Tea Leaf Nation

Is Taiwan Sinking Back Into Obscurity?

For a brief spell, a student movement plucked the island from media purgatory. But the spotlight is dimming.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Barring a natural disaster or political crisis involving China, the international media has often ignored Taiwan, an island of 23 million people just off the coast of the Chinese mainland. But for roughly three weeks in March and April, things were different. Starting March 18, when students occupied Taiwan’s parliament to protest legislation of a cross-strait trade pact that would open Taiwan to further mainland investment, media outlets from around the world covered the army of college-age student protesters, who were upset with their government and knew how to show it. 

The rush of foreign media attention gave the protesters, and Taiwan generally, an unusually attentive international audience. And it has created a new set of public relations challenges both for Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, who has been criticized for failing to inform the public about the trade pact, and for the student organizers of what they called the "Sunflower Movement," who are now trying to keep Taiwan and the social issues they champion in the international spotlight.

Beginning with the initial occupation, frequent reports and updates appeared not only here in Foreign Policy, but also in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and wire services like the Associated Press. Many international news outlets covered the March 24 storming of the Executive Yuan, the seat of Taiwan’s cabinet, and a March 30 mass demonstration outside the presidential office in Taipei, attended over one hundred thousand protesters. Television news stations like CNN, Arabic-language Al Jazeera, and Japanese public broadcaster NHK also acted quickly to bring footage of protesters clashing with baton-wielding police and to provide analysis for a worldwide audience.

This media regard did not go unremarked in sometimes attention-starved Taiwan. In an April 5 article, the news website of ETTV, a popular Taiwanese television station, provided Taiwanese readers with a run down of international coverage, noting that German left-wing newspaper Die Tageszeitung ran a front-page story praising the Sunflower Movement for "elevating democracy to an even higher level," while Bloomberg Businessweek cautioned in the headline of an April 3 article that "Taiwan’s protests point to a deeper crisis" as Ma seeks to further integrate Taiwan’s economy with China’s. ETTV Vice President of News and External Affairs Chang Yuling told Foreign Policy that the Sunflower Movement "definitely" captured the interest of some foreign media that originally had paid Taiwan little mind. 

Domestic and foreign media coverage began to trail off, however, when students ended the occupation on April 10, following Legislature Speaker Wang Jin-pyng’s promise not to hold further discussions over the cross-strait trade pact until a law is passed to give the legislature greater oversight over trade agreements with China. Despite splinter protests in the weeks that followed, coverage of Taiwan in newspapers like the Times had returned to levels seen before students occupied the parliament building. Meanwhile, an April 20 Forbes blog post noted declining membership in Taiwan’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club, an organization for accredited journalists that today has fewer than 30 international members. 

The warming of cross-strait relations since Ma took office in 2008 is one reason why foreign media haven’t stayed focused on Taiwan. Gone are the days when former President Lee Teng-hui angered China by traveling to the United States in 1995 to speak at Cornell University, or when former president Chen Shui-bian taunted China with threats of Taiwan independence during the early 2000s. (Beijing views Taiwan as a renegade province that must someday be reunited with China, by force if necessary.) Ma, by contrast, has brought Taiwan closer to the mainland, signing 21 cross-strait trade agreements over six years. With little chance of China attacking Taiwan — or of Taiwan provoking its much larger neighbor — many major news outlets have redeployed reporters to cover the island from the mainland or Hong Kong. 

Taiwan’s diplomatic status is also partly to blame. The Taiwan Relations Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1979, ended diplomatic relations with Taiwan and established formal ties with the mainland. Since then, Beijing has condemned any remarks or actions that smack of Taiwanese sovereignty. While the act potentially requires that the United States defend Taiwan in a military crisis with China, it also prohibits Taiwanese high-ranking elected officials from communicating directly with their counterparts in Washington. This precludes Ma, for instance, from meeting with Obama for talks on Taiwan’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a U.S.-led pact that Obama discussed on his recent trip to Asia and that some experts say is designed to contain a growing China. Such a meeting, were it ever permitted, would generate considerable press.

