How to Break Taiwan’s Self-Inflicted Marginalization

It’s easy to blame Beijing and the international community for Taiwan’s loneliness. But oftentimes the wounds are of Taiwan’s making, and something can be done about it

The image of Taiwan is often one of frustration at being marginalized and excluded internationally, of being unable to participate fully in the global community because of what Beijing or Washington might think. George Orwell wrote about “Big Brother” watching over you. Taiwan could be said to have at least two “Big Brothers” watching over it, neither of whom is particularly familial towards it.

Here is the problem: Taiwan is not a country, it’s an “it,” although watchers of a recent case would perhaps revel at the thought that the U.K. apparently acknowledges Taiwan as a “political entity.”

This comment alone, given by a court official in Edinburgh, was enough to give wet dreams to the Taiwanese authorities who crowed about the international standards of its judiciary being accepted by the Scottish courts. The story made headlines all over the “entity.” Such are the scraps of recognition that The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and others look for from the “adults’” table.

Trying to remain positive, let us explore some ways in which Taiwan and the Taiwanese authorities can improve their image without constantly looking for “permission” from the “elder brothers.”

On the cultural side, Taiwan has a lot going for it. Its flora and fauna, its mountains and plains, its shores and its forests are beautiful. It offers outstanding leisure opportunities. Tainan-based companies like Barking Deer have been fighting an uphill battle for years in an attempt to “make accessible the incredible potential of this sadly often overlooked part of the world.” Yet living as I now do in the U.K., and with my sons living all over the world being into many sports, we rarely come across advertisements about Taiwan and its treasures, or featured in canoeing, running, or hill-walking magazine.

Taiwan reportedly came second in a recent “safest place in the world” survey (admittedly that is open to interpretation). There are holiday companies in the West that specialize in providing holidays for mature groups of professionals such as teachers and civil servants, who specifically look for “safe” countries (or should that be safe political entities?). But is Taiwan doing enough to advertise itself with those organizations? Evidently not.

Taiwan’s history, especially its Aboriginal and colonial history, is fascinating, unique, and mark it out as different from China. This is an important point: What makes Taiwan different from China? The answer is its geography, its history, and its people. Yet Taiwanese are largely ignorant about their island’s history, and are not promoting it sufficiently. That does not happen in, say, Scotland or Sweden, where the locals can and will talk at length about their glorious past. Here is an example of foreigners literally singing the praises of Taiwan. The video has received 1.3 million hits. Now what did the authorities do to use and promote this gem of an advert? They reportedly kicked the band out for working illegally and barred them from re-entering!

All of this makes one ask what the Tourism Bureau is doing. It needs to be imaginative, intelligent, and inclusive. It needs to encourage and use anyone who loves Taiwan and wants to showcase Taiwan to the world.

On the diplomacy side, Taiwan is almost invisible, overshadowed by China. But MOFA should not try to compete with China, as that will never work. In my diplomatic career, which spanned 35 years over a dozen postings around the world, I only once encountered Taiwanese “diplomats.” And that was at a private cocktail party in the U.S. “Soft diplomacy” is one way for Taiwan to engage with the world, but Taiwanese diplomats must stop being one dimensional — that is, only able to talk about “cross-Strait relations.” Instead, they can and should broaden their conversation and have the confidence to speak up and engage with the local population (and I don’t mean just regurgitating the official central government line).

MOFA and its people can lighten up, be less stiff and officious and instead show a bit more individuality. I’ve known European and American diplomats who have gotten into the boxing ring, climbed mountains, dressed as clowns and had rotten tomatoes thrown at them — all for charity. Where are their Taiwanese equivalents? No Chinese diplomats stand out in my mind either as interesting individuals or characters, so why should not MOFA hire some real individuals who can genuinely sell Taiwan and represent it to the world in a warm, human, sympathetic manner, maybe even with a bit of fun? The alternative, as is happening now, is to have the Chinese and Beijing’s creatures, such as its Confucius Institute, steam roll over little Taiwan.

On the domestic side, Taiwan can put its house in order without needing permission from its “siblings.” Through this, Taiwan could enhance its international image and show the world how it is different from China, how it is a functioning democracy. Taiwan could announce a moratorium on the death penalty. It can genuinely adhere to its international obligations by properly implementing the international conventions it signed, namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). It can undertake a root and branch overhaul of its judiciary. It can tackle the 40 points raised by the 2013 independent international experts’ review of Taiwan’s initial human rights report. It can take steps to reduce its harsh drug sentencing and prison overcrowding. It can update and modernize its laws. Taiwan can open its doors to a more international audience of professionals in order to help train and educate its officials in modern practices and thinking. All of this would go some way to helping Taiwan explain why it is different from, and in many ways better than, China.

On the “confidence” side, Taiwan and its official bodies should not be backward in coming forward. Taiwan exists: it is a beautiful place filled with good people. There is nothing to be ashamed of or scared about. Be proud to be Taiwanese.

But does the government of Taiwan have the will or want to change? Are there too many officials with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo? One thing is certain; if nothing changes, Taiwan will become more marginalized.


A.R. is a former foreign diplomat based in Taipei.

2 Responses to “How to Break Taiwan’s Self-Inflicted Marginalization”

July 28, 2014 at 10:01 am, Shen-yi Liao said:

It’s fairly absurd that a song that’s nearly exclusively about the white expat experience is marshaled as an instance “singing the praises of Taiwan”. Seriously. Read the lyrics: it’s about them, first and foremost, and nearly zero about Taiwan. Indeed, the Taiwanese people in the music video are used as mere props.

It is a serious issue if this is what expats — indeed, a former diplomat! — thinks of as “singing the praises of Taiwan”.


August 29, 2014 at 10:48 am, Dan said:

Perhaps – but that being said it’s about foreigners who come to Taiwan and who actually like the place and are promoting it. They’re getting involved!

The author is saying that not many Taiwanese are doing any promoting of their country (leaving it to MOFA) and that it’s a pity.

All I can say is that after living in Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan…I understand why Thailand and Hong Kong have foreigners who invest in their economies: its because of a great image and ease of doing things in Thailand in Hong Kong.

The author is saying that even though Taiwan needs foreign investment (and recognition) the people aren’t doing enough to make it happen.


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