Earlier this month, Taiwan was found to be “seen favorably in 24 high and middle-income countries.” The Pew Research Center survey showed “A median of 48% of people across the 24 countries have a favorable view of Taiwan, compared with a median of 28% who have an unfavorable view.” If soft power is “the ability to obtain preferred outcomes by attraction rather than coercion or payment,” then, it seems Taiwan’s soft power game is showing some promise. But could it still be doing better?
Taiwan’s isolation from major international organizations like the U.N. and the World Health Organization naturally places an additional emphasis on other kinds of influence. And yet despite this — or perhaps because of it — it’s still common to hear suggestions, coming from a number of different perspectives, that Taiwan doesn’t do everything it can to maximize its efforts to win over outsiders to its cause.
“In terms of international recognition, Taiwan’s soft power continues to lag behind its contemporaries, such as South Korea and Japan,” says Adrienne Wu (吳至芳) a research associate at the Global Taiwan Institute, hosting their recent public seminar on the topic. “Traditionally Taiwan’s efforts to market its cultural products have been criticized by many as ineffective, in part due to a lack of coordination between government administrations and the absence of clear messaging.”
The obvious point here is that Taiwan doesn’t have any “cultural products” as well known around the world as South Korean K-pop acts like Blackpink or BTS, or even films like Oscar-winning “Parasite.” And some believe this is simply because of “lack of interest or knowledge of policymakers in displaying contemporary and not traditional cultures abroad.”
However, not everyone thinks this is about making more popular movies. Soft power is a “fluid concept,” says Gary Rawnsley, head of the School of Social and Political Sciences and professor of public diplomacy at the University of Lincoln, speaking as a panelist at the same event. For him, soft power resides in outside opinion “accepting” and “internalizing” behaviors of governments. Making this happen is more about offering up admirable examples of good governance than popular cultural products. From this perspective, Taiwan’s soft power would thus be generated by “commitment to liberal democracy, political culture and values.”
Rawnsley’s view is that Taiwan actually already has many core elements of soft power in place. He notes that it has led Asia on LGTBQ rights and issues, has a legislature with one of highest levels of female representatives in the world, and has high levels of diversity and autonomy within its civil society. What he thinks is missing are efforts to highlight these societal achievements.
“Taiwan’s public diplomacy — the way it communicates — has improved particularly under President Tsai [Ing-wen] (蔡英文), but it still has some way to go,” Rawnsley says. He believes it’s coming from a low base, specifically starting later than Chinese efforts, and adds: “I could tell you stories that would make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up” from discussions he had with Taiwanese officials about their understanding and use of digital platforms before the current administration took over.
Rawnsley’s advice for improvement is a more “nuanced” understanding of how to communicate Taiwan’s narratives. He argues for not engaging with narratives put forward by China and a “stronger focus on telling Taiwan’s story,” tailored toward “those in positions of influence” elsewhere, such as journalists, teachers and politicians. If cultural products like music and film form a part of that, there has to be an idea about how to turn that into more concrete political engagement and appreciation. Korea’s K-pop, he says, is a useful vessel for soft power because of “the story it’s telling about Korea’s commitment to the cultural industries,” not just because it vaguely increases awareness of South Korea’s existence.
But again this is not the only way of thinking about soft power. Irene Wu, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University speaking on the same panel, believes more social interactions between citizens increases the likelihood of cooperation between governments, and this is where Taiwan’s potential for improvement lies. Immigration — people going out or coming — and increasing numbers of foreign students are opportunities to do this. “The important thing is to open up and support opportunities for people to people exchanges … in whatever area is a strength for that society,” she says. On a sliding scale, this might start out with people, say, seeing a movie from Taiwan and becoming interested in it, before developing a larger commitment to and interest in Taiwan itself.
Within these different perspectives, though, there is a significant area of thematic agreement. All three of the experts mentioned here believe that building up superficial soft power window dressing doesn’t work.
“Too much [of a] marketing approach can actually be counterproductive,” Irene Wu points out. “Soft power is best generated in civil society, far away from government agendas,” Rawnsley echoes later on, adding that “Government shouldn’t be focusing on image,” it should be concentrating on “helping the vulnerable” and “governing democratically.” The point is that the strongest adverts, whether they be cultural or governmental, tend to occur naturally. They flow through a healthy civil society ecosystem and become organically useful and popular internally, before spreading elsewhere. So, Taiwan’s government should focus on facilitating that stuff, and perhaps get better at highlighting it, rather than starting any lame, top-down projects to recreate its own Blackpink and BTS.