When Taiwan’s magnitude 7.4 earthquake, the strongest in 25 years, struck offshore from the eastern coastal city of Hualien one morning earlier this month, Edric Huang was lying in bed in his sixth-floor Taipei apartment 100 kilometers from the epicenter.

“The shaking kept going and grew increasingly violent,” ICWA’s David Mixner fellow said. “I watched my lamp bang against my wall. Those initial two or three minutes were very intense.”

Despite the surprise and magnitude of the quake and its aftershocks, the capital was “up and running” by mid-morning, Edric reports, a testament to the success of the government’s preparedness and response, which strengthened its reputation abroad.

Taiwan is located in a shock-prone region, and when a magnitude 7.7 quake struck in 1999, it demolished thousands of homes and killed nearly 2,500 people. Since then, the country has increased its earthquake resiliency, tightening building safety standards, running nationwide disaster drills, training rescue teams and investing in an early warning system. That preparedness ensured significantly fewer casualties this time.

The latest quake killed only 13 people and injured more than 1,100. Rescue efforts focused on the Taroko national park, a popular hiking destination, where visitors were trapped by landslides.

Two of Taipei’s six subway lines were running within an hour of the initial shock, Edric said, and when he got to his neighborhood Da’an metro station, it was already filled with commuters waiting for the station’s second line to reopen. In the days after the earthquake, he added, his friends in Taipei shared humorous memes and videos of streetlights wiggling dramatically. By the following week, as the aftershocks faded, they also largely disappeared from public discourse.

When locals checked in with each other after the earthquake, they did so without the panicked concern that characterized calls and messages Edric received from friends in the United States and elsewhere who were watching the news. International media has tended to latch onto two opposite extremes, he says. First, damage and tears, and second, Taiwan’s readiness. “The government leans on the preparedness angle because it wants to demonstrate how far it’s come since 1999 and how much better it’s handling the situation.”

Overall, people seem satisfied with Taipei’s response. Within 30 minutes of the initial shock, local governments distributed information about the quake and developments via official channels. Within a day, the government mobilized a relief effort to get support to affected areas.

Due to updated building codes and retrofitting, relatively few buildings were deemed structurally unsound: 42 across the entire country, mostly in older and lower-income neighborhoods, with 32 in Hualien and two in Taipei. An additional 70 buildings in Taiwan that had no structural damage nevertheless risked non-structural elements falling or causing injuries. Still, some locals remain suspicious of buildings the government has declared sound, and urban renewal efforts have been complicated because they require cooperation from landlords.

On the international stage, Taiwan rejected China’s offer of disaster relief assistance as it did in 1999, which Edric says was to be expected. Conservative, pro-China commentators say it was a mistake on Taiwan’s part, that humanitarian aid is about people, not politics, and should be accepted when it’s offered. China critics say any aid from Beijing is political and would likely come with strings.

Japan, another country known for its earthquake preparedness, will provide $1 million to Taiwan for relief and recovery work. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi also expressed his condolences and solidarity. The two countries had signed an agreement in February to provide Taiwan with Indian workers. Turkey also dispatched a search and rescue team in return for the assistance Taiwan sent after the catastrophic Turkey-Syria earthquake in February 2023.

But as Taiwan receives more attention from the international community, Edric believes some of the support it has accepted raises larger questions about the limitations of its foreign policy. “Taiwan is understandably eager to build diplomatic and trade relations on the global stage, to distinguish itself from China and safeguard its future, but these relationships often overlook human rights and raise questions about Taipei’s commitment to global democracy,” he said. “Can it look beyond the short term?”

Top photo: A partially collapsed building in Hualien (Wikimedia Commons)