There is no reason why bright young minds, research centers, web site operators, film producers and others who are committed to a free and democratic Taiwan should starve while Beijing spends billions on similar initiatives.
China has invested billions of dollars in recent years to increase the appeal of its so-called “China model” and shape the global environment in its favor. As incidents in Sweden and the U.K. in recent weeks have demonstrated, the Chinese can still be rather self-defeatingly clumsy in their public diplomacy efforts. But don’t get fooled: Beijing is dead serious about this strategy: it has put its money where its mouth is, and it will get better at it. Among other things, it has acquired film studios abroad, established a global media presence, organized conferences, and used educational centers to spread its ideology. When such traditional endeavors have failed, it has used more devious means, such as political and information warfare, to get what it wants.
As a “core” interest of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Taiwan is at the very center of Beijing’s influence operations. Chinese authorities want to set the parameters of the discourse on Taiwan. To achieve this, Beijing has used a variety of tools to control the information. Among them we can count censorship of academic journals, visa denial (or the threat thereof) for academics and journalists who hold favorable views of Taiwan, a sustained propaganda campaign in media controlled by Beijing, advertorials in foreign media, international conferences, think tank reports, films, all-expenses visits to China, the lure of its economy, and so on. Many large Chinese businesses, state-controlled or not, like Alibaba, which acquired the South China Morning Post in 2015, have also participated in this project (at the SCMP, more so in the news section than in the editorial pages, where it is still possible to see various opinions). And most, if not all, are on the same page when it comes to China’s “core” interests — under Xi Jinping, being on a different page is a recipe for trouble.
Another, less studied component of China’s efforts to narrow the discourse against Taiwan has been the threat of market denial for anyone in Taiwan or abroad who is suspected of being a supporter of Taiwan independence. The entertainment industry has been a key target of this strategy. Rumors emerged during the summer of 2016 that Chinese authorities had drawn up a contract which anyone from the entertainment industry wishing to work or perform in China, or to take part in a film project with funding from China, had to sign. Among other stipulations, the contract was said to include a clause whereby the signatory agreed to never support “separatist activities” (this applies to Taiwan as well as Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang).
Anyone in the entertainment field who is regarded as pro-Taiwan — by the Chinese government or ultra-nationalistic Netizens — will very likely see his or her ability to perform or work in China severely curtailed, or ended altogether.
I have now received confirmation from someone in the industry: that contract does exist, and it means that any artist who signs it is now liable to prosecution under Chinese laws pertaining to national security. At a minimum, anyone in the entertainment field who is regarded as pro-Taiwan — by the Chinese government or ultra-nationalistic Netizens — will very likely see his or her ability to perform or work in China severely curtailed, or ended altogether.
This development has had a serious impact on the ability of film producers in Taiwan to attract talent — actors, directors, screenwriters and so on — for projects that focus on, say, Taiwan’s democratization or portray Taiwan as an independent state. That impact cannot be understated, which means that the ability of the entertainment industry to produce quality productions that can make it on the international market and help tell Taiwan’s story to a wider audience is seriously undermined.
China’s access/denial strategy has also extended to other sectors, including business. It’s no secret that heads of companies that are openly pro-Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) or who favor independence have had a hard time making it in the Chinese market. And China has taken that type of pressure overseas. A Taiwanese diplomat posted in a foreign country told me that fears of losing access to the Chinese market has had a chilling effect among Taiwanese expatriates, so much so that they are now reluctant to fund any activity that promotes Taiwan. Overseas Chinese have also been complicit in this strategy, denying patronage to businesses that are operated by Taiwanese who are believed to support independence.
One consequence of this global fear campaign is that many efforts to counter Beijing’s narrative on Taiwan have been unable to secure appropriate funding to sustain themselves. Thus, while Beijing invests billions of dollars in its global propaganda campaign, pro-Taiwan initiatives are underfunded and must compete among themselves for a share of a much-diminished pie — entrepreneurs with enough vision and little if any exposure in China.
Unfortunately for Taiwan, the government cannot singlehandedly be in charge of public diplomacy. Not only are state institutions not proficient at it, the scale of the challenge is such that civil society must also be an active participant in the creation of a counter-narrative. (Among other things, non-governmental efforts help increase the legitimacy of state claims by making it harder for pro-Beijing critics to describe the narrative as DPP propaganda.) Taiwanese visionaries with some money to spare will therefore have to rise to the occasion and risk China’s ire if Taiwan is to have a chance of prevailing in that battle for the narrative. They will have to open their wallets and help sponsor films and TV series, conferences, research groups, web sites, and other instruments of Taiwan’s “soft power.”
As with military matters, Taiwan cannot hope to compete with China on a dollar-for-dollar basis; but it has sufficient resources to put up a fight. There is no reason why bright young minds, research centers, web site operators, film producers and others who are committed to a free and democratic Taiwan should starve while Beijing spends billions on similar initiatives.
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