Let's face it: Despite its best diplomatic efforts and a just cause, Taiwan has been losing the battle for international recognition.
Strive as it might, no amount of moral suasion is likely to change anything at the UN or in the ivory tower of global diplomacy. For when it comes to making a place for Taiwan, what is required most on the part of those who would grant Taiwan that recognition is imagination -- and how precious little there is of that at the UN and in the foreign ministries of this world.
Nothing better exemplifies this than the customs officer in an otherwise vibrant democracy who, upon perusing a foreigner's passport, asks him how long he has lived in China. Or, worse still, for that same customs officer to meet an indignant response to the effect that the foreigner has lived in Taiwan, not China, for almost two years, with a general shrug of indifference.
This calls for a shift in approach, a brand awareness campaign that starts from the bottom up rather than the top down and focuses on a different customer -- people.
Forget letters to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon or missives to the General Assembly, as they are so beholden to narrow interests as to make them incapable of summoning the imagination that is required to address the problem.
But much work needs to be done to make this new strategy effective, for as every expatriate who has lived in Taiwan can testify, people back home know precious little about it. Ask anyone to locate Taiwan on a map, or whether it is officially a country, or a province of China, or a member of the UN. Absent that knowledge, it becomes a feat to imagine what it must be like to be Taiwanese -- and to empathize with them, let alone care about their fate.
This dearth of imagination, in turn, is the worst enemy of a people, as it does not allow for the emotional bond that compels individuals -- and in turn governments -- to act for the sake of someone else. Such a lack allows for all types of transgressions to be visited upon people, from genocide in Rwanda to ethnic cleansing in Sudan. Or Beijing's growing repression of Taiwan.
So what can be done? One secret weapon, perhaps, lies in the expatriates who live in Taiwan who have come to know and love its people and appreciate its democratic accomplishments, and who wish for it to succeed. All can mobilize to act as ambassadors. When they visit home, for one, they should never allow a customs officer to belittle Taiwan by ignoring its existence. Instead, they should express their outrage and deliver the necessary correction. The worst that can happen is that their luggage will be more thoroughly searched because they rubbed the officer the wrong way -- a temporary setback that, in the grand scheme of things, is minor compared with what Taiwanese would have to endure should Beijing have the upper hand in the battle for identity.
It is no coincidence that courses on how to react in hostage-taking situations teach participants to show pictures of their spouses and children so that an emotional bond can be created with their captors. By giving himself a face, a history, the captive is making it more difficult for the hostage-taker to treat him as a faceless individual who can be subjected to violence, or someone whose fate can be ignored.
Friends of Taiwan should therefore speak up to give its people a face, for they are indeed hostages on a grand scale.
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