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.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Sesame Street in Pakistan

Regular readers of this blog will know of my love for the American children's TV programme, Sesame Street, and my conviction of its role in international outreach. Its role in developing educational programmes around the world has been one of the greatest public diplomacy (or education diplomacy) success stories, mainly for two reasons: (i) it demonstrates the importance of acting positively and creating new opportunities and relationships with audiences (the importance of actually doing something, rather than just talking about it); and (ii) by encouraging local media organisations to create their own versions of Sesame Street that are embedded within local cultural contexts, the producers demonstrate a sensitivity to their audiences: "The US government thought it was on to a winner when it gave $20m (£13m) to fund a Pakistani version of the show, hoping it would raise the country's woeful literacy rates and help turn a young generation away from the siren call of religious extremism."

A report in yesterday's Guardian newspaper is therefore quite disturbing (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jun/05/pakistan-sesame-street-funding-withdrawn?INTCMP=SRCH). It seems that the US Agency for International Development is withdrawing funding for the Pakistani version of Sesame Street, Sim Sim Hamara, because of 'financial irregularities', mismanagment and even corruption. Obviously the local prodcers, Rafi Peer, have denied the allegations.

Whatever the reason this is a very regrettable episode, and over above the soft power interests of developing a local version of Sesame Street, the only losers are Pakistan's children trapped in illiteracy.  

Monday, 4 June 2012

North Korea threatens to attack South Korean media

"There are but two powers in the world - the sword and the mind. In the long run, the sword is always beaten by the mind" - Napoleon Bonaparte. 

This quotation was used as the opening line of my PhD thesis almost twenty years ago, and came to mind again when I read an interesting story published by Channel News Asia (http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/afp_asiapacific/view/1205432/1/.html) which describes how the regime in North Korea has threatened to attack a number of South Korean media. Pyongyang has accused  major newspapers, Chosun Ilbo and JoongAng Ilbo, and three TV channels (KBS, MNBC, and SBS) of engaging in propaganda in their coverage of the 66th anniversary of the Korean Children's Union.

Seoul is right to take such threats seriously, and this episode suggests that the new leadership in Pyongyang is still consolidating its power. Identifying external enemies is, of course, always an easy way of mobilising support and boosting popular legitimacy. The media is the easiest target of all in the short run, but states who make enemies of the media would do well to remember Napoleon's remarks.

This story also demonstrates that the media are increasingly regarded as 'legitimate' targets by regimes around the world - whether it is Pyongyang, or the deliberate bombing of Al-Jazeera in Afghanistan and Iraq by US forces. This is a very worrying development in international communications and journalism and we need to do all we can to make sure that states are never again allowed to shoot the messenger.