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?   


  1. why a Taiwan film needs English subtitles when it first came out?

  2. Anonymous, I do not suggest 'a' Taiwan film needs English subtitles. I think it would be a good idea if a blockbuster movie that is (a) advertised in Taiwan as an historical epic that could introduce foreign audiences to Taiwan's story, (b) considered by the GIO as an instrument of Taiwan's soft power, (c) entered into competition at a major international film festival (in this case, Venice) could be accessible by non-Chinese audiences. It will then have a greater soft power impact - to demonstrate Taiwan's vitality as a centre for cultural industries, but also to introduce Taiwan's fascinating history to audiences.