What you need to know
Misunderstandings on both sides handicap a robust and coherent US-Taiwan dialogue, writes Milo Hsieh.
As discussion continues on issues such as a potential invitation for President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress and an independence referendum for Taiwan, a culture-information gap between those based in Washington and in Taipei has emerged.
The vast difference in the cultures of politics and expression in the U.S. and Taiwan contributes to this, though distance is also an issue that serves as a gap between American and Taiwanese decision makers. The perception and information gap between Washington and Taipei is a problem in U.S.-Taiwan relations since it impedes effective communication and understanding.
In Washington, there is primarily a circle of American academics, mostly highly experienced experts with previous experience serving the U.S. government or working/living in Taiwan. While this group of scholars offers much needed insight, especially as they have personally spent time in Taiwan, the application of their experience on a constantly evolving, digital, and democratic Taiwan can sometimes appear rusty.
1996 was a landmark year for Taiwan. It was the year when the first popular presidential election was held. Despite the difference between authoritarian Taiwan and democratic Taiwan, longtime experts have frequently used their pre-1996 experiences in Taiwan as context for their analysis.
While these experiences are certainly valuable, those in DC do not always seem to acknowledge the changes that have occurred since then. Starting in 2016, generations of Taiwanese with no experience living under an authoritarian regime began to become of voting age.
After democratization, those staffing Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) also drastically changed. A system that previously only restricted entrance to mostly the Kuomintang (KMT)-affiliated “mainlander” minority began to be opened to everyday Taiwanese. This fundamental change means that experiences within pre-1996 Taiwan and its diplomatic bureaucracy apply little to the Taiwan now.
In addition, communications have also drastically changed since the 1990s, with the lifting of various media and broadcasting bans. The skewed and singular narratives that the people of Taiwan were once fed by the authoritarian regime have since transformed. There is now a fully liberal sector of the fourth estate.
The oral- and family-narrative based collective memory is now being integrated with modern platforms such as Line, PTT, Dcard, and Facebook. The overwhelming dominance of discourse and conversations occurring in these exclusive environments means that the information foreign experts are exposed to is often not representative of the Taiwanese public opinion, even if they are fluent enough in Mandarin to bypass the language barrier.
For these reasons, pre-1996 memories of Taiwan and diplomatic norms foreign experts were familiar with are most likely now out of touch with modern Taiwanese society and people.
The issue is a double-edged sword, of course, and those in Taiwan arguably have a bigger challenge in understanding the DC political environment. The massive reliance on internet-based information in Taiwan has fostered a culture of fast journalism focused on tabloids, fast news, and unverified information among Taiwan’s four mainstream Chinese-language news outlets (Apple Daily, China Times, Liberty Times, United Daily News). This culture among journalists has made reporting of more serious matters difficult.
The average Taiwanese citizen has very little opportunity for contact with the English-speaking world. There is even a degree of reluctance for English language learning to exist despite an integrated English curriculum and high-profile government efforts to make English a national language. This is evident through calls to cancel English language requirements at top Taiwanese universities. As result misinterpretation is frequent. For example, in 2018, a Chinese-language report mistakenly announced that Oprah Winfrey would run for U.S. President, despite her having stated the exact opposite.
Another practice is the mislabeling and attribution of opinions. Though many American scholars frequently express their opinions on Taiwan, Taiwanese media has the tendency to attribute stances of scholars to a governmental post they previously held. This leads to a mistaken perception of scholarly opinions as governmental policies, despite the small and withdrawn role most academics play in official policymaking.
Examples include the attribution of Paul Dibb as a former Australian diplomat and Richard Bush as former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan. While Dibb has not served in a government since 1988 and Bush since 2002, many Chinese-language media assumes them to be representative of their respective governments. There is a lack of understanding that Bush, for example, represents Brookings Institution, a DC think tank, more than AIT. The report on Dibb also mistakenly labels him as a professor despite his retirement.
This misunderstanding most likely originates from a familiarity with Taiwan’s own political environment, where many continue to participate in electoral politics even after ending their governmental careers. Combined with an increased sensitivity on any information given Taiwan’s increasing marginalization in the international community, Chinese-language media has attributed a disproportionate amount of information to the words of any foreign experts who speak on Taiwan.
This should be a worrying trend since the many mistakes and misattributions in the reporting of mainstream media distorts the view of the Taiwanese public towards the policies of foreign governments.
In both the Taiwanese and American communities which focus on the U.S.-Taiwan relations, these ingroup characteristics have locked both groups in a sort of echo chamber.
The use of different mediums as outlets of expression amplifies this: Twitter, which is popular among the American professional community, is seldom used in Taiwan, where Facebook is the dominant political outlet.
There are, however, more ways to which those in DC can adjust themselves to bridge this information gap, through shifting of focuses away from topics of American interest to understand concepts central to how Taiwan has been constructed. One important element to note is the recency of colonial and authoritarian history in Taiwan, which can be difficult to relate to given the longevity of American democracy. Another important element is the role and perceptions of Taiwanese youths, being the first generation of Taiwanese familiar with democratic values and expression since birth. Their activism during the Sunflower Movement of 2014 should be evidence of this.
At the end of the day, those in both Taipei and Washington must pay attention to the ways their own identities and perspectives have been shaped, as well as how Taiwanese identity has been constructed. Despite difficulties in setting up contact between Taipei and Washington due to distance (along with the lack of official diplomatic ties), there are many ways to do this. If American scholars and policy thinkers are better able to, figuratively and literally, speak the language of Taiwan, the U.S. would be able to conduct diplomacy and achieve American interests more effectively to the benefit of all.
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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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