Monday, 6 May 2013

Silence is not always golden: The communication of Taiwan's democracy

As the keynote speaker at the 2013 annual conference of the European Association of Taiwan Studies (EATS), Professor T.J. Cheng of  William and Mary College delivered a characteristically interesting paper on Offshore Democracies: An Ideational Challenge to China. His intention is to understand how Taiwan is perceived in mainland China through examining the official and non-official discourses there about the island's democratic institutions and procedures. Two sections of his talk provoked a response from a soft power and public diplomacy perspective.

First, T.J. outlined the sibau minzhu, the 'quartet of evils' that define the official view about Taiwan's democracy. Discourses about the 'evils' are framed by key-words that focus on the more disturbing side of Taiwan's political evolution - black-gold, party-splitting etc.

From a PD perspective, such official discourses constitute part of the environment in which Taiwan must operate. It is unfortunate that China chooses to view Taiwan in such an out-dated way - the problems of corruption are now far worse in the mainland than they are in Taiwan where there is much less electoral corruption than previously - but the question that Taiwan must confront is how to respond and work within the constraints? Taiwan is not in a position to change the Chinese conversation, so must pay far more attention to its soft power capital and the quality of its public diplomacy strategy than previously. The external environment frames the architectures, methods, success and failures of Taiwan's international communications and determines their impact on elite audiences and mass opinion. I have talked about this many times in published papers and in blogs, and this argument forms the core of the book I am now writing which examines the interaction of structure and agency to understand Taiwan's soft power.

I felt that T.J. had inadvertently stumbled on a set of contradictions when he claimed that 'Taiwan's democracy is like a silent movie, more palatable than soundbites', and he applauded Taiwan's government for not hectoring the PRC about human rights abuses. T.J. is right to isolate the practice of democracy as a particularly useful communications strategy - in Public Diplomacy, actions really do speak louder than words - and by providing a model Chinese democracy, Taiwan is demonstrating the fallacy of so-called Asian values: There really is a political alternative for China. However, silence is not an option for Taiwan, and measured, strategic soundbites do have their value. Why be silent when the world is not listening to you anyway? For a state facing Taiwan's predicament, silence means an absence of attention, and so the government does not/cannot challenge the dominant narratives conducted in Beijing. Silence will not undermine a depiction of Taiwan which centres on 'the quartet of evils', circulating within a tightly controlled media and education system.  

T.J. is correct to commend the absence of hectoring and pontificating in Taiwan's interactions with the PRC, but such methods of communication are neither strategic nor desirable as they can backfire on the source of the message. Rather, Taiwan must strike a balance between silence - letting the story of Taiwan's democracy speak for itself - and making sure that story is heard by audiences conditioned to have a very different perception of reality. 

Another speaker on the Senkaku/Diayutai dispute prefaced her paper with a reference to 'manipulation' by the international media on this subject, evidence for which is provided by the fact that the media concentrate overwhelmingly on Japan and China and ignore Taiwan's claims on the islands. This sounds very similar to claims by Beijing that the international (read western) media deliberately demonise China, and that this accounts for the continuing popularity of the theory of cultural imperialism in China. As a communications scholar, I would reply that the international media know and understand China and Japan; their frames are familiar. Taiwan, however, is largely unfamiliar to international media consumers who have no real understanding of Taiwan or why Taiwan matters. The media will choose to sideline Taiwan because of the competition of voices, interests, stories and news-space, but also because journalists are denied the kind of structured and continuous interaction with diplomats and press officers that may yield coverage. My research reveals that Taiwan is passive in its acceptance of this situation - that its public diplomats and press officers sit back, see a crowded market place and believe that change is impossible. Being voiceless therefore becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

These comments connect with my discussion of T.J.'s paper and the consequences of accepting a 'silent movie' approach. Again, the international media are not necessarily ignoring Taiwan; Taiwan is not getting the message out and its voice heard because of the inadequacies of the public diplomacy structure.     

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