Soft-power play

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 February, 2010, 12:00am

Despite a loudly trumpeted 'diplomatic truce' under which neither Taiwan nor the mainland will try to raid each other's diplomatic allies, especially through the use of chequebook diplomacy, neither side has given up the contest for influence among ordinary people around the world - something that is often called soft power.

Taiwan's president, Ma Ying-jeou, made this clear when he recently disclosed that Taipei will establish a string of academies around the world to promote Chinese language and culture.

In this, mainland China has a big head start. Ever since the first Confucius Institute was opened in Seoul in 2004, Beijing has used them to spread Chinese language and culture and, today, more than 280 have been established in 88 countries and regions.

In fact, since the Chinese government provides funding and resources, they are much sought after by overseas universities.

The idea of setting up 'Taiwan Academies' - exactly what they will be called is not yet clear - around the world was floated by Ma when he was a presidential candidate. At the time, he also proposed setting up a US$150 million fund to finance an award that will be comparable to a Nobel Prize in literature for Chinese people. This, too, is worth pursuing. It is good that Taiwan is planning to strengthen its position and vie for influence in the dissemination of Chinese language and culture.

After all, in earlier years, especially during the Cultural Revolution - when the mainland was denouncing Confucius and Red Guards were destroying precious relics - Taiwan positioned itself as the guardian of Chinese culture.

But, in recent years, Beijing has been depicting itself as the custodian of Chinese culture and has used such Confucian ideas as 'harmony' to bolster support for the Communist Party.

However, the recent box-office failure of the movie Confucius, offered by the mainland to offset the Hollywood blockbuster Avatar, shows that the Chinese public at large is not necessarily attracted to propaganda dressed up as history and culture.

While Taipei continued to operate cultural centres and Chinese-language schools in various countries, it has lacked the momentum of Beijing's Confucius Institutes. The setting up of Taiwan Academies, beginning this year in Los Angeles and Houston, is definitely a step in the right direction.

Taipei's idea is to have the cabinet-level Council for Cultural Affairs spearhead this project, in conjunction with the Overseas Compatriots Affairs Commission. The inclusion of the latter body shows that the effort is at least in part directed at ethnic Chinese around the world.

The Taiwanese government's ties with overseas Chinese communities go back more than a century, having been forged by Dr Sun Yat-sen when he was a revolutionary. He solicited funds and recruited supporters from Chinese in the United States, Japan, Hong Kong and elsewhere.

In recent years, however, Taiwan's Chen Shui-bian government, in attempting to distance itself from Beijing, deliberately cut itself off from overseas Chinese communities. In fact, the commission itself was renamed by replacing the word 'Chinese' with the word 'compatriots'.

Taiwan's return to the contest for cultural influence is likely to be welcomed. For one thing, overseas institutions will have another potential source of funding to turn to. Students unable to study at a Confucius Institute may have a second chance by applying for a scholarship at a Taiwan Academy.

Moreover, Taiwan will have a chance to offer the world a window into Chinese culture. Taiwan should also promote its own contemporary culture, which has its own intrinsic value.

But, most importantly, Taiwan will be in a position to promote traditional Chinese culture, and to do so without viewing it through the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party. Of course, the Kuomintang, too, should not politicise Chinese culture to serve its own ends. Chinese culture is part of the world's heritage and should not be monopolised by any political party as its own asset.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator