Written by Gary Rawnsley.

A state’s soft power capacity is determined by how it behaves, at home and abroad. It is derived from a style of government that recognises first the significance of values, principles and political arrangements that make a particular state attractive; and second that in putting those values into practice, what you do is far more important than what you say. Writing about the soft use of power (rather than soft power), Chinese scholar Mingjiang Li (2009:9) has summarised this position:

The domestic political values, institutions, and political system are important considerations for a state’s soft power because all these things demonstrate how the ruling elite in that state uses power on its own people. Such use of power in the domestic context can resonate in the international arena because people outside see and observe how foreign rulers treat their own nationals and associate that practice with their dealings in the international community

Taiwan’s soft power capacity is enormous yet, as I have argued for almost twenty years in my articles, book chapters and blog posts on the subject, this capacity is underestimated by Taiwan’s political elites. In choosing to respond with violence to the peaceful protests in Taipei on 23 March, President Ma Ying-jeou’s government has risked the soft power capital it has accumulated in three decades as the first Chinese democracy. What has always set Taiwan apart from the People’s Republic of China is its attitude towards democratic processes, institutions and communication; and while we can easily find flaws in all these political arrangements – Taiwan is still a juvenile democracy still finding its way after all – we note the level of tolerance for dissent, popular protest and participation. Only recently, pro-unification activists have waved the PRC flag outside Taipei 101 without facing any criminal penalties for doing so. In this way, Taiwan has been able to set itself apart from the PRC where popular protest and participation in the political process is either managed by the state or is suppressed all together. Try waving the ROC flag in Tiananmen Square and you will soon experience the differences that separate the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Now, however, images of police wielding batons and bloodied students are re-tweeted around the world, leading commentators to question the government’s values and principles that underpin Taiwan’s soft power capacity.

The removal of students from the Executive Yuan  is not Democracy Spring in Beijing 1989: it is simply wrong to see parallels between what happened to students in Tiananmen Square and in Taipei. The PRC and Taiwan are completely different political systems facing different challenges. We sour the memory of the students who died in Beijing if we resort to such cheap comparisons.

Moreover, we have to appreciate that neither China nor Taiwan are alone in undermining their soft power capacity: the behaviour at home and abroad of some liberal-democracies often contradicts and undermines the very soft power principles they claim in their rhetoric. How can the UK government criticise with any credibility the tendency of authoritarian governments like China to monitor the private email traffic of its people when, in 2013, revelations about the reach of GCHQ demonstrated the British government is guilty of exactly the same practice? Guantanamo Bay, photos of human ‘trophies’ at Abu Ghraib and the false claims about ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in the run-up to the war against Iraq in 2003 all challenges American soft power and had negative consequences for America’s image and attractive value. For audiences affected by American policy and exposed to anti-US narratives, ‘Presidential rhetoric about promoting democracy is less convincing than pictures of Abu Ghraib’ (Nye, 2010: 8). The British police have similarly used heavy-handed tactics in dealing with recent protests, especially those involving students. No-one should claim the moral high-ground when it comes to politics. However, just because the US and UK governments have behaved in less than ideal ways does not mean we cannot criticise other governments, including Taiwan, when they behave the same. If the story on 3/24 involved brutality by the British police against students in London I would still be angry and writing in opposition to my government.

I discussed in a recent post how protests are a justified act of political communication and the fact that sometimes citizens feel the need to break the law to make their point. Political societies around the world have made enormous progress because their people were prepared to stand up for what they believe. As I write this, at least 36 people, including a 28-year old pregnant woman have been killed in protests in Venezuela. Since February, students have been demanding political change, an end to economic mismanagement and the current food shortage, and one of the highest crime rates in the world. Protests against the Spanish government’s austerity measures shook Madrid this weekend, ending with around 100 people injured; and in Mexico, riot police disbursed protesters on the streets of Coyoacan. Some may read into this wave of protests a trend; for me the most clear link between the events in Spain, Mexico and Taiwan is their invisibility; they are noticeable by their absence in the  world’s media, and if they’re not reported then they are not happening.

How President Ma now handles the fall-out from the painful events of 3/24 will not only determine his political future, but quite possibly the political future of Taiwan. Let’s be clear; this is not the end of democracy, rather it is a crisis in democracy. Ma Ying-jeou is not a dictator, and come the next election the voters will be able to decide how to respond to his government and its record. Many protesters living under authoritarian governments in Asia and around the world do not have that opportunity. Regardless of whether or not the students were correct in their assessment of the trade agreement with China and the way it progressed through the legislative system, the government had an opportunity to engage with the protesters and listen to why they were worried. That Ma chose a different method of ending the crisis, one that has resulted in pictures of Taiwan’s young facing beatings by police officers being transmitted around the world, has not only damaged Ma’s credibility at home, but also his soft power credentials abroad.

Gary Rawnsley is Professor of Public Diplomacy in the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University.  He is a CPI Blog Regular Contributor and tweets @GDRaber.


Li, Mingjian. (ed.) (2009), Soft Power: China’s Emerging Strategy in International Politics (Lanham, MD.: Lexington).

Nye, Joseph. (2010), ‘The future of soft power in US foreign policy’, in I. Parmar & M. Cox (eds.), Soft Power and US Foreign Policy: Theoretical, historical and contemporary perspectives (New York: Routledge).


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