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Edition #5
Growth and Power
Alex Rednaxela
Edited by Editors in Chief

David and the Dragon: Hard Power and Soft Landings

What, where, or why is Taiwan? Polls suggest that just a decade ago, most in the West would struggle to answer any of those questions. Yet in the last few years awareness of the dwarfed island next to China has become inescapable. You might know little about the island itself, but it’s practically impossible not to know that Beijing isn’t fond of its independence.

Admittedly, this is partly a result of rising tensions across the strait, but tensions across the strait are nothing new. Partly it’s a result of global hyper-politicisation, but this is not the first moment of crescendo in the history of popular political awareness.

More than either of those things however, Taiwan has hit its main character arc as adept self-dramatist. Resource-starved and population-scarce, matching its neighbour blow-for-blow in any economic or military matchup is functionally impossible. In the battle for hearts and minds though, troop numbers and naval tonnage matter far less than volume of positive coverage and narrative weight.

In pursuit of your heart and mind, both heirs to China have chased “soft power” since the civil war propelled Mao’s Communists to the imperial palace and sent Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists packing to the provincial backwater of Taiwan in 1949.

“Soft power” as such originally sprang from the halls of American academia in the early 1990s, and its students weren’t ashamed of wearing the stars and stripes of their homeland. It was conceived as a hyper-Harvard social science, destined to optimise the projection of American cultural and ideological prestige across the globe, especially following the nation’s myriad identity crises in the post Cold War era. In its traditional formulation, soft power is merely surrogate for hard power - a force by which one state might exert its will on another in classical hegemonic interplay. 

And yet, removed thousands of years and miles from the Ivy League, classical Chinese political thought is awash with the tropes of cultural force and invisible influence. Confucian thinkers elevated ritual above all, advising kings to act as paragon for emulation. A virtuous ruler would create widespread harmony; an unruly king would see his land fall into chaos and ruin. What is such a formulation if not ‘normative leadership’? Confucians beat out their ‘Legalist’ adversaries during the Han dynasty foreign policy debates by arguing that barbarians swirling around the imperial peripheries might be dealt with not at the point of a sword, but with cultural strangulation. Extend the arms of Chinese majesty to the uncouth nomad, so they believed, and he shall submit to your will without even raising a compound bow in protest. Values and wealth, they believed, had the power to transform hostile peoples as if by magic. 

It is little wonder, then, that notional soft power had taken deep root in Chinese-speaking policy circles long before Joseph Nye articulated his Atlantic-normative notion in 1990. 

As early as the 1950s, soft power was the only viable pillar of PRC foreign policy - despite Mao’s famed belief that ‘political power grows from the barrel of a gun’. Facing extreme isolation following the Korean war - even from its Communist allies in Moscow - China articulated a platform of postcolonial politics and solidarity with the developing world. A summit of African and Asian states in 1955 produced the Bandung Line and Beijing’s ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’ - most of which it claims to uphold today. 

As the decades presaged economic reform and China’s long-dormant growth engines belched out double digit GDP growth year on year, the courting of foreign ears changed course. In the 2000s, CCP President Hu Jintao told the Seventeenth Party Congress to focus on growing China’s ruan shili (the accepted Mandarin translation of Nye’s term) - a resource which had already been growing passively alongside productive capacity. Across the developing world, the Chinese economic miracle was exerting an inexorable draw. Beijing had barely touched political liberalisation, but productivity growth was galloping ahead of any democratic contemporary. For an authoritarian regime stuck in the early stages of economic development, China was fast becoming the model de rigeur. 

Soon this admiration spread beyond just developing states in Asia and Africa to the policy circles of the former anti-Communist bloc. Germany opened its doors to Chinese investment; David Cameron hailed a ‘golden era’ in Anglo-China relations; US foreign direct investment doubled year-on-year between 2000 and 2008. 

This kind of arms-open intercourse does not occur at gunpoint. China’s present and potential economic strength was winning over a cynical, money-hungry audience of investors and politicians who saw nothing but a growth market of unprecedented proportions. The money was flowing and fortunes were being made.

