‘Lovable’ Taiwan and Its Soft Power Quest

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‘Lovable’ Taiwan and Its Soft Power Quest

Taiwan’s deputy minister of culture speaks with The Diplomat.

‘Lovable’ Taiwan and Its Soft Power Quest
Credit: Ministry of Culture, Republic of China (Taiwan)

Twenty-five years ago, Taiwan opened its first cultural office in the United States, the Taipei Cultural Center in New York City. This year, Taiwan will be opening up a new division of culture in the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in Washington, D.C., with an eye toward promoting Taiwan’s culture in the capital of one of Taipei’s most important partners.

Dr. Pierre Tzu-pao Yang, Taiwan’s deputy minister of culture, was in D.C. this week to discuss the new division of culture. He also sat down with The Diplomat’s Shannon Tiezzi to talk about the importance of Taiwan’s international cultural programs, why culture will be a crucial part of Taiwan’s future – and why he doesn’t like the term “soft power.” The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Diplomat: What is the mission for the new cultural office in D.C.? How will it be different from existing centers in New York, Houston, and Los Angeles?

Deputy Minister Yang: New York is a very important city for art, for culture. But culture is life. Our office here, just like the other offices in the United States, will introduce Taiwanese artists, film and the performing arts — all kinds of possibilities.

But of course there are some meaningful objectives in D.C. We know there are a lot of politicians and diplomats here. So in the center of power in the United States, we can make people know Taiwan better – not only people from the United States, but also some foreign representatives. It’s not the same as New York or Los Angeles; D.C. is very special, unique even.

Taiwan has put a lot of effort into these cultural programs. How would you say Taiwan’s “soft power” or cultural influence is doing in the United States?

There’s always some space to improve. Our center in New York has been there 25 years – it’s a very long time. So now it is a new generation, with new possibilities. We must do something new, for example, blending culture with technology. Even the most important museums are finding it more and more difficult to attract people to come. But internet or virtual museums are more and more important. So now Taiwan’s cultural centers can do something more trendy, with new technology. That’s also one of the specialties of Taiwan, the technology capital in Asia.

Augmented reality, virtual reality, digitalization – we must put more effort to mix these concepts with traditional art and culture.

So how are we doing as of now? Pretty well, but there are some elements we need to change.

What do you think about U.S. citizens’ awareness of Taiwan?

As of now, it’s not good enough. Maybe some elites or university students know Taiwan, but we must put in more effort to integrate Taiwanese culture into the mainstream.

For example, 20 years ago, we had our own exhibition centers, but now we prefer to work with American galleries and other institutes, so we can integrate with the mainstream and not do something by ourselves, with our own space. We must use the local society’s leg work and resources, even local agents.

Now we have a new policy: if we organize an exhibition, one-fifth must be local artists. That means if we organize a group of 20 artists, four must be American artists. In the past, we would always organize 20 Taiwanese artists. It’s a kind of conversation, so we can see the different ways of expression in what modern American artists and Taiwanese artists do. It’s easier to appeal to the local audience, and also Taiwanese artists can learn something. Cultural exchange is not one way; if we can build a two-way conversation it’s more interesting.

Do you think there is a different approach overall to cultural exchanges under the new Tsai Ing-wen administration, or is it a continuation of previous efforts?

We continue a lot of things, but there’s always something new. Taiwan has been looking for identity for a long time already, even under President Ma. It’s a continued road.

I think for cultural diversity we will do a little bit more, for example, with aboriginal art, Hakka art, different cultures on the island. That is one of the most important policies for Tsai Ing-wen. For sure, a very important part is Chinese culture, but also there are other influences. For example, now we have new immigration coming from Southeast Asia, so that’s also part of Taiwan’s culture. So we will present the diversity of Taiwanese culture.

Some analysts, particularly realists, tend to doubt the value of cultural outreach. Why is Taiwan putting so much emphasis on culture? What does it expect will be the benefits?

Why do this? Because culture is one of the comparative advantages of Taiwan. Taiwan is of course a member of the worldwide Chinese community, but I believe Taiwan is the most energetic, with more space and all kinds of possibilities for art creation or cultural creation. If we want to show the difference between Taiwan and other Chinese communities – mainland China, Singapore, Hong Kong, even the Chinese community in the United States – I believe it is the vigor and energy of creation. This kind of innovation or creation must be developed in a free society. We like to show that to the world, because it is one of our fortes.

Also, regretfully, we have some political problems. When it comes to traditional diplomacy, there are a lot of limitations. Because this door is closed or not open very much, we must open the other door.

So are these sorts of cultural initiatives even more important for Taiwan, because of its unique political situation?

Yes. “Culture” is not a very sensitive term, so it’s easier for us to open the door.

And also culture in this century is a kind a of industry. So I personally believe that culture is the future of Taiwan, even economically. Now with competition in Asia it has become more difficult for us to find a way forward for the economy. Culture is one of the differences between Taiwan and the other Chinese communities. It’s our strength.

I’m sure you’re aware that Mainland China is also very interested in soft power and cultural exchanges.

But soft power is a very abused term. Soft power needs culture, and culture needs a free base – a free society. You cannot limit innovation. Limitation, regulation, suppression is not good for culture. Culture is not something static; you must give it a healthy environment so culture can grow and develop.

Yes, everyone can use “soft power” the term, but the content is different. Mainland China can do whatever they can, but we do something different. And “soft power” means people decide what kind of culture or products they like. What we must do is to present the beauty of Taiwan.

Is there any concern in Taiwan about some of the Chinese soft power initiatives? For example, Confucius Institutes teach a viewpoint in accordance with Beijing’s – including the “one China” policy.

Now, in my opinion, is a wonderful moment for Taiwan to develop cultural diplomacy or soft power. Mainland China limits culture and puts pressure on artists to agree with the government or they can’t create. It is making people impatient. For example, making our performers say they support unification — there’s nothing wrong with supporting unification, but you can’t force people to say that.

Confucius Institutes are this way; there is an element of “you have to do this.” Culture and art isn’t like this; you can’t say “you must do this, you cannot do that.” Even in America, you are seeing attitudes changing toward the Confucius Institutes. People aren’t as excited about them as they were 10 years ago.

So this is Taiwan’s opportunity, because Taiwan allows people to speak, including criticizing Tsai Ing-wen. This is the best situation for culture.

Going back to Taiwan’s economy, our previous economic model is not developing well. People no longer want to invest in traditional sectors. But the creative cultural industry can be an opportunity for Taiwan’s economy – film, popular music, performing arts. We still need to put more efforts into joining the global cultural industry, but we have an economic opportunity with cultural products.

Taiwan has so many young people that need new jobs, new opportunities. As with every society right now, I believe young people are more and more active – but I don’t think this is a bad thing. They are angry, because they can’t find opportunities in traditional industries. Taiwan won’t tell them, “You can’t be angry,” Taiwan won’t suppress them. That’s an opportunity and an advantage for Taiwan.

Young people are very creative and energetic, and Taiwan is a very young society. Young people are not satisfied with the new world, but they are not overly negative. The government should help them find a new path. We have to be very careful in handling their anger and energy, but you can’t avoid it.

Everything I’ve just mentioned all has to do with culture. The 20th century is gone, and culture is the future of Taiwan.

Going back to the Confucius Institutes — the original idea is a good one. Spreading awareness of Chinese culture is not something that is bad for Taiwan. Knowing more about Chinese culture, Chinese society, Chinese traditions is also good for Taiwan.

But the government is using too much control, and that’s a problem because you can’t control culture. Taiwan knows this very well. As our minister of culture told Tsai Ing-wen, “Culture does not serve politics.” I think she’s right, and anyone in a relatively free society will recognize that. Culture is life, and politics is only a small part of life.

Not only in the United States, but in Japan and Europe, more and more people think that Taiwan is quite lovable. We’re not powerful; we’re not aggressive. As I said before, we don’t just send people to the United States for exhibitions, we invite Americans to participate.

“Soft power” or “hard power” – it’s all power. Power means a desire to influence someone. But Taiwan just wants to make some conversation. So I don’t really like the term “soft power” because of the word “power.” I prefer cultural interaction or exchange. Americans like to talk about power; that’s okay because the U.S. is powerful. We are a small island, so we don’t talk about power. Taiwan isn’t the United States; we are very modest.

Right now, there’s a lot of concern in Asian countries about the U.S. commitment to the region as we head into the presidential election. Do you think that these cultural exchanges and people-to-people interactions can help convince the U.S. public to stay involved in Asia?

Of course. You know the theory of public diplomacy: you persuade people; people will persuade congressmen; congressmen will persuade the administration; the administration will persuade their diplomats. That’s the basic theory. It needs space and time, but we can do that.

The more we have worries about the U.S. not caring about the outside world, the more energy and resources we must invest in people-to-people policies or public diplomacy. That’s an efficient way to change the situation.