Taiwan reaches out

With the future uncertain, the isolated island nation opens up to world media.

Women wear traditional Taiwanese costumes for its National Day parade in Taipei city center. (photo credit: BEN HARTMAN)
Women wear traditional Taiwanese costumes for its National Day parade in Taipei city center.
(photo credit: BEN HARTMAN)
In a highly complicated region, a small, isolated country stands as an island of prosperity and democracy.
Facing an uncertain future and spiraling housing prices, the country has enlisted its foreign ministry in a PR blitz meant to improve the country’s standing in the international community.
The similarities to Israel were apparent during a visit to Taiwan for the “Double Ten” National Day last month, during which foreign journalists received a glimpse of a country not quite independent or recognized by the world but trying to raise its diplomatic and economic influence – all while pushing a hasbara campaign that would make Israel’s Foreign Ministry blush.
“The Great Taiwan Foreign Press Airlift of 2014” (as I’ve taken to calling it) was part of a series of such trips that Taipei’s Foreign Office has organized in recent years. This trip alone brought 48 journalists from dozens of countries to the island nation, including most of the 22 countries that recognize Taiwan as the Republic of China. The occasion, officially, was National Day – the holiday commemorating the beginning of the Wuchang uprising on October 10, 1911 (“10/10”), which led to the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the founding of the Republic of China in January 1912.
The celebrations took place in front of the Presidential Office Building, where the streets were blocked off for a parade.
The festivities included song and dance numbers by hundreds of Taiwanese youth, most of whom seemed to have drilled for years on end; the look in their eyes at times betrayed terror at the prospect of missing a step. The celebration also had moments guaranteed to perplex at least a few visitors – for instance, two women dressed up as humanoid wasps and dragonflies, spinning around on rollerblades and waving at the press section.
What stuck out most, though, was who took center-stage: the delegations from Paraguay and Burkina Faso. Along the parade grounds, the flags of both countries stood high on flagpole after flagpole, and President Ma Ying-jeou thanked the two delegations in the first sentence of his speech. It had to be one of only a few occasions in history when either of these countries stood so prominently at such an event – indicating how few countries, even now, actually recognize Taiwan, and how marginal are those that do.
The Republic of China is Taiwan’s official name, since nationalist leaders, soldiers and millions of refugees fled there from mainland China toward the end of the Chinese Civil War. After their departure, Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong and his backers took control of mainland China, founding the People’s Republic of China. There has been an ongoing sovereignty dispute ever since.
Ma’s speech touched on the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong – an issue on the minds of all the visiting journalists, many of whom were looking for a way to link their articles to the massive story developing just a two-hour flight down the China Sea.
Ma praised the protests, saying that increased democratization on the Chinese mainland would be a win-win for the people of China and Taiwan.
“Today, we again urge those on the other side of the Taiwan Strait to take note that now is the most appropriate time for mainland China to move toward constitutional democracy,” he said, adding that preserving democracy in Hong Kong “would be a sure-fire way to convert crisis into opportunity.”
The praise was funny, in a sense, because shortly afterward, he criticized protesters who took to the streets earlier this year, in the March 18-April 10 Sunflower Student Movement – a series of protests against the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement with China, which was passed without clause-by-clause review. At one point during the protests, the students and their supporters occupied the Taiwanese legislature.
Taiwan views the situation in Hong Kong with trepidation. Many believe it illustrates the problems behind the “one China, two systems” policy that was supposed to apply to Hong Kong after reunification with the mainland in 1997. The fear among many in Taiwan is that if they were to reunify, they would eventually go the way of Hong Kong and see an erosion of their democracy.
Critics of the Taiwanese government’s growing trade agreements with China fear that greater economic ties will increase mainland influence and threaten the island’s sovereignty. The vibrant Taiwanese economy is heavily dependent on China, with 40 percent of its exports going to the mainland and Hong Kong, according to estimates from Taiwanese officials this week.
According to Ma, Taiwan has the ability “to find a path that strikes a proper balance between stable development on the one hand, and democracy and freedom on the other.”
THIS BALANCE is at the center of politics on this small yam-shaped island previously known as Formosa. Today home to 23 million people, Taiwan is dwarfed by the global superpower that is mainland China, with a population of more than 1.3 billion.
The PR campaign and the “foreign press airlifts” funded by the government in Taipei appear to be a major part of this balancing act.
“Taiwan is in a head-to-head public relations battle with China over its legitimacy as a sovereign state,” Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the US-Taiwan Business Council, tells The Jerusalem Post. “It needs a comprehensive strategy that includes bringing in foreign journalists to show them the reality of Taiwan’s democratic and economic success so that they might report what they see to their own population.”
Hammond-Chambers compares it to the hasbara (public advocacy) efforts by Israel, which, like Taiwan, faces an existential threat from its neighbors.
“For Taiwan to enjoy support, it has to create a broad foundation of support, and the media play an essential role in highlighting its democracy, technology prowess and gains in the rights and protections of its citizens,” he says.
To Douglas H. Paal – vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he directs the endowment’s Asia program – it’s even simpler.
“Taiwan is being diplomatically isolated by a rising China, so it is natural to reach out and find friends where it can,” he says, adding that part of its goal is pushing the message that “Taiwan is an autonomous and democratically vibrant society that does not want to go the way Hong Kong is heading. It seeks moral or better support.”
