With China’s rapid economic development, the Chinese government is beginning to learn the significance of “soft power.” A Chinese leader once said that one important task in building the nation’s soft power is cross-cultural communications and exchanges aimed at strengthening the attraction and influence of Chinese culture.
A prime example of the importance the Chinese government puts in this is the establishment of Confucius Institutes. The Confucius Institute is a non-profit educational and cultural organization aimed at promoting the Chinese language and culture. It falls under the Office of Chinese Language Council International, also called Hanban, and is headquartered in Beijing.
In late 2004, the first Confucius Institute was established in Seoul. Hanban has now set up 328 Confucius Institutes in collaboration with universities around the world. The US has 53 institutes and four Confucius Schools, making it an important pillar in the popularization of the Chinese language and culture. Hanban aims to establish 500 Confucius Institutes worldwide by next year.
In 2002, while the Chinese government was planning to establish the institutes, the Taipei Theater and Taipei Art Gallery in the Rockefeller Building in New York City quietly closed down because their budget was slashed.
The theater and gallery were established in 1991. During those years, the New York Times commended them as windows on Eastern and Western culture and arts. As an important overseas cultural pillar, the theater and gallery organized a wide array of Taiwanese artistic and cultural activities and were praised by audiences and critics alike. Anyone visiting these two venues would gain a better understanding of Taiwanese culture.
In addition, the Times often ran commentaries about the two institutes. The efficacy of promoting Taiwan through the Times can’t be bought for money.
Moreover, the theater and gallery served as a platform through which Taiwanese artists could communicate with artists from other countries.
After they closed down, Taiwanese artists could only exhibit their works at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts or private theaters and galleries. But such places are expensive to rent and they set strict requirements for the groups that perform there.
Nowadays, it is extremely difficult for Taiwanese artists to perform in New York. The Times rarely covers Taiwanese artistic and cultural activities.
How much strength does Taiwan have? We often see in newspapers that China tries to block Taiwan’s diplomatic efforts and that Taiwan’s president is inconvenienced. Even Taiwanese athletes receive unfair treatment at international sports events. These issues are already well known.
A dozen years ago, I had an opportunity to talk to some children in the US. When I told them I came from Taiwan, some asked me if Taiwan was Thailand. Taiwan’s economy is stronger than Thailand’s, but ironically, American children have heard of Thailand, not Taiwan.
When people do not know about or understand your country, it is a waste of time to talk to them about soft or hard power.
The closure of Taipei Theater and Taipei Art Gallery was a great mistake. The government should hire experts to re-evaluate this decision. If the theater and gallery are found to have been indispensable in promoting Taiwan, the government should take advantage of the lackluster real estate market in New York to revive them.