Keeping Taiwan in the academic spotlight

LOOK AT ME Coverage of Taiwan in academia and the media is a key form of diplomacy, and in Europe at least, it appears that ‘Taiwanists’ are doing their best to raise its profile.

By Ko Shu-ling  /  Staff Reporter.
Published in Taipei Times on November 02. 2010.
From China’s rapid economic development to its social security measures, academic interest in the world’s new superpower has grown in recent years. However, this curiosity about China has made some wonder whether it has undermined research interest in Taiwan.
Dafydd Fell, deputy director of the Center of Taiwan Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, said in an e-mail interview that Taiwan has had less media coverage since 2008 compared with periods of severe cross-strait tensions. However, academic interest in Taiwan appears greater than ever, at least in Europe, he said.
Taking his university as an example, Fell said his center offers post-graduate courses on Taiwan and a master’s degree in Taiwan studies, the only such degree outside of Taiwan.
Their program focuses on three main projects: Teaching about Taiwan, organizing academic events and running publications on Taiwan.
As to the teaching, Fell said they offer a wide range of Taiwan courses. The one undergraduate course is on Taiwan’s political and economic development.
The post-graduate program covers social sciences, humanities and languages. Courses on offer include Taiwan’s politics and cross-strait relations, Taiwan’s economic development, society and culture in Taiwan, Taiwan film and Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese).
The center is also the world’s leading promoter of Taiwan academic events, Fell said. They run regular public lectures and at least one international conference each year. The Routledge Research on Taiwan Series is arguably the largest Taiwan studies book series. Since its establishment in 2008, Fell said it has 10 academic books published or in the pipeline.
The center also manages the European Association of Taiwan Studies Annual Conference in a different European city each year. Over the past six years, Fell said the conference has become the largest and most influential Taiwan studies academic event in Europe and the association has grown to become one of the largest and most active academic forums for Taiwan studies anywhere in the world.
Although the European Association of Taiwan Studies is supported by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, Fell said the foundation has never been involved in the center’s research direction.
“Basically we work together to promote the development of Taiwan Studies,” he said. “Our program also receives support from the Taiwanese government, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Education.”
There are a number of reasons for growing interest in Taiwan, Fell said. One is that Taiwan is a good case for comparative social science research and testing theories.
“This is because data collection is easy and it’s an enjoyable place to do fieldwork,” he said. “The quality of Taiwanese academics makes collaborative work fruitful.”
Taiwan’s political liberalization also makes it a good case for comparing with other new democracies, he said, adding that people interested in Taiwan are motivated by the comparative research opportunities or have an interest in China studies.
“In other words, rising interest in a rising China also seems to lead to increasing interest in understanding what many see as an alternative China model,” he said. “Naturally, security and cross-strait relations issues play a role in the interest in Taiwan.”
he most popular topics for students and researchers studying Taiwan in Europe are Taiwanese film, domestic politics and identity politics, he said.
Apart from film and domestic politics, Taiwan’s democracy is also a popular topic, especially electoral politics compared with “dull” electoral campaigns in Europe, he said.
The uniqueness of their program and courses has attracted students from all over the world, including the UK, other EU countries, the US, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Recently, they have had students from China take their master’s degree in Taiwan studies, he said.
Things seem to be a little different in Denmark, however.
Micheal Danielsen, founder and chairman of Taiwan Corner, said Denmark happens to be a place in Europe where Taiwan receives a fair amount of media attention.
Danielsen, who appears regularly in the Danish media and writes articles to promote Taiwan, was modest in linking the attention with his enthusiasm for the country, which he calls his “second home.”
“My better half is Taiwanese and tells me that I am more concerned about Taiwan’s affairs than Denmark’s,” he said.
Danielsen said he liked to see a bright future for Taiwan, a future that includes the establishment of a new country if that is what Taiwanese desire. Until that happens, he said he is just doing his part to give Taiwanese a voice in the Danish media, he said.
“Taiwan has to be on the radar screen and on people’s mind in the international society,” he said. “The worst situation is an invisible Taiwan, increasingly more concerned with economic issues than democracy and human rights. Therefore, it is crucial that Taiwan has friends around the world like the members of Taiwan Corner who work to make Taiwan more visible.”
Despite the media attention, Danielsen said he saw little academic interest in Taiwan in his country.
Danielsen said his friends in southern Germany told him that it is becoming increasingly difficult to have articles or letters published on Taiwan in local newspapers, but added that he did not have official data to substantiate his claim.
However, there seems to be an increasing interest in Taiwan studies in Slovenia, which will hold the European Association of Taiwan Studies Annual Conference next year, he said.
Stephane Corcuff, a political science professor at the Lyon Institute of Political Studies and a researcher at the Taipei Branch of the French Center for the Studies of Contemporary China at Academia Sinica, said Taiwan has never received much media attention in Europe before, nor does it receive less today.
If there was any news coverage at all, it was either about the fistfights at the legislature or havoc caused by devastating natural disasters, he said, while too little was about the interesting complexity of Taiwan.
Corcuff attributed the little and oftentimes negative media coverage of Taiwan in Europe to a lack of information and the region’s irrepressible desire for power.
As the world is experiencing an historical shift in geopolitical power, he said, China, which is at the center of the equation, inevitably gets more media attention than any other country in the world.
Despite the growing interest in China, Corcuff said Europe has seen an interesting development in Taiwan studies, particularly in the UK, Germany, Czech Republic, Spain, Sweden, Slovenia and France.
“Europe may be becoming the new frontier of Taiwan studies,” he said.
In France, Corcuff said there are nine tenured “Taiwanists,” academics who have published extensively on Taiwan and devoted most of their time on the research of Taiwan issues. A majority of their publications are in the field of political science, with a few in other disciplines including Taiwanese literature translated into French, he said.
France offers two courses exclusively on Taiwan during the this academic year, while some are taught occasionally in courses on China, he said, and there are some 30 doctorate students, who are either French or Taiwanese.
Corcuff said Lyon is becoming a major, if not the biggest, center for Taiwan studies in France. He taught a course on Taiwanese geopolitics at Paris Institute of Political Science between 2002 and 2005 and more courses on Taiwan at the Lyon Institute of Political Science before he took a sabbatical in September.
Exchange programs are an important element of his schools’ programs, he said. While most students in Chinese studies want to go to China, his institutions sends masters’ students to Taiwan for a year.
“When even one of our students goes to Taiwan, it can be considered a big success,” he said.
Because Taiwan courses and academic publications on Taiwan are an important form of soft diplomacy, Corcuff said the increase of interest in Taiwan studies will inevitably give the country greater international visibility and also promote a wider understanding of contemporary Taiwan.
“It raises the consciousness of Taiwan’s existence, complexities and unfair treatment it receives in the international society,” he said.
“It is sometimes hard for us to change Western journalists’ preconceptions about Taiwan, but the more we publish, the more we raise the awareness of Taiwan and provide reliable information to the world to refer to,” Corcuff said.
Academic and media attention on Taiwan in Europe
‧ Dafydd Fell, deputy director of the Center of Taiwan Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, says European interest in Taiwan is “greater than ever.”
‧ Michael Danielsen, founder and chairman of Taiwan Corner in Denmark, says that in his country at least, Taiwan receives a fair amount of media attention.
‧ Stephane Corcuff, a political science professor at the Lyon Institute of Political Studies and a researcher at the Taipei Branch of the French Center for the Studies of Contemporary China at Academia Sinica, says Taiwan has never been the focus of much media attention in Europe, and that the level of attention has remained steady.