The PR blitz is part of efforts to prevent a reunification and preserve the status quo – the political situation that an estimated 90% or more of the Taiwanese population favors.
When asked about the possibilities of reunification with the mainland, Paal says the government of Taiwan “tries to finesse the question of ultimate reunification, to buy time for extended autonomy and change in China itself. Another party governing Taiwan might seek a more confrontational, or less obliging, route, with uncertain prospects.”
Manfred Peng, director-general of Taiwan’s Department of International Information Services, reiterates the importance of the status quo to most Taiwanese and that Hong Kong’s “one nation, two systems” model is a non-starter for the people of Taiwan.
“President Ying-jeou has adopted the basic policy of ‘no unification [with mainland China], no [Taiwanese] independence, and no armed conflict [with mainland China]’ since he took office in 2008. According to the surveys in past years, the majority of Taiwanese people prefer the status quo, rather than immediate unification or independence. ‘One nation, two systems’ is totally unacceptable to the absolute majority of Taiwanese people,” he tells the Post.
Peng adds that “with any possible relations with mainland China in the future, we would never sacrifice our democracy, security and prosperity.”
Despite its minuscule size and muscle compared to mainland China, he argues, the island can influence the future of its colossal neighbor.
“Taiwanese influence in mainland China cannot be underestimated,” he says.
“Every year, over five million Taiwanese visit the mainland, while over one million reside in China. And over two million mainland Chinese tourists and students travel to Taiwan.... Taiwan is using its free, democratic, pluralistic way of life to influence the Chinese. We would like to help bolster the middle-class society on the mainland, transforming China into a stable, responsible and peaceful nation.”
During the five days of the press trip, whenever I mentioned being from Israel I was greeted warmly; eyes lit up, and praise was heaped on the Jewish state. For a cynical Israeli journalist, the response is a bit jarring, but it’s clear that in Taiwan, Israel holds a certain cachet and is widely seen as the “Startup Nation” of legend, regardless of how flawed the reality is.
For Yun-Hseng Chi, the representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Tel Aviv (the name it has in lieu of “embassy”), the reason for this praise is clear: the two countries simply have a lot in common.
“Taiwan and Israel share many similarities: Both are small but rich and beautiful democratic countries, surrounded by strong and unfriendly ‘neighbors,’ [and] have developed into energetic hardware or software hubs in the world hi-tech industry,” he says.
Chi argues that Israel should start focusing more of its diplomatic efforts eastward and push for stronger ties with Asia. In the scenario he puts forward, Israeli tech firms could collaborate with their Taiwanese counterparts, and Israeli ingenuity in agriculture and other fields could benefit the people of Taiwan.
“Taiwanese companies excel in manufacturing, especially of hardware. Israel boasts world-class basic research and is a major center for innovation in software,” he notes. “Israel has always taken the lead with regard to hi-tech innovation, renewable energy, environmental protection, biotechnology and high-quality agriculture, which are also promoted by Taiwan. Therefore, we would like to encourage more cooperation and exchanges in these fields and establishing links between the industries of Taiwan and Israel, thereby benefiting us both.”
As of last year, he says, the two-way trade between the countries totaled $1.458 billion, 1.9% up from the previous year. Not bad, sure, but far less than the around $10b. in two-way trade between Israel and China annually.
Chi’s Israeli counterpart, Simona Halpern, the representative of Israel’s Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei, sees the ties as being deeper, going to the core of how both countries see themselves.
“There is a lot that we have in common, in terms of the challenges that Taiwan deals with and the fact that it is a small territory surrounded by states that present challenges to them on geopolitical levels,” she says. “Also that they don’t have natural resources. The only thing they have is human brains.”
She further draws a link between the countries’ foundation in ancient cultures – Chinese culture and Judaism.
To Halpern, while larger countries like the United States don’t have as much of a need to reach out to Taiwan, a small country like Israel can benefit greatly.
She adds that the people of Taiwan, where there is a move away from the compulsory military service toward a private military, could learn from the common Israeli ethos of “what you can do for your country,” particularly when it comes to military service.
Still, there are some things the two countries don’t come close to sharing.
“In Israel, schoolchildren call their teachers by their first names,” she says. “This doesn’t happen in Taiwan.”
There was a lot of information and numerous sights and sounds to digest over what was, in hindsight, a whirlwind five-day visit. On the second night in Taipei, as I was eating beef noodle soup with an American expatriate friend living in the city, he asked me, “So how’s the propaganda trip coming? Are they showing you any reality?”
He was right to ask; after all, it was a trip arranged by the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry, complete with a steady stream of PowerPoint presentations on Taiwanese industry and the natural beauty of the island. But along the way, there was a lot of reality to take in. It was clear that, as with Israel, there are two Taiwans – the urban core in and around Taipei (see: the Tel Aviv bubble), and the rest of the country. Both are part of an economically vibrant country with a thriving democracy, dealing with an uncertain diplomatic reality in a highly complex region and with rising housing prices sparking the ire of the country’s youth. Both also clearly see at least a partial solution in reaching out via PR, bringing the media of the world to their shores to see for themselves.
Two countries, united by hasbara