Taiwan’s Soft Power: A Hard Sell

State-funded study camps can help increase Taiwan’s appeal among foreign students, academics and journalists. But a lot more needs to be done to improve their effectiveness
J. Michael Cole / TT

As China continues its seemingly unstoppable rise, one question that has challenged policy makers in Taiwan is how can Taiwan hope to compete with China for attention on the world stage. Given Taiwan’s diplomatic marginality, perhaps one means is through soft power. Taiwan’s soft power offensive operates on many levels, but perhaps one of the most interesting — and least known — channels is its Taiwan Study Camp program (菁英領袖研習班).

On the diplomatic front, Taiwan is frequently sidelined in world affairs. It only has formal diplomatic relations with 22 minor powers and is not officially recognized by any major power.

This diplomatic isolation is a result of the “one China” policy. Under this policy, two different governments — the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China, Taiwan (hereinafter “China” and “Taiwan”) — officially claim to represent China. Yet, both sides agree that there is only one state called China. Other states must choose which “China” they will maintain official diplomatic relations with. Countries that have official diplomatic relations with the PRC must break off relations with Taiwan, and vice versa.

As a result of this policy, Taiwan is currently only represented in 57 countries through its consular services (and pseudo-embassies) known as the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office. This isolation requires creative solutions in order to maintain a global profile. One such solution is through soft power.

Soft power is won via attraction rather than coercion, a notion made famous by Joseph Nye in his book Soft Power: The means to success in world politics. Commercially, Taiwan has successfully used soft power to raise its profile through building globally recognized brands such as Giant, Din Tai Fung and HTC Corp. Taiwan’s presence in arts and cultural events is also strong, especially in Asia, where Taiwanese stars have significant influence in film, music, and TV. Internationally the Cloud Gate Dance theatre and Taiwanese film directors like Ang Lee (李安) and Tsai Ming-liang (蔡明亮) have helped shape the image of Taiwan as a creative and dynamic place.

Where Taiwan has succeeded, China continues to struggle to wield and maintain significant soft power. Recent controversies such as the suspension of its Confucius Institutes in some universities in the U.S. or the tearing out of “offending” pages (poignantly including information on Taiwan’s Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation) at an academic conference in Portugal have only undermined the PRC’s soft power. The lingering stigma of human rights abuses and growing suspicion about the many implications of China’s military and economic growth do not help either.

The government in Taiwan seeks to use soft power to raise and solidify its position in the eyes of the world. One front in this soft power charm offensive are the little known, fully-funded, Taiwan study camps organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). Participants are given VIP treatment, including airfare, hotel accommodation, food and cultural activities. Several camps are run throughout the year. The camps are designed specifically for academics, future young leaders (such as political staffers, young politicians or government workers) and journalists. Most participants have little background knowledge of, or experience in, Taiwan. During the camps attendees are given 8-10 days of lectures about Taiwan. High profile or important attendees are even able to meet with politicians, including President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).

The study camps are not publicized, and it is difficult to freely obtain information about them. These camps epitomize Taiwan’s soft power objectives: striving to attract more international allies as opposed to coercing them. This is achieved through a mixture of culture, friendship and other alluring aspects of Taiwanese society, such as food.

Besides lectures, the study camps offer a mix of cultural and tourist activities showcasing Taiwan’s vibrant, democratic and multicultural society. With a strong focus on Taiwan’s current political status as the ROC, the lectures also address economic development, cross-Strait policies, democratic development, and foreign aid policy. As is expected of a camp organized by a government department, the lectures maintain a strict government line, with little mention of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), for example. Despite the one-sided approach, the camps do boost the participants’ understanding of Taiwan and its culture.

A recent group visited the headquarters of the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation in Hualien, where it had the opportunity to consider another dimension of Taiwan’s soft power. Through its global religious presence and humanitarian efforts, the massive Buddhist NGO is regarded as one of the key components of Taiwan’s soft power. Although Tzu Chi does not expressly work on behalf of the Taiwanese government, its interests align closely with those of the authorities. This includes improving social cohesion and welfare and projecting the image of Taiwan as a compassionate society. During the visit to Tzu Chi’s impressively ornate campus, camp attendees saw the sophisticated and effective way that the organization raises living conditions throughout the world. Camp organizers hope this will instill the image of Taiwan as a connected, compassionate and caring place among the participants.

