Covid migrants are leaving in droves. While it’s too early for official numbers, conversations in online expat communities, a spike in the self-paid Covid-19 testing required to board planes, and fuller flights out of Taiwan suggest many are heading out or considering doing so. Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper reported that business and premium economy seats on flights to the US are nearly booked out through June due to the high demand—one airline with thrice weekly flights to Los Angeles is shifting to daily flights from next week.
“The Covid outbreak and lockdown situation is motivating me to return back to the US,” said Nevin Yang, a program manager at Microsoft who is flying back to his home in Seattle on Friday (June 4). “I’d like to get my two-dose vaccine and want to live somewhere without heavy Covid restrictions,” added Yang, who’s been in Taiwan for the last few months.
Who are the Covid migrants?
Since the start of the pandemic, Taiwan’s borders had been shut to most tourists and foreign visitors, but highly skilled non-Taiwanese workers were allowed in via a “gold card” employment program. According to Taiwan’s National Development Council, the number of foreigners obtaining the special visa, launched in 2018, climbed even before the pandemic.
But as the virus ran amok across the world, Taiwanese officials doubled down on its “gold card” scheme to lure in tech professionals with backgrounds in product management, engineering, venture capital, and entrepreneurship. The number of these special visa issues rose nearly fourfold to 1,399 in 2020 from 358 the previous year. Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen herself presented the 998th, 999th, and 1000th Gold Cards to their respective recipients in 2020. They included a Turkish inventor and an American executive at a semiconductor firm. Last year Taiwan was one of the world’s fastest-growing economies—indeed, one of the few to expand at all.
The majority of the arrivals were people with a link to Taiwan already like Taiwanese-American Rachel Chang, a product manager who arrived in March last year, but is headed back to her native Silicon Valley next week.
“I was in west Africa for work and Taiwan felt like a safer option for refuge than the US,” said Chang, who holds one of the gold card visas. But now, she says, Taiwan is too “unsafe.”
The injection of tech talent into Taiwan was seen as a way to jumpstart Taiwan’s tech sphere, known more for heavy-duty manufacturing and semiconductors than startups. While Taiwan’s economy counts on homegrown tech giants such as the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), founded over three decades ago, or Hon Hai Precision Industry, better known as Foxconn, at whose giant factories iPhones are assembled, it’s not made the same strides in internet entrepreneurship and venture capital. But it’s hard for those hopes to be fulfilled when even many of those with cultural links here see it as more of a short-term sojourn.
“I’d consider coming back to Taiwan again,” says Yang. “However, it probably would be a temporary stay and not [to] live here permanently because I feel career opportunities are better back in the US.”
Some diaspora Taiwanese feel that the government could have done more in recent years to welcome and retain a wider range of second-generation Taiwanese, questioning the focus on entrepreneurs and techies alone as worthy of building Taiwan’s future.
Taiwan’s brain drain
This outbreak is not only testing the island’s ability to reign in the virus, but also to retain foreign talent and contend with long-term economic and political woes predating the pandemic. As of late last month, visa processing, including for the final stage of gold card visas, is temporarily suspended. But the flight of the techies is a “symptom of a larger problem, ” says Chen Wenhui, an informatics professor at Ming Chuan University, referring to Taiwan’s broader socioeconomic woes, including despondency among many young people that they can’t have a bright future if they remain on this “ghost island.”
“If they want a high salary, they go overseas to work,” said Chen.
Meanwhile, China looms large both for its aggressive territorial claims on Taiwan, although the Communist Party has never governed there—and as the logical choice for overseas investors and skilled professionals. China’s economic rise has been complicated for Taiwan, with many skilled Taiwanese going to China, lured by hefty financial incentives, as a new generation of tech giants began forming there. Taiwanese entrepreneurs such as Foxconn billionaire Terry Gou are deeply invested there. Uncertainty about Taiwan’s place in the world, as China has more aggressively sought in recent years to isolate the island internationally, doesn’t help.
The war for skilled tech workers has been particularly fierce in the semiconductor field, in which China is trying to develop tech know-how as US regulatory moves and sanctions limited access to high-tech chips. The departures have created so much concern, Taiwan in April reportedly banned recruitment for tech jobs in China in a bid to help stem the leak of talent.
At the same time, it’s been difficult for a young generation of entrepreneurs to create new global-facing startups due to a lack of access to foreign capital, while in other cases high-skilled workers point to onerous regulations. The talent shortage will only be exacerbated over time by the fact that Taiwan has one of the world’s lowest birth rates—last year, its population shrank for the first time.
“The latter tells the people that they have lost confidence in the future,” said Chen.