As a close observer of Taiwan’s public diplomacy for almost twenty years, I recognise the government’s intentions in this area and respect them. Taiwan is in a very difficult international situation and must struggle to be heard by a world that on the whole chooses to avoid listening to it. In such an environment, public diplomacy must remain an instrument of Taiwan’s foreign policy. In the absence of hard power – diplomatic recognition, international legitimacy and membership of the most important international organisations – and with a contested sovereignty that involves a bigger and more powerful neighbour, Taiwan will only survive and prosper by devoting more attention and resources to the study and application of ‘soft power.’
However, my research has revealed a fundamental flaw within Taiwan’s current public diplomacy strategy, and this is the over-dependence on culture (and traditional Chinese culture) as the dominant theme in international communications and engagement. Following this is the proposal that Taiwan should create the Taiwan Academies to help project this culture, teach traditional Chinese characters and history, and hence generate interest in the island. This, however, is a false logic. I suggest that the Taiwan Academies will not add any value or benefit to current endeavours, and will certainly not alleviate the many serious problems facing Taiwan in the international arena.
The first reason is this proposal demonstrates how Taiwan is trying to run before it can walk. Despite all the excellent work of the Government Information Office (which needs reorganising, not abolishing), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Council of Cultural Affairs, and the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, I am sad to say that few members of the public across the world either know or care about Taiwan. Many would have great difficulty locating Taiwan on a map. Why does the government think that the Taiwan Academies will make any difference? If no-one knows where Taiwan is, why would they seek out and engage with the Academies? Before Taiwan begins to think about creating anything resembling the Academies, it is essential to first make sure the world is aware of Taiwan and starts to know its story.
The second reason the Taiwan Academies are a bad idea is the most important: They will be in direct competition with the PRC’s Confucius Institutes. The government and the civil service may assure me that this is not the case, and I concede that this it is not Taiwan’s intention to engage in such competition. However, in the realm of public diplomacy, sometimes the intention is less significant than the message, and it is certainly less important than the perception of actions among global audiences. For the international community the Taiwan Academies are a direct competitor with the Confucius Institutes, and whatever the government says to the contrary will not make the slightest difference. This perception will make competition the story, and Taiwan’s good intentions will be ignored. Once again, Taiwan will be seen as lacking innovation and will be accused of simply riding the coat-tails of the PRC. (Why did the Taipei Floral Expo use almost exactly the same five mascots as the 2008 Beijing Olympics? Did no-one spot the similarity and consider how this would project a negative image of Taiwan?)
The Taiwan Academies are a symptom of a larger and more serious problem in Taiwan’s public diplomacy that has revealed itself during my 2011 research. Taiwan is currently telling the wrong story to the world. By emphasising culture as the priority in the public diplomacy strategy – Taiwan as the preserver of traditional Chinese culture – Taiwan is missing the opportunity to define itself and tell a more exciting and relevant story that would generate international interest. Taiwan is the first Chinese democracy. It has experienced one of the smoothest and most successful political transitions in Asia and is today a vibrant challenge to the crazy idea that democracy is somehow inimical to Asian or Chinese culture (the nonsense of the so-called ‘Asian Values’ theory). Remember that whatever happens or does not happen in the PRC – whether China marches forward to democracy or retrenches under internal pressures and fervent nationalism – Taiwan will always be the first Chinese democracy. How this happened is a fascinating and often moving story, but where is it being told? Who is telling it? It may come as a surprise to learn that few people across the world are interested in the history and calligraphy of traditional Chinese characters (and how many visitors to the exhibitions being organised around the world know the difference between traditional and simplified characters?). Culture must be part of a more holistic strategy; it has an important and strategic role to play and certainly helps to define Taiwan. However, it is not the whole story and should not be the entire focus of Taiwan’s public diplomacy strategy. In the struggle to define Taiwan, in the noble efforts to identify what is unique and different about this island, the current strategy is deliberately ignoring the one narrative that makes Taiwan stand out and differentiate it from the PRC. To repeat, Taiwan is the First Chinese Democracy.
Moreover, Taiwan is not ‘the heart of Asia’ despite claims in the new advertising campaign. Every country in Asia claims it is the true heart of the continent (think ‘Malaysia, truly Asia’). ‘Touch your Heart’ was a far more successful brand. It suggests warmth, friendship, intimacy, the promise of a genuinely touching experience. ‘The heart of Asia’ tells us nothing, promises nothing. Taiwan no longer stands out from the crowd. Moreover, by changing the brand, Taiwan has destroyed the brand-familiarity among the audience, the result no doubt of many years and a considerable amount of finance.
Taiwan has many opportunities to improve its public diplomacy, to persuade the world that this is a vibrant, modern, democratic society. Taiwan has an envious amount of “soft power” capital at its disposal because of its recent history (not because of ancient Chinese history – the PRC has that market cornered and Taiwan cannot compete). This involves telling a political and social, rather than a cultural story. By creating the Academies, Taiwan is suggesting that it knows nothing about itself – what makes this island a unique and fascinating place. Moreover, it reveals that Taiwan neither knows nor cares about its target audience (a fatal error), preferring instead to believe that your audience will accept whatever you give them. Above all, Taiwan is creating a narrative which suggests Taiwan is (at best) competing with and (at worst) copying the PRC and its Confucian Institutes. It is not too late to face the facts: the Taiwan Academies are a bad idea, and it would be in Taiwan’s long term interest to abandon their creation immediately.