Since Taiwan is currently ruled by a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration, the camp strives to highlight KMT policy initiatives. A recent Taiwan Study Camp visited the Free Economic Pilot Zone in Taoyuan, home to Taiwan’s main international airport. This visit was framed in the light of promoting the economic zones and their alleged benefits to the wider Taiwanese economy. While Taiwan’s economic prospects are looking up for 2015, its economy is still dwarfed by that of China. The aims of the Pilot Zones are to show that Taiwan is still an attractive destination for foreign economic investment.

So how successful are these camps in achieving their objectives of raising Taiwan’s profile?

The camps undeniably have some effect. Following a recent Taiwan study camp for journalists, a series of articles about Taiwan clearly reflecting camp propaganda were published in Australian media. For example, one article discussed how the Sunflower Movement, which occupied the legislature in March and April 2014, was bad for Taiwan’s economic development. This theme was common in many of the camp’s lectures. For a largely Taiwan-ignorant international audience, articles maintaining the current KMT government line are important for boosting public opinion in favor of the KMT, which desperately needs to improve its popularity domestically.

For the academics who attend the camps, organizers hope that the barrage of information and hospitality will encourage them to write papers supporting Taiwan’s strategic objectives.

One academic who specializes on Chinese and U.S. foreign policy stated that the camp had not changed his academic position on the strategic nature of Taiwan vis-à-vis China. However, while the camp did not sway him academically, it did lead him to consider Taiwan as a future holiday destination. For other academics, especially those who may never have visited but frequently write about Taiwan, these camps may lead them to reconsider the role of Taiwan in their own analysis of global politics.

For the Young Leaders Camp (for young and emerging politicians), the aims are straightforward: Organizers hope that after attending the camps, participants will return to their home country and encourage their political peers and employers to enact policies that are favorable to Taiwan (or do so in their own future political careers). Participants in these camps are all from other democratic countries (one recent camp was for participants from South Korea, Pacific states, Australia, and New Zealand).

After talking with some participants, it is unclear how their participation in these camps will have an impact on policy making. For instance, a number of participants from Australia who work in politics stated, “I don’t know if this would influence how we formulate policy” or “I’m glad I visited Taiwan, but it’s unlikely to change our policy.” While their priorities might not change in the short term, it remains possible that over time their thinking on Taiwan will evolve. From the government’s point of view, hopefully any evolution will contribute to the betterment of Taiwan.

Despite the uncertain nature of influence on policy makers, one undeniably successful area is the cultural activity program. Cultural activities include elements of what can be termed “traditional Chinese culture” (such as visiting the National Palace Museum and watching traditional Chinese dance) as well as learning about Taiwan’s own cultures, especially its Aboriginal heritage. And of course, no tour of Taipei is complete without a visit the once tallest freestanding building in the world, Taipei 101. As a result of these cultural activities and contact with Taiwanese society, many of the participants said that, even though prior to coming to Taiwan they had never considered going there, they would now consider a return visit, or even encourage others to visit Taiwan. This suggests that while it may be difficult to convince policy makers of Taiwan’s merits, its cultural dimensions are a much easier soft power sell.

Apart from acting as a successful highly extravagant tourist advertisement, are the camps effective, and are there any areas for improvement?

Some participants do write articles in favor of Taiwan, but the vast majority does not. There is also no follow-up to assess the outcomes of attending these camps. Participants are not required to write reports or to complete any other administrative work. Apart from taking attendance at the camps to ensure that the participants are not excessively enjoying other alluring components of Taiwan’s cultural realm (such as its vibrant nightlife, hot springs or all-you-can-eat-and-drink hotpot restaurants), no bureaucratic processes are in place to measure the success of the camps, which are elaborate and expensive.

There is undoubtedly room for improvement in the study camps. First, more follow up is needed to examine what impact these camps have on participants. The output of participants must be traced over a number of years to gauge effectiveness. Second, clear criteria should be implemented to assess what the desired outcomes are and if they are achieved. Are critically uninformed opinion pieces in newspapers enough? What are the wider aims of the camp? Do they want to encourage students and academics to enter Taiwan studies? How could a more sustainable and effective outcome of ongoing engagement with Taiwan through targeted foreigners be obtained?

Faced with a China that is increasingly militarily, economically and diplomatically more influential than Taiwan, soft power is one of the last areas in which Taiwan can hope to compete. Soft power is also one of the ways Taiwan is able to project and maintain a distinct identity in the Asia-Pacific region. Although there are small and non-systematic gains, these camps have the potential to be a powerful soft power tool in Taiwan’s ongoing quest to shape the thoughts of friendly overseas opinion leaders and policy makers. With more thought and ongoing development, soft power will continue to be one area where Taiwan can confidently compete with China.


