Saturday, 9 July 2011

Despatches from Taiwan (I)

I have been in Taiwan for less than 48 hours and already several notable stories related to public diplomacy have caught my attention.
I will gloss over the local mania for Lady Gaga as she plays sell-out concerts in Taiwan. Singing two more songs here than she did in Singapore obviously means she loves Taiwan; while TV news stations spend precious time (20 minutes in one case) detailing every detail of her life, career and stay on the island so far. Is this an example of American soft power in action?
I will likewise mention only in passing the new-found affection for Tom Hanks after he told a press conference for his new film that Los Angeles should be more like Taipei. Apparently, Mr Hanks believes that Taiwanese all ride scooters with the wind blowing in their hair. That Mr Hanks has never been to Taipei is obvious; the only thing blowing in your hair in Taipei is the pollution from all the other scooters around you. Yet naturally the media here seized on Mr Hanks’s words, as any global attention is important for a small unrecognised island competing to be heard.
Morever, I am sure that the publication of a photograph showing three students at the Ministry of Defence’s Armor Training Command and Armor School wearing Nazi Waffen-SS uniforms will not damage Taiwan’s relations with Israel. The Ministry apologised to Israel’s Representative to Taiwan who conceded that ‘it was a mistake of ignorance and not intention.’ The Representative promised to work with the relevant educational institutions in Taiwan to develop educational programmes on the Holocaust. This was an embarrassing episode for Taiwan, but not as serious as it might have been.   
Two more important stories have potential public diplomacy interest. The first is a rather frivolous story about the local reaction to a US food blogger in Texas who recalled on CNN’s iReport his bad experience with a Taiwanese delicacy, century eggs or pi dian. Legislators in Taiwan called Americans ‘chicken-hearted’ and said Westerners ‘should be more courageous and willing to try new things’. Overlooking the fact that this is exactly what the blogger had done – and found he did not like what he had eaten – the Government Information Office Minister Philip Yang said the article had ‘damaged’ the nation’s image. However, it is possible to argue that in criticising the blogger’s right to have an opinion about the food he has eaten, his detractors have damaged Taiwan’s image themselves. In writing about Chinese soft power I often discuss China’s inability to accept foreign criticism and suggest that this is a serious hindrance to that country’s soft power capacity: a serious global player must expect and accept criticism from time to time. By over-reacting in this way to a misinterpreted blog, the Taiwanese are falling into the same trap as their neighbours on the other side of the Strait. My friend Paul Rockower whom I first met in Taipei last year blogs often about Taiwan’s ‘gastrodiplomacy’ (there is a link to him from this site). I look forward to reading what he makes of this episode.
The second story that caught my attention concerns the failure of Taiwan’s institutions of higher education to recruit students from the PRC. The Ministry of Education had approved the recruitment of 2,141 Chinese students, equal to about 1 percent of Taiwanese students in the university system per year. In fact, only 1,263 were accepted and a mere 975 will actually enrol. One reason for this is the ‘three limits, six noes’ policy that the opposition DPP insisted should regulate the flow of students. The ‘three limits’ refer to caps on the numbers of students, the number of Chinese universities recognised as eligible for the scheme, and limits on the types of Chinese diplomas that can be accredited.
More damaging are the ‘six noes’, banning Chinese students from receiving scholarships or professional licenses, from remaining or working Taiwan after their graduation, from receiving extra points on exams, and from taking civil service examinations. In addition, most of the universities in Taiwan able to recruit from China are outside Taipei, and include institutions on the islands of Quemoy and Penghu. Why would a student from China wish to live and study in Quemoy, a beautiful but sleepy island and which was at the epicentre of hostilities between Taiwan and China in the 1950s?
In other words, apart from receiving a degree from a university that may be far away from Taiwan’s vibrant capital city – or perhaps on another island altogether – there is little incentive for Chinese students to study here. If soft power is about persuasion through attraction, shouldn’t Taiwan be doing more to encourage students from across the Strait to study, and perhaps live, work and contribute to Taiwan’s economy after graduation? In the past, students from beyond the Iron Curtain defected; now they acquire visas.        
Given the importance and success of the student experience in facilitating public diplomacy – a PhD student at ICS, Molly Sisson, is researching this very area (again there is a link to her blog here) – it seems incredible that Taiwan would impose such restrictions. This is Taiwan’s opportunity to showcase itself to China’s potential future political, social, intellectual and economic elites. Beijing has taken an enormous risk in allowing its students to travel abroad in such huge numbers, and an even greater risk in allowing them to travel to Taiwan – democratic and ‘Free China’ - for their education.
It is possible that most Chinese students wish to attend universities in the UK, US or Australian universities; perhaps the higher tuition fees and cost of living in Taiwan compared with China is a prohibition on the island’s attraction as a destination for students from the PRC. Nevertheless, it does seem that by imposing such a strict policy as the ‘three limits, six noes,’ Taiwan’s potential public diplomacy with Chinese across the Strait is taking an unnecessary beating.    


  1. PD and gastrodiplomacy fail on Taiwan's part. Definitely not appreciating the spirit of gastrodiplomacy if that is the reaction.

  2. Speaking of gastrodiplomacy fails, here is a new one from Taiwan: gastro-autocracy