A small island in the shadow of a giant neighbor that claims its territory, Taiwan nonetheless holds a key to shaping China’s meteoric rise, Taiwanese officials say.
Taiwan is “the only force on Earth that may have an impact on the future political development of China,” said Steven S.F. Chen, formerly the island’s envoy to the United States and now an adviser to its president. “Not, I’m afraid to say, the United States, not Japan, not any another country. Only Taiwan.”
Mr. Chen and others argue that Taiwan can play such a role through the strategic use of soft power – the cultural leverage that comes with a shared history, language and geography.
Taiwan, which broke away from the mainland in 1949 after the Communist Party took power in Beijing, is a modern Western-style democracy, with a bicameral legislature and a directly elected president, like the United States.
But its culture and people are steeped in the 2-millennia-old traditions of Confucianism – the guiding philosophy of China’s governing classes through centuries of imperial rule.
The principles of Confucianism “are the center of Taiwan’s education system from the third grade,” said Lung Yingtai, Taiwan’s minister of culture and a respected author and intellectual.
“The Germans quote Goethe a lot. We quote Confucius even more,” Ms. Lung said. “You breathe it in every day. There is no place in the world as Confucian as Taiwan.”
Although the philosophy was developed as a guide for the administrators of China’s vast empire, Ms. Lung said, Confucianism and liberal democracy are compatible.
“They merge perfectly,” though with imperfect results, she said in a speech during a visit to Washington in September.
According to Confucius, every official from the lowliest clerk to the emperor should be “kind, upright, courteous, temperate and magnanimous,” Ms. Lung said.
Building a democracy in Taiwan is “an ongoing process with trial and error,” she said.
Because it has continued to foster Confucian principles, Taiwan is a center of gravity for the Chinese diaspora, especially on the cultural level, where Taipei’s vigorous book and movie industries often publish works banned on the mainland.
“It is no accident that [the Chinese minority in] Malaysia produces large numbers of the best Chinese-language novelists and poets who find Taiwan their incubator,” Ms. Lung said. “It is no accident that Taiwanese filmmakers, songwriters and composers enjoy a very prominent position in the Chinese-speaking world.”
She said the overrepresentation of artists from the relatively small Taiwanese and diaspora populations is a result of their freedoms.
“A democratic system with guaranteed freedom of expression has given rise to a creative and culturally vibrant society in Taiwan,” she said.
Increasing numbers of visitors from the mainland cross the strait to visit Taiwan every year, said Frank Yee Wang of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States, the breakaway island’s de facto embassy in Washington.
“What they are always amazed by are the political talk shows,” he said of visitors from the mainland.
Although China has a vigorous and competitive tabloid press, there is little coverage of politics and none at all of the open arguments that are the meat and drink of such political talk shows, Mr. Wang said.
Such personal and cultural exchanges, and growing trade between the two uneasy neighbors, are underpinned by the Economic and Cultural Framework Agreement signed by Beijing and Taipei two years ago, which provides for gradually reducing tariffs and other bilateral trade barriers.
The Economic and Cultural Framework Agreement “is one of the keys to unlock the potential of soft power,” Ms. Lung told The Washington Times after her speech in Washington, noting that there is long way to go in terms of free trade in cultural materials such as movies and books.