Minister of Culture Lung Ying-tai (龍應台) contends that the cultural sectors that the service trade agreement touches upon, including marketing agencies and printing, will not be affected by the cross-strait service trade agreement. Her comments were met with widespread suspicion in the arts and in academia. Lung ought to take a look at the impact free trade has had on the nation’s culture and arts sector and consider making it government policy to make exceptions for cultural items. The domestic arts and cultural scene must be consolidated before there can be any talk of deregulating the sector to competition from overseas.
Free trade in cultural products is a misnomer in areas like international broadcasting. The more powerful entity has all the cards when it comes to exporting cultural products or capital. With unequal competition, the domestic arts and culture industry does not stand a chance. Over the long term, not only does this deplete diversity in the domestic cultural scene, it also creates cultural dependency on more powerful, influential states.
Many countries, in an attempt to conserve diversity within their art and culture scenes, have developed their own strategies to address the problem. At the forefront of these is the practice of leaving cultural products out of free-trade deals. They believe that deregulation should not be undertaken lightly or prematurely, to preserve cultural autonomy and diversity. These countries, including Canada, South Korea and China, and the EU states, have long recognized this fact and acted accordingly.
It is also important of consolidate local art and culture before broaching deregulation to foreign competition. For example, for many years South Korea has championed its national cultural industry. Even though the WTO framework prohibits barriers to foreign investment in radio and TV broadcasting and marketing agencies, South Korea ensured that, prior to deregulation, it had consolidated the standing of its state-run radio and TV, doing what it could to invigorate the domestic cultural sector, including the domestic marketing industry. Only when the government felt the sector was sufficiently robust did it open it up, allowing it to unleash its cultural forces — its stories, its dramas, its talent — on the world, exporting waves of South Korean media to the world.
Compare the South Korean case with what has been happening in Taiwan. The government’s incompetence and negligence have meant that the nation’s already fragile cultural sector has not been given the support it needs. Taiwan has no lack of cultural capital or talent, but the government has failed to formulate a suitable policy and, in the current wave of deregulation, has complacently given foreign investment a free hand to enter the domestic market, reducing the size of the nation’s cultural sector, including broadcast media and marketing agencies.
However, with the proposed service trade pact, China is following an entirely different route, concentrating on convergence, scale and party-state capital. What is more, the objectives of China’s Taiwan policy are politically focused, while Taipei, having underestimated the impact of deregulation on many levels — including manufacturing, cultural diversity and the freedom of expression — has massively deregulated retail and wholesale channels in the printing, advertising and publishing sectors.
While the government seems perfectly comfortable with this, commentators have expressed their concerns over the considerable advantages that Chinese investors have and the political implications if the market were to be flooded with Chinese money. The situation is already beyond the point of “exchange” between the two countries, and the cultural sector, diverse culture and democratic values will be gradually drowned in a deluge of power and money.
The government needs to understand the cultural sector’s predicament. Several major countries, China included, are already following policies of cultural exception and consolidation. The government must conduct a comprehensive appraisal of the impact of free trade in the past and look at what other countries have done. It must apply exceptions for the cultural sector in all future trade deregulation, including in the service trade agreement.
At the same time, it should also come up with policies to improve the domestic arts and culture sector to allow local talent to gain experience in producing products rooted in the culture. It must also strengthen the various links in the cultural production chain, including diverse distribution channels.
Consolidation of the domestic industry does not equate to closing the nation to international trade. When the sector is robust and stable, it can shine on the world stage and spread Taiwan’s cultural values around the globe, while allowing different worldviews — including the viewpoints of civil society and ordinary people in China — to enter.
Lin Lih-yun is a professor at National Taiwan University’s Graduate Institute of Journalism.
Translated by Paul Cooper