A Taiwanese professor familiar with international law as well as the structure and operation of the UN once said that while he supports the nation’s bid for UN membership under the name “Taiwan,” if Taiwan were to be granted UN membership tomorrow, the country would have a hard time finding officials and academics with the experience and expertise to function as a delegation.
Taiwan has been excluded from international participation and the global community for so long that, generally speaking, Taiwanese lack knowledge of international politics and, even worse, have gradually lost interest in global affairs despite Taiwanese businesspeople being known for their courageous exploration of the world market, the professor said.
The professor was right, judging by the sequence of events related to the feud between Taiwan and the Philippines after members of the Philippine Coast Guard’s killing of a Taiwanese fisherman, Hung Shih-cheng (洪石成), on May 9. It has caught the attention — maybe too much attention — of the public and local media and has escalated into an all-out diplomatic row, a hacking war and talk of military retaliation.
Putting the context of the dispute aside, the development is reminiscent of what happened after a taekwondo controversy at the Asian Games in 2010 involving Taiwanese athlete Yang Shu-chun (楊淑君). Taiwanese became engulfed in anti-South Korea sentiment, which involved media bashing, cyberattacks and a boycott of South Korean products.
The taekwondo case was only the tip of the iceberg. Somehow the strong reactions — some of them reaching an absurd level — of the public and media have become a familiar aspect whenever Taiwan and any given foreign country is involved in a dispute of whatever nature — be it a sports event, business competition or political affairs.
After the lifting of martial law in the late 1980s, Taiwanese were liberated, became wealthy and enjoyed full freedom of speech — something that their predecessors could only dream about. They thought they could do and say anything to vent their anger against whatever they assumed to be oppression, injustice or discrimination.
This is probably why some people make flippant Adolf Hitler references or held up placards with the portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on the sidelines of a recent World Baseball Classic game against South Korea, without thinking too much about the context or implications of their “innovative” forms of expression.
The much-discussed “lack of international perspective,” directed in particular at the local media — which often make borderline nationalistic comments in their news reporting, which in turn is hampered by their insufficient coverage of international news and a shortage of funds for posting correspondents overseas — could also be attributed to Taiwan’s lack of international participation because neither the government nor the media deal with what is considered common practice for foreign governments and media outlets on a daily basis.
While the nation’s isolation is hardly the fault of the public and the media outlets, the phenomenon appears to be why Taiwan has been described as an inward-looking country that tends to bury its head in the sand without knowing, or with no intention of knowing, what is happening around the globe.
The issue has to be dealt with not only because people and the media would react more rationally and responsibly when the next international dispute crops up, but also because, over time, a change in mentality would benefit generations to come in helping them understand the world order, the rule of law in the international community and what it means to be citizens of the global village.
Taiwan has to help itself in increasing its international participation without sacrificing its sovereignty and democracy under the threat of China. Helping hands from the international community to break Taiwan’s decades-long isolation are equally important.