Despite these obstacles, exchange among some lower-level and retired government officials and politicians from both the United States and Taiwan has taken place. On Nov. 20, 2013, Vincent Siew, the islands’ vice president from 2008 to 2012, spoke at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C. think tank, in an effort to drum up U.S. support for Taiwan’s entry into the TPP. And EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy traveled to Taiwan on April 14, becoming the first U.S. cabinet official to do so in 14 years. Except for Taiwan’s own media, which reported on the meeting with keen interest, the foreign press (and even China’s own news outlets, which mentioned Beijing’s displeasure with the visit) paid little heed.

Taiwan’s PR problem, however, is not just an international one. Before the Sunflower Movement occupied Taiwan’s legislature, only 12 percent of Taiwanese reported understanding the trade agreement that students were protesting. Ma told the Economist that the protests and occupation were a result of "misunderstanding among the public" that the cross-strait trade agreement was never submitted for public review. Ma insisted it had been, although he conceded that most of the meetings "were small-scale," and that "the public might not have known about them." 

None of this has sat well with Taiwanese, whose favorability ratings of the Nationalist Party (KMT), which favors reunification with China, and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which favors independence, were 21 and 28 percent, respectively, as of April 16. While Ma and the KMT have been accused in Taiwan’s press of employing deceptive and underhanded tactics to ram through the trade agreement, DPP elected officials have also faced criticism for exploiting the student protesters for political gain in an election year. For his part, Ma has acknowledged that more could have been done to get out the message. 

A revamped PR campaign might further boost Ma’s approval ratings, which have edged up slightly from 9 percent to 13 percent, and give him more room to govern for his remaining two years in office. This is especially important since the Sunflower Movement’s aftermation is far from decided. Jerome Cohen, a Chinese law expert and Ma’s former instructor at Harvard Law School, told Foreign Policy that Taiwan specialists are now closely watching to see whether Taiwan’s government will prosecute the protesters, including student organizers Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting, both of whom answered subpoenas on April 21 and met with Taipei prosecutors in connection with obstruction of justice and destruction of property charges. How the media portrays Ma’s handling of the case could bear on his legacy as president. 

Meanwhile, Lin and Chen are doing their part to keep themselves and the protests in the international spotlight. On April 26, the pair visited 73-year-old former DPP chairman Lin Yi-hsiung at the Gikong Presbyterian Church in Taipei, where he had been on a hunger strike from April 22 to April 30 to protest Taiwan’s construction of a controversial fourth nuclear power plant. Later that day, Lin also turned up at a rally outside the presidential building in Taipei to protest the island’s reliance on nuclear energy. Following a second round of demonstrations on April 27, Taiwan’s government agreed to seal up one reactor from the plant and halt work on another, a development reported by outlets like Reuters and the Journal. Then on April 28, at around 3 o’clock in the morning, a phalanx of whistle-blowing riot police, brandishing batons and shields, slowly squeezed demonstrators off a Taipei street while they were still protesting, as a water cannon sporadically sprayed the mostly peaceful crowd, many of whom came prepared with rain slickers. That, too, generated some international coverage, but nothing like what Taiwan saw during the height of the Sunflower Movement.  

Politics aside, the Sunflower Movement undoubtedly managed to pluck Taiwan from the international media doldrums — if only for a few weeks — and focus the foreign press’ attention on why protesters fear further economic integration with China. This is a turnabout from just a few months ago, when Taiwanese were chiding their own media for ignoring important international issues like the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, a trade agreement Taiwan signed with China in 2010 of which the Cross Strait Service Trade Agreement is a part, and for focusing instead on trivial, "brain-dead" news. Whether they intended to or not, an army of well-organized youth protesters has reintroduced the world to Taiwan — and seems to be getting the government to capitulate to some of its demands. Time will tell whether the protest leaders sustain the world’s interest too.

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