Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Taiwan Studies Workshop in Brno, 2013

I spent a week in Brno in the Czech Republic, attending a week-long workshop on Taiwan for students across Europe. The students were brilliant - enthusiastic, engaged, curious, insightful and delightful - and the level of discussion was admirable. They were all ready and eager to start at 9am on Monday morning and they were still there at 5pm on Friday. Such commitment!

I taught two sessions, one on Taiwan's democratic transition and one on Taiwan's soft power. The students delivered very thoughtful presentations on these topics and they had obviously worked very hard. While Ewa Aniskiewicz and Jacek Baniak from Krakow discussed what we might call the outputs-based approach - focusing on the methods Taiwan uses to exercise soft power in the international domain - Amina Abievai located soft power within a broader discussion of international relations theory, including a discussion of Niccolo Machiavelli and his commitment to hard power. While Amina also concentrated on Taiwan's outputs, including the famous Bubble Tea, HTC and the success of film director Ang Lee, her presentation ended on an interesting note: how might Taiwan counter the PRC's soft power? she asked. Her answer threw me: 'Make Taiwan the Hawaii of the Far East.' This is an unusual proposition and it took me some time to analyse and understand what Amina meant; but she makes a very perceptive point, and it is one I would like to consider further in my research.

Ewa Aniskiewicz & Jacek Baniek talking about Taiwan's soft power

Amina Abievai: Taiwan as "The Hawaii of the East"

Amina agreed that democracy is Taiwan's most valuable theme of public diplomacy and represents soft power in practice - as regular readers of this blog know only too well, this is one of my favourite subjects. Amina pushed me to think this through a little more. Making Taiwan the Hawaii of the Far East, although a rather simplistic approach (and I really do not know enough about Hawaii to conclude whether it is a good model or not, though Steve McGarrett and Magnum PI will have their own opinions), in essence means making Taiwan a desirable place to live. I had just finished suggesting to the students that governments should not really be involved in the soft power process; they certainly should not try to strategise its exercise, but rather soft power is a natural by-product of what a government does and how it behaves at home and abroad. In short, I said, the job of governments is to govern, and to do so in an ethical, transparent and accountable way. Governments should let others tell the 'soft power' story if there is one and allow audiences the space to reach their own judgements based on what they see governments actually doing.

As Amina suggested, this means that the government of Taiwan should not try too hard to exercise its soft power. In addition to being a democratic power, the government can govern in such a way that the island continues to develop its potential - in education, healthcare, the environment, housing, the infrastructure and other policy areas - and this effort expended in actually governing Taiwan will reap soft power benefits.

As a postscript I would like to add that last week I read a chapter by a colleague who suggested that the exercise of soft power is all about talking up the good points about one's own country. I disagree and explained to the students that honesty is far more effective. A government accumulates far more credibility if it is open and honest about its mistakes and enters into discussion and dialogue about the less attractive characteristics of the country it represents. Audiences appreciate candour, self-reflection and self-criticism and the capacity to accept criticism from others. This may not lead to trust, but will not doubt contribute to a sense of self-integrity which, in soft power terms, is a good starting point.