The author is a foreign university student who is currently not based in Taiwan.

5 Responses to “Taiwan’s Soft Power: A Hard Sell”

February 01, 2015 at 1:12 am, David said:

In the 1970s, the Jiuguotuan (救國團) sponsored youth groups to spend several weeks in Taiwan where they would be wined and dined, taken on visits and outings, and given lectures. The Jiuguotuan would recruit visitors through conservative US groups such as the Young Americans for Freedom, a group following the political line of William Buckley, but one didn’t need to be a member of such a group to participate. Is there any political or organisational link between the KMT and the present excursions?


February 01, 2015 at 11:05 pm, Jerome Besson said:

Taiwan watchers are all well aware how much Taiwanese young and old are suckers for all things Japanese.

Regrettably, no Taiwan-published Japanese language daily available at the news-stand in Taihoku?! How disgraceful! How shameful!! How ungrateful! How short-sighted!!

Make Japanese your official language as befits a (former?) Japanese Crown territory. Tout the Japanese aspects of your life-style and culture. Replace your outdated Mandarin Training Centers with Japanese language Training Centers.

Informed Chinese already know you are Japanese to the bone. What prevents you from acting the part?!


February 03, 2015 at 4:18 pm, Mr. Wang said:

Taiwanese are not Japanese. We have enough of our own culture without copying the culture of a declining empire, whose best days are behind it.


February 05, 2015 at 3:56 pm, Jerome Besson said:

The majority of the present day residents of the area known as Taiwan are the offspring of Japanese Crown subjects. And the issue of the sovereignty of Taiwan will be resolved when a core group among the offspring of the Formosan Japanese will coalesce to drive this truth in your befuddled Chinese noodle.

The apparent “Taiwan-centered” stand-point of your comment betrays you as a Chinese, or worst a stooge of the Chinese — i.e.a foe of the Formosan Japanese or, worst, a traitor.

Given its place in the history of Japan, Taiwan ought to speak Japanese. While the occupier controlling Taiwan (“Taiwan governing authorities”) may retain their language, they can not legitimize their control by imposing their language and culture on a bona fide Japanese population.

Both post-SFPT Japan, with its “made-in-occupied-Japan” constitution on the one hand and Taiwan on the other look like spin-offs of the Empire of Japan. Actually, although post-SFPT Japan split with the Empire, Taiwan never did, except for the fact of an on-going foreign occupation.

Hence, your “Taiwanese” are merely Japanese under the Chinese occupier’s boot whose control over a Japanese Crown territory is tolerated by the (principal) victor over Japan in the Pacific theater of WWII, also the (principal) occupying power of Japan (Formosa and Pescadores included).


February 06, 2015 at 1:20 pm, Benji said:

I’m going to disagree with the fifth paragraph. Taiwan used to be the epicentre for Chinese-language music, but… not so much these days. Sure, you have your Jay Chous and Jolin Tsais, but Taiwan isn’t producing any young, exciting artists to replace them. The usual, budding Malaysian and Singaporean singers aren’t flocking to Taiwan anymore—now they’re debuting on Mainland television screens. Hong Kong now-superstar, G.E.M, flopped when she entered the Taiwanese market. A year later, after an appearance on the Chinese edition of I Am A Singer, she’s now the biggest singing sensation in the Sinosphere.
The next (Malaysian-born) Tsai Ming-liang probably won’t be heading to Taiwan. Again, the Mainland beckons, even for Taiwanese celebrities (look out for Jay Chou judging on the next season of The Voice of China).
The Asian and Asian-American/Canadian/Australian/British markets where Taiwanese artists were once popular are now kpop-obsessed, Korean-drama addicts. Similarly, HTC may make better phones, but Samsung clearly dominates the Android smart phone market. HTC doesn’t even break the top five. And, granted, Taiwan has never had a tremendous film industry, but how many Taiwanese actors have the international appeal of Zhang Ziyi or the Bingbings?

Taiwan’s cultural clout is on the decline. Yeah, it still has its place for now. And there is still a sense of prestige attached to “Taiwan” when it comes to the Chinese music industry. But for how much longer? Taiwan is losing ground China, and has basically surrendered to South Korea. What’s the game plan?


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