Taiwan knows it can’t defend itself against Beijing. But the island has a savvy plan to try
When Benson Wu moved to Sydney 10 years ago to study and work in advertising and film, he noticed there were few Taiwanese films showcased in Australia.
“I realised the whole film festival industry in Australia — especially in Sydney — was sort of lacking the Asian representation, especially the films from Taiwan,” he said.
But for decades, Taiwan has been the place where a generation of international award-winning directors found their passion and launched their careers, including Ang Lee, Tsai Ming-liang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien.
Its Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival, founded by the Taiwan government in 1962, is seen as equivalent to Hollywood’s Oscars in Chinese-language cinema.
Its awards are hotly pursued by filmmakers and actors from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore.
In 2017, driven by passion for Taiwanese films and Australia’s cultural diversity, Mr Wu decided to host an annual Taiwan film event in Sydney.
Even during COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, he insisted on hosting online screenings of Taiwanese films to entertain those stranded at home.
Five years later, Mr Wu’s Taiwan Film Festival in Australia has become an iconic film event celebrating multiculturalism in Australia, attracting more than 3,000 attendees in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra.
At a time when Beijing is forcefully isolating the island with missiles, money and threats, Mr Wu is among the many young Taiwanese people devoted to reconnecting his hometown with the world through art.
Beijing forces Taiwan to exit international stage
Its “One China Principle” considers Taiwan to be a breakaway province that should eventually be reunited with the mainland.
The US and Australia adhere to a “One China policy”, which acknowledges there is only one Chinese government.
But there is some ambiguity in the policies of both countries when it comes to Taiwan’s status.
Still, it has become a prerequisite that countries that want to establish diplomatic relations with China need to terminate their relationship with Taiwan before getting a nod from Beijing.
In 2019, Solomon Islands broke ties with Taiwan after switching allegiances to China, with Beijing promising the island a multi-million-dollar development fund.
Currently, only 15 states recognise Taiwan. None of those countries has official relations with China.
Jennifer Hsu, research fellow at the Lowy Institute, said Beijing had been trying to isolate Taiwan from the international stage.
“[Beijing believes] the more isolated Taiwan becomes, the less strong or the weaker Taiwan’s claim is to the status of a nation,” Dr Hsu said.
Taiwan has also been rejected from joining international organisations such as the World Health Organization.
Last month, Taiwan announced it would withdraw from hosting WorldPride 2025 after its organiser said the hosts could not call the event “WorldPride Taiwan”, despite previously reaching an agreement about the name.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose government was the first and only one to legalise same-sex marriage in Asia, has criticised InterPride’s decision as a “political consideration”.
Taiwan finds new hope in culture
Despite facing Beijing’s military threats and economic sanctions, Taiwan is turning to its cultural exports as a way to reconnect with the world.
In June 2019, its government established the Taiwan Creative Content Agency (TAICCA), an organisation to help promote and distribute Taiwanese content globally.
It was set up to be similar to the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, the powerhouse behind South Korea’s K-pop wave and K-dramas like Squid Game.
TAICCA also launched training programs for young content creators in film, television drama, music, animation and games, with over 1,800 students enrolled in 2019 and 2020.
“TAICCA celebrates that Taiwan’s national brand continues to evolve and blossom out of our creators’ great reserve of creativity,” CEO Izero Lee said.
“Our main work is to actively increase content industry competitiveness to make Taiwan the best partner globally.”
One project that TAICAA has funded is Books From Taiwan, an initiative launched in 2014 to introduce local writers to international publishers.
Catrina Liu, rights director of Books From Taiwan, said her organisation would select 50 to 60 books every year, translate chapters and pitch them to publishers abroad.
Among its successful exports is Wu Ming-Yi’s The Stolen Bicycle, which was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. Its English version was published by Melbourne-based Text Publishing.
Taiwan wants its own ‘T-pop wave’
In 2020, Taiwan reported $44.7 billion in revenue from its creative industry, with a 9.83 per cent increase in overseas sales on the previous year.
It said the increase was a result of a pandemic boost, as many overseas gamers turned to Taiwanese games to kill time during lockdowns.
Mr Lee believes that Taiwan could carve out its own niche in the competitive East Asian cultural market, which is currently dominated by South Korea, Japan and China.
Just as Squid Game was inspired by South Korea’s crippling economic crisis, he said Taiwanese content also delves into Taiwan’s social issues — from LGBT rights to the island’s authoritarian history in the 1970s — without fear of censorship.
Mr Lee says the open environment allows Taiwan to nurture diverse, high-quality content that appeals to international audiences.
“Taiwan’s society is diverse and open, which allows for a broader range of creative themes, and creators have more room to play by nature, ” he said.
Support Taiwan as a resistance to China
While Taiwan invested in TAICCA to build its soft power, its main rival in the culture market, China, faces resistance from the West over fears of the Communist Party’s foreign influence.
In 2020, the US classified the Confucius Institute as a foreign mission of China. The organisation was set up by the Chinese government to deliver Mandarin language programs abroad.
This led to the shutdown of more than 40 Confucius Institute centres in the US.
Taiwan, the majority of whose population also speaks Mandarin, saw the gap as an opportunity.
In 2021, Taipei launched 43 Taiwan Centres for Mandarin Learning in the US, UK and Europe.
Last week, US senator Marsha Blackburn visited Taiwan and pushed for further collaboration with Taiwan on Mandarin learning in the US.
Dr Hsu said that, compared to China, Taiwan has more opportunities to develop its soft power due to its democratic nature.
“For China, there is a tendency for the authoritarian nature of its role to overcome the soft power potential,” she said.
“And we saw that last year with [China’s] crackdown on celebrity culture, crackdown on video gaming and tech companies — these are all parcels of any country’s soft power tools.”
But she said Taiwan was still “in its early days” of building soft power.
“So at the moment, we see a tightening of creative industries in China that is at its weak point, but its strong point is the amount of money that potentially can go into these industries when things loosen up,” Dr Hsu said.
Adrienne Wu, researcher at Global Taiwan Institute, said while Taiwan’s government had been aware of investing in soft power for a long time, there was a lack of coordinated strategy between different ministerial departments.
She noted that there was also a lack of bipartisan agreement on soft power policy between the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its opposition Kuomintang (KMT), making the policies inconsistent over the past decade.
“The DPP did put more of a focus on things like multiculturalism and democracy, whereas the KMT focuses a little bit more on the Chinese base to Taiwanese culture,” Ms Wu said.
“It’s not always a coordinated strategy throughout the different governments, and also with the changing ministers.”
Understanding Taiwan beyond a strategic lens
While China-Taiwan military tensions have dominated Australian media in recent weeks, Dr Hsu said Australia still didn’t “understand Taiwan”.
“Australia sees Taiwan pretty much from the lens of US-China competition,” she said.
“So [Australia] would have never actually sought to investigate or analyse or understand Taiwan on its own terms.”
Kuan-ting Chen, CEO of think tank Taiwan NextGen Foundation, said for years, people in Taiwan had joined the government’s efforts in introducing the island to the world.
“We are not just a place that has problems with China,” Mr Chen said.
“We are also a vibrant democracy, we share similar values with our partners in the Indo-Pacific.”
Mr Wu, who is already preparing for next year’s Taiwan Film Festival, says his passion is driven by “bringing people together”.
“I don’t want war happening. I think there’s always a better way to solve problems,” he said.
And he believes films could bring people closer and start conversations.
“Sometimes I screen a documentary, and there’ll be people from completely different backgrounds, and after the film, we will chat about the film,” he said.
“And that’s beautiful, because everyone’s sharing their voices peacefully in a theatre.”