Friday, 28 October 2011

Architecture of Conflict

I attended a very interesting conference at Bradford's National Media Museum yesterday called The Architecture of Conflict. It was about the militarisation of space and focused particularly on photographic representations of the subject.

The first discussion was about the work of Donovan Wylie who photographed Belfast's infamous Maze Prison before it was torn down. Apparently he was told by the guards and the architects that the outlay of the prison was designed to confuse and disorient, and was layered with different terrains which would pose obstacles to prisoners trying to escape. This is in addition to the multiple watchtowers to try and achieve the panoptican effect. I found this interesting as an example of architectures of control; and it occurred to me that in the design, the Maze Prison was intended more as an instrument of psychological warfare and counter-insurgency than a prison for convicts. It is clear why the idea of the Maze resonates on both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland as representative of a government's reaction to a political struggle. It reminded me of the work of my old friend Susan Carruthers on counter-insurgency in Malaya ('Winning Hearts and Minds,' published in 1995) and Michael McClintock's discussion of Vietnam ('Instruments of Statecraft', 1992).   See this article in the Guardian newspaper,

Also I must add there is a must-see exhibition currently showing at the Imperial War Museum in Manchester about War Correspondents. Exhibits include the record player that Richard Dimbleby used to record his broadcasts of the D-Day landings, and the Burqa that John Simpson wore when the BBC 'liberated' Kabul. You can see more information here:

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Beware of Mainland China's Fearsome Public Diplomacy

An interesting article published by John Brown. Does this confirm my suspicions about the value of culture - and especially film - as instruments of soft power and public diplomacy? Clearly box office receipts are no indicator of impact. It will be interesting to follow this story and see how the Chinese respond/react.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The last 65 feet ...

Scholars of public diplomacy are used to hearing about the importance of the 'last three feet' of human contact. When a woman jumped into a lake in Hangzhou (China) and started to panic, an American woman took off her coat, swam the 65 feet and brought her back to the shore. Seeing the woman was safe, the American left without giving her name.

One Chinese commentator microblogged: 'Today I see a story about an American tourist jumping into the water to save someone. I finally realized why America is such a strong country and will continue to be one.'

Deeds will always triumph over words ...

Monday, 10 October 2011

"Capitalizing on Taiwan's cultural Soft Power"

An article has been published in Taiwan Today ( suggesting yet again that the cultural industries are at the heart of Taiwan's soft power. Following my interviews during the summer with government agencies involved in Taiwan's internationl outreach, I came to the conclusion that (a) Taiwan is placing too much faith in culture; (b) the government agencies responsible really do not know what they are doing or why they are doing it. I am heartened that, according to the article, the Council for Cultural Affairs (CCA) recognises that "Taiwan's advantage is its freedom and democracy," but the Council, like the Government Informational Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, chooses to ignore the narrative of Taiwan's democratisation in international outreach programmes, preferring instead to claim that Taiwan is the preserver of traditional Chinese culture. As I have said time and again - in these blogs and to the government agencies themselves - this is the wrong strategy.

What is clear from the article published in Taiwan Today is that there is a complete ignorance of what soft power really is and how it might be exercised. Government officials I spoke to were unable to answer three key questions: (1) For what purpose is Taiwan engaging in soft power? (ii) To which audiences? (iii) How doe you know if it is having any impact? The final question is the main problem with over-dependence on culture as a soft power strategy as I have made clear in previous postings. This is summarised in the quotation from the GIO: "Taiwan's pop music is a culturally and commercially valuable type of soft power ..." Why and to what benefit in soft power terms?

I identify three further problems in the article. The first is the suggestion that Taiwan should copy South Korea's strategy and therefore success. Certainly Taiwan could look abroad to its neighbours for inspiration, but it already stands accused of copying the PRC (remember the five mascots for the Taipei Floral Expo which were clear copies of the five mascots for the Beijing Olympics?). South Korea is not a model because it is a different country operating within a different set of social, political and cultural contexts. Taiwan needs to have the confidence to "stand up" (ironic words to use on the 100th Anniversary of the ROC) and be itself.

The second problem is in the concluding sentence of the article which is a quotation from a CCA official: "If we let up, other nations will catch up, and we'll lose our chance." Soft power is not constrained by time pressures; it works best as part of a long-term strategy, and its practitioners must realise that it can take years to build trust, credibility and appeal. Any attempt to design a short-term strategy that will have immediate effect is doomed to failure. Moreover, it is not a competition. By fearing that other nations will 'catch up', this quotation reveals the lack of confidence in Taiwan's soft power as a method of natural attraction.

Finally, I am genuinely peturbed that the photo used to accompany the article depicts the GIO Minister showing the government's support for an epic film released this year, "Seediq Bale". Since Seediq Bale, when it was released in Taiwan, did not have English subtitles, it is difficult to understand what soft power the government expects it to have. I know many expatriates living in Taiwan who wanted to see this landmark contribution to Taiwan's creative industries - a stirring story of Taiwan's  history - but could not watch it due to the absence of subtitles. A soft power opportunity missed?