By: Mark O’Neill

Taiwan is in the middle of an enormous national effort to promote its soft power, aiming both to improve and enrich society and at the same time stimulate growth in an era when it has lost many of the industries that drove the economy during the past 50 years as one of Asia’s original tigers.

Like the rest of Asia, Taiwan is seeking a new role as it faces the rising economic might of the mainland. Thousands of its factories have migrated there, along with tens of thousands of managers, engineers, accountants, architects, designers and other skilled people. In many products, it can no longer compete with the mainland.

Its competitive advantage appears to be in soft power. The government in Taipei has chosen culture and creativity, including books, films, music, dance, museums, performing arts, design, architecture and products made by individuals and not factories – tourism, leisure, environmental protection and the making of a moral, polite society.

In May 2012, the government set up the Ministry of Culture and appointed popular writer Lung Ying-tai, whose books have sold millions of copies in the Chinese world, to head it.

The ministry and cultural bureaus of cities across Taiwan provide grants and loans to such activities.

 Its efforts are paying off, if we look at the number of tourists. Last year Taiwan attracted a record 10.44 million visitors, equal to 43 percent of the population of 23.5 million, and up 5.34 percent on 2014. This figure is over three times more than the 2.98 million visitors in 2002.

Attracting Hong Kong People

The number of visitors from Hong Kong has risen sharply over the last decade. Last year 164,275 came from Hong Kong and Macau, an increase of 16.06 percent over 2014.

Ask Hong Kong tourists why they come; they will tell you they love Taiwan’s fusion cuisine, green farming, exquisite pastries, gourmet coffee and boutique hotels.

According to a report by the World Trade and Tourism Council, spending on travel and tourism in 2014 in Taiwan was NT$334.5 billion, accounting for 2.1 percent of GDP, and forecast to rise by 1.8 percent when 2015 figures are tallied. It accounted for 676,500 jobs, 6.1 percent of total employment.

Another indication of Taiwan’s attraction is the rapid rise in the number of Hong Kong students going there. In 2015, the number was 7,333, compared to fewer than 1,000 in 2011. The number of Hong Kong migrants has also been rising in recent years.

In 2014, Taiwan approved 7,498 applications by Hong Kong people for residence permits, the highest in more than 20 years, according to statistics compiled by the National Immigration Agency. That compares with 3,908 in 2012 and 2,995 in 2011.

This new atmosphere was one reason why Raymond Yang, a Hong Kong photographer, and his wife Kia emigrated in 2012. They set up an artistic coffee shop, The Canopy, in Taipei near Taiwan National University. It is an elegant place, full of sunlight, with examples of Yang’s pictures on the wall.

“One of the reasons we emigrated was the larger space and better environment in Taiwan for cultural and artistic activities. We put on exhibitions in our coffee shop. The atmosphere is not so commercial. The Ministry of Culture and departments of culture in cities and counties are willing to sponsor individuals and groups to put on exhibitions, performances and other activities – not the full amount but hundreds of thousands of New Taiwan dollars. This is a national policy, an important benchmark, to support culture, films, performing arts and creativity.

In Hong Kong, on the other hand, he said, “the money is concentrated on big events with large companies. These become commercial events. It is hard for young people to receive money for their projects. Culture has become marginalized. The Hong Kong government prefers to leave this to the market.”

Another outsider attracted by Taiwan’s culture is Robin Ruizendaal, the Dutch director of the Taiyuan Puppet Theatre and the Lin Liu-hsin Puppet Theatre Museum in Taipei. They perform the traditional folk puppetry of the island. Ruizendaal moved there in 1993 and is one of the few foreigners who can speak fluent Mandarin and Taiwanese. His troupe has performed in 47 countries across the world, including the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Festival Hall in London and the Casa Mila in Barcelona. It receives 25 percent of its funds from the government, which also sponsors its visits abroad.

In Quanzhou, he first saw Quanzhou puppet theatre, a close relative of the art in Taiwan. “I was totally amazed and overwhelmed by its beauty. I moved to Taiwan because it had preserved the original moral standards and traditions of China,” he said.

Components of Soft Power

A close look at Taiwan’s ‘soft power’ strategy reveals three major components: promotion of domestic literature and book-related activities, creative parks and quality tourism.

Taiwan’s belief in the power of books is reflected in the many museums devoted to writers. The largest is the National Taiwan Literature Museum in Tainan. Its director, Chen Yi-yuan, said that the love of reading among the public was one of the bases of the island’s soft power.

“The more you read, the more you think and reflect and the less depressed you are,” he said. “Reading helps people invent and design. It is the basis of films, cartoons and other media forms.”

The book strategy is also reflected in its annual six-day international book fair in February. The event this year, one of the most important in the Chinese world, attracted over 600 publishers from over 60 countries; it had 1,706 stalls, with 560,000 visitors from home and abroad, with more than 400 talks and other events.

Many came from the mainland to read titles they cannot buy at home. Mainlanders are an important market for Taiwan books. The fair was both an occasion for people to enjoy books from all over the world but also for publishers to meet those in the world of film, cartoons and other media and discuss joint projects.

“Taiwan has a free and diverse creative environment, with an abundant publishing industry that produces more than 40,000 books a year,” said President Ma Ying-jeou when he opened the event.  “In terms of per capita, our publishing industry exceeds that of China. We hope that, through the Book Fair, even more people will enjoy the beauty of traditional (Chinese) characters.”

Among the exhibitors were the Taiwan Independent Bookshop Cultural Association, the Independent Publishing Alliance and the National Universities Publishers Association. They are evidence that, despite the commercial pressure and competition of major companies, independent bookshops and publishers continue to flourish.