Globalization is like the weather: we may not always like its effects, but it is not going away, and like the weather, the consequences of globalization are unpredictable. Take the example of international tourism, specifically the millions of Chinese tourists now pouring into Taiwan.
The latest figures from the Taiwan Strait Tourism Association show that 1.19 million Chinese visited Taiwan in the first five months of this year, up by 12 percent compared with the same period last year. In the past five years 6.2 million Chinese have visited Taiwan and they are spending a lot of money in the process. For example, it is estimated the production of pineapple cake, apparently relished by Chinese tourists, has increased 17 times since 2009, generating a revenue of NT$26 billion (US$868.6 million)
However, it is not just the sale of pineapple cake that is affected by Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan — it is these Chinese citizens’ very sense of identity.
Identity is more than who we think we are, it is political. For example, as a Briton living in Asia and visiting Taiwan regularly, the idea that Taiwan is not a country in its own right is, to me, just unthinkable. Ask any Westerner, living in Taiwan or not, and they will recognize the discursive sovereignty of Taiwan. Put it this way, Taiwan is Taiwan, China is China; foreign countries to outsiders and, moreover, to each other.
Identity is also porous: it is affected by experience — we are each a product of our history. So, what must be the impact on all these millions of Chinese tourists as they pour into Taipei and experience Taiwanese culture for the first time? One can only speculate, but for sure, impact there will be.
There are now more than 6 million Chinese who have visited Taiwan in the past five years alone, and this year there will be several million more. They have tasted not just the pineapple cake, but the very essence of life in what is, essentially, a foreign country. Very different to back home.
This is the unpredictability at the heart of globalization: To travel is to be exposed to difference not only in terms of language, culture and food, but in terms of identity itself.
There has been much speculation in Taiwan about the cultural and especially economic impact of China on Taiwan now and in the future. My viewpoint is rather different — I believe the actual power impact goes the other way. In reality, it is Taiwan which is more likely to change China, not vice versa. We can see the same “soft power” process happening between Hong Kong and China, and in favor of Hong Kong.
What happens is that tourists from China visit Taiwan and immediately become aware that there is more than one way to be “Chinese.” They will see and experience the unique vibrancy of Taipei, enjoy its relaxed and friendly cosmopolitanism, be exposed to the Taiwanese way of life, sense the country’s essence, yet feel comforted by the familiar — the pineapple cake.
Once exposed to the assumed values and freedoms inherent in Taiwanese daily living, the average Chinese tourist will not easily be able to forget it; they will be looking for more of the same back home. This is how the soft power of identity operates: We are changed by our experiences, by our exposure to difference, but invariably we gravitate, consciously and subconsciously, toward freedom, choice and opportunity.
In the age of high-tech globalization, individual governments can erect as many political boundaries as they like, but the reality is we are living in a dramatically changing world, one which is increasingly fluid and porous — just like ourselves.
Stephen Whitehead is a visiting professor of gender studies at Shih Hsin University.