Tue, Aug 01, 2000 - Page 8 News List

Democracy requires responsibilty

By Gary Rawnsley

While closely following the questioning of Premier Tang Fei (唐飛) in the Legislative Yuan, a question came into my mind -- how can Taiwan project around the world a positive image of its achievements when it maintains so few diplomatic relations?

The March election was a milestone in Taiwan's history, one that should have provided a turning point in the way that Taiwan is viewed abroad. It was a positive signal that the transition to democracy is complete. Yet Taiwan continues to allow itself to be represented by negative stereotypes that cast long shadows over its accomplishments.

Before Taiwan became democratized, an authoritarian government contradicted the image of "Free China." Democracy, however, has unleashed an approach to negative election campaigning that makes even the most hardened observer blush with embarrassment.

Now, as the world is watching to see how Taiwan copes with the first peaceful transition of government in Chinese history, the opposition parties in the Legislative Yuan choose to trivialize its proceedings and forgo the chance to show the international community that Taiwan knows how to manage an effective, responsible and policy-driven democracy.

The Telegraph and Argus is an evening newspaper produced six days a week in my hometown of Bradford, England. Being a local newspaper, its coverage of international news is confined to a couple of small paragraphs buried deep within its pages. Yet at regular intervals during the past decade the T&A, as it is affectionately known, has printed photographs of members of the Legislative Yuan physically attacking each other. This provides a source of amusement for readers.

I shamefully concede that the majority of my fellow Britons know only a handful of facts about Taiwan. First, it is somewhere near China. Second, that it was the main source of cheap plastic imports that flooded into the UK in the 1970s and early 1980s. Third, it is regularly subjected to threats of missile attack and invasion by Beijing; and fourth, its politicians hit each other.

The majority of the people at my hometown know nothing about the political miracle here, about the peaceful transition of government, about the vibrant democracy and dynamic economy being created. The 2000 election was headline news in the UK for one day only before the media lost interest and moved on to its next story. Coverage in 1996 was more intense, but only because the Chinese missile "tests" and the US response overshadowed the election.

How can Taiwan overcome the negative stereotypes that blight its international image? My research has focused on the work of Taiwan's representative offices throughout the world and has suggested several conclusions.

First, members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Government Information Office stationed overseas must work much harder to engage in public relations abroad, with the emphasis on public, rather than political relations.

Second, it is imperative that they receive training in how to use and work with the media. That they do not do so already was the most surprising discovery of my research. Third, they need to avoid holding Taiwan's position within the international system responsible for all the problems they encounter and their limited successes.

Accepting the need to engage in propaganda, a neutral activity that should be devoid of moral judgement (since it is the intention of the propaganda that it important), would unleash the creativity that modern public relations and diplomacy require.

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