Tuesday 26 June 2012

Set-backs in Taiwan's soft power

My core belief about Taiwan's soft power strategy is that it emphasises the wrong story: the narratives of Taiwan's successful democratisation and its current position as the first Chinese democracy are routinely ignored in favour of attempts to label Taiwan as the preserver of traditional Chinese culture. However, there is a significant flaw in my argument to which I need to draw attention, and that flaw is the continued use of the death penalty.

A recent report by the BBC  (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-18202396) highlights how Taiwan's judiciary often base their sentencing on unreliable evidence (or most disturbing of all, sometimes no evidence whatsoever). While this is hardly unique to Taiwan - all countries which mainain the death penalty risk making mistakes in sentencing the innocent to such a fate - this practice does constrain Taiwan's image as a maturing democracy and as a contrast to the PRC. Criticism by important organisations such as the European Union, and Amnesty International, more used to pointing the finger at the PRC than at Taiwan, has damaged its soft power.

However, I would suggest that what is more worrying than the fact that Taiwan maintains this barbaric practice, is that the political elites fear the wrath of public opinion should they decide to abolish the death penalty. Just because 'surveys show that more than 70% of the population favours it' does not make it right; sometimes leaders have to lead against public opinion - that is as much a characteristic of democracy as following it. The current President of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, a keen advocate of 'Soft power', ended a short three year moratorium (2006-9) and appointed Justice Tseng Yung-fu who ordered four people executed in 2010 and a further five in 2011. 15 convicts were sentenced to death at the Supreme Court last year.

There are now 57 inmates serving time on death row. If Taiwan really wants to project itself as a benevolent democracy - and to provide an alternative to authoritarian rule in the PRC - then the abolition of the death penalty despite public opinion may just help elevate its international image and thus gather for Taiwan a little more support, respect and sympathy.

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