The Chinese toxic milk powder incident has once again highlighted the problem of China’s soft power in the era of globalization.
Although China’s economic development has kept up with the world and even won it the epithet “factory to the world,” Chinese-made products have time and again caused controversy.
It is not a simple matter of inferior quality: Contaminated products from China have at times proved deadly. In addition to toxic milk powder, China has exported toxic dumplings that sickened people in Japan earlier this year and toxic toys painted with lead paint. It has produced toxic toothpaste and toxic pet food, drawing criticism from the EU and US last year.
Because of globalization, these contaminated products have spread all over the world and this has resulted in an extremely negative view of China’s soft power. Just a few days ago, some people in Taiwan praised the Beijing Olympics as a positive expression of China’s soft power, but the toxic milk powder has become a major international incident affecting public health and has almost completely eclipsed the Beijing Olympics.
Soft power is all about “attraction” and culture is not its only element. In addition to products, a country’s values and the way its government treats the public are integral parts of its image. Undoubtedly, China has its own unique cultural attraction, but the authoritarian regime, limits on freedom of expression, Internet censorship, a widening poverty gap, indirect support of the genocide in Darfur and oppression of Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan are all factors that repulse the international community and can hardly be called soft power.
Some Taiwanese politicians and media workers have displayed what has been called “long-distance nationalism” with respect to China — a concept that could be explained as transnational identification with a particular state among a diaspora population. For example, one former diplomat sees China as a future “super power,” while many others would be happy to see China become powerful in terms of its soft power. Is this “power evaluation” appropriate?
It is dangerous to overestimate or underestimate the strength of a country — in particular a country as geographically close and strategically important as China is for Taiwan. Underestimating China is dangerous, but overestimating it could lead to a policy imbalance. This is obviously not a comprehensive or appropriate approach to the globalization of Taiwan, nor does it serve the best interests of its 23 million people.
Can a communist and totalitarian country such as China use its soft power to win the hearts of Western democracies? Have Taiwan’s government, politicians, analysts and general public noted and understood these developments?
Lai Jung-wei is a doctoral candidate at the College of International Affairs at National Chengchi University.
TRANSLATED BY TED YANG