Here’s a thought: What if Taiwan didn’t try to charge people for access to its own propaganda?
Last week, the world was treated to a miraculously unashamed self-narration of a state’s own exceptionalism, when the BBC marked the death of the British Queen with an official period of fawning so heavily choreographed that it regularly edged into the absurd. Lead presenter Huw Edwards, tasked with breaking the news, looked like a man who’d been rehearsing the announcement in the mirror for months, and perversely it turned out that was because he had been. Meanwhile, the BBC’s online coverage noted the funeral grabbed a peak audience of around 28 million viewers in the U.K., framing it without embarrassment as “the nation paus[ing] to pay a final farewell to Queen Elizabeth II,” despite the fact that “more than 50 U.K. channels broadcast the service,” which effectively meant it was difficult to watch anything else.
This display of state-led fantasy-enactment-cum-hegemony-enforcement, largely funded by a license fee imposed on U.K. TV-watchers and — crucially — freely available abroad in its online written form, could not be a much more obvious contrast to the case of Taiwan’s Central News Agency (CNA). Despite being partially funded by grants coming from Taiwan’s central government’s budget, CNA’s English website, Focus Taiwan, has walled off any article that is more than six months old, charging individual users 10,000 NTD (around $300) per year for access.
For an agency which explicitly states one of its three main aims is to “transmit news about the country to the outside world and promote understanding of Taiwan in the international community,” putting up a slightly apologetic paywall — rather than using government money — feels like a tactical error. Taiwan has a more urgent need to get its position across to those outside of its borders than most, with a vastly more powerful neighbor threatening its existence, but it’s effectively restricting its own efforts voluntarily.
Spelling out the case against the arrangement in a Twitter thread last Tuesday, Jessica Drun, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council ‘s Global China Hub, pointed out that with many of those tasked with reporting on Taiwan unable to read Chinese, the lack of good quality local sources available to them could be limiting in “tell[ing] Taiwan’s story well.” In reality, that could be as simple as amplifying the voice of a small diplomatic ally when it speaks up in favor of Taiwan at the U.N. But it could also involve getting out its own government’s line when it conflicts with China’s or the U.S.’s.
One example of that function came earlier this year, when Focus Taiwan countered the line carried by The New York Times and others that said it was the U.S. side which decided against selling Taiwan 12 MH-60R anti-submarine warfare helicopters. Via a quote from Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng, the agency presented the idea that the deal actually fell through because the price tag for the procurement was “too high and beyond our capability,” whereas The New York Times reported that the U.S. had pressed the Taiwanese government to buy more weapons that could help it “repel a seaborne invasion by China, rather than weapons designed for conventional set-piece warfare.” Whichever factor really was dominant in that decision, the point here is that Taiwan has a voice — an idea that is all the more important given that it is arguing for its right to exist.
Of course, whatever the cost, the soft power of the BBC is unlikely to be matched by Taiwan’s Central News Agency any time soon. And it may never be able to pull off anything as audacious as the BBC pushing apparently sincere articles touting the Queen’s “gravitas” and “royal destiny” while simultaneously emphasizing her “instinct for the normal.” But in withdrawing itself from a competition that it is unlikely to win with other paywalled news organizations, like The Financial Times ($375 per year) or The New York Times ($60 per year), it would at least give one major Taiwanese perspective a chance of being heard.
Image: Solomon203, Wikimedia