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Taiwan Lecture in Croatia: Taiwan’s soft power & political communications in Taiwan

Dr. Gary D. Rawnsley, professor of public diplomacy and director of international academic strategy at the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom spoke as a guest lecturer on Friday, May 16, at the Taiwan Research Center in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Dr. Rawnsley discussed Taiwan’s soft power and his views on some aspects of the dynamics of political communications in Taiwan. The public lecture was organized in conjunction with the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Zagreb in Croatia.

Professor Rawnsley first analyzed how Taiwan exercises “soft power” and uses public diplomacy to communicate and engage with the international community, thereby compensating for the absence of formal diplomatic relations with major powers. He argues that Taiwan’s international engagement strategies are constrained by external and internal political environments. The current international geopolitical structure has locked Taiwan into a set of challenging relationships and arrangements over which it has little control or influence. He further argues that the nature of Taiwan’s public diplomacy, its architecture, and the activities organized and undertaken by government agencies in Taipei and its representatives abroad reveal in his view, at best, a misunderstanding of how Taiwan’s soft power might work more effectively. The strategic thematic choice of legitimacy—invoking Taiwan’s international status—versus credibility, which in soft power terms offers the most benefit; and the decision to privilege cultural over political themes in international communications all profoundly affect the success of Taiwan’s soft power.

Dr. Rawnsley then discussed the present state of political communications in Taiwan and perceptions of the relationship between journalists and politicians within the context of media commercialization, citing his findings based on semi-structured interviews. These indicate that the interactions between the media and political elites in Taiwan are perceived as having high levels of conflict, hostility, mutual suspicion, and mistrust. Relationships with these attributes can have profound implications for the legitimacy and efficacy of institutions, actors, and political communications in a newly created democratic system. He sees a “knowledge deficit model” that operates within the mainstream media as explaining the evidence: the perceptions that the public, journalists, and politicians have of the formal aspects of democracy may have been transformed, but exactly what defines the application of democratic norms, particularly what constitutes the practice of responsible journalism, remains ambiguous, with many nuances.

Significantly, huge market pressures and the widely accepted “media logic”, coupled with the democratic knowledge deficit, are creating a vicious cycle in the practice of political communication in Taiwan. He concluded that this may provide a tentative explanation for what he described as a brisk deterioration of expectations about democracy and the media’s role in it in Taiwan, and in the quality of democratic political communication.

Naturally not everyone will agree with his analysis but the dynamics of communication in a democracy like Taiwan deserve ongoing attention and thought.