And when 2008 struck, it left the collective West in the crushing vice of a financial-cum-identity crisis. If Bretton Woods II turned out to also be a mirage, what was left of Fukuyama’s famous prophecy that the West had won? As the collapse of the Western banking sector tore at the fraying edges of neoliberal orthodoxy, China’s authoritarian, interventionist capitalism only grew more appealing as it sliced through the meltdown more or less unscathed. 

With the “red star over China” shining brighter than ever, Taiwan’s white sun was on the wane.

Stretching all the way back to the republican era in China proper, “Free China” had been Washington’s closest ally in Asia. Sun Yat-sen, undisputed father of the Chinese republican movement, regarded the ‘United States as the champion of liberalism and self-determination of nations.’ He believed that attaining its aid would require a new normative (soft) power - formulated in terms of a lost ‘ancient Chinese morality’ that his new democratic republic would recover. 

     He founded the Department of Propaganda in 1920 to help publicise China’s republican reforms and disseminate news of the revolution to anyone who might be listening. Its inheritors, Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party, went on to reconstitute the department as the core of Taiwan’s communication apparatus. In 1951, it began publishing the English-language Free China Review, an ill-read publication drowning in a soup of its own soft power aspirations. The regime’s attempt to present White Terror Taiwan as home to familiar ideals of ‘democracy, Christianity, anti-communism and pro-Americanism’ would ring true perhaps only for the most zealous McCarthy adherent.

When Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975, his son Chiang Ching-kuo inherited the rule of Taiwan by an implicit rule of primogeniture. By then, the island was in its third decade of “white terror” and rapidly losing currency with key allies. Before long, Nixon’s state visit to China would begin the great Sino-American rapprochement, casting Taiwan into the dark and out of the UN. 

So the ailing republic needed new sources of soft power - and fast. Whispers of democratisation, long on the lips of freedom fighters and activists, now made their way around the halls of power. Revealingly, Chiang announced his intention to end martial law through an interview with The Washington Post. Democratisation was a slow process - Chiang died in 1988 and the first truly contested presidential election did not take place until 1996 - but slowly the island took to its newfound freedoms. Pointedly anti-communist in the 50s and 60s, Taiwan became pointedly anti-authoritarian from the 90s onwards. The island’s power matrix is entirely defensive - and waving goodbye to the repressive excesses of Chiang Kai-shek’s free-in-name-only-China was the best way of rallying support in Washington. 

At least, that was the plan. But against an ascendant China, even heartfelt commitment to human rights norms, progressive social policies and consistent democratic consolidation were not enough to stem the rising red tide. Shocker. In the new millennium, Taiwan was struggling. Its first opposition-party president, Chen Shui-bian, was widely disliked in Washington for his stridently anti-China stance. He was seen as a meddler, and too big for his own small-island boots. His successor Ma Ying-jeou fared better, but because he leaned into repairing relations with China rather than on his nation’s democratic merits. 

Then the dragon changed course. Xi Jinping took power in 2015 and by 2018 his rivals were either preternaturally quiet in their complimentary pleasure palaces or rotting in jail cells. By 2020, the border province of Xinjiang was filled with internment camps and the unmistakable whiff of genocide. Umbrellas were snapped in Hong Kong; voices were silenced.


Suddenly China was once again the big bad boogeyman that Western powers had conveniently forgotten it always was. As a self-promoting democracy on China’s doorstep, Taiwan rapidly became a darling amongst hawkish policy circles in Washington. Here was a state of no little wealth, weighty public presence and genuine democracy - a state not prone to the kind of repressive outburst always causing PR disasters for other non-European American allies. It was a perfect cause célèbre. 

Trump began the process of disengaging with China, but it was enthusiastically picked up by the Biden administration. The ageing president is the first in a very long time (though not the first in his long lifetime) to verbally commit to defending Taiwan. It is thanks in no small part to the haloed vision of a freedom-loving, demon-hating democratic angel projected by Taipei that this kind of supportive groundswell now exists across the world. Public support for Taiwan is so great that a small majority of Americans now believe their military should intervene if violent conflict were to break out across the strait. At the same time, global goodwill towards China has reached an all-time nadir.

Such a PR disaster could only be self inflicted. China has dashed its “ancient morality” on the rocks of Xi’s unbridled authoritarianism (and growing personality cult). Taiwan has taken the “progressive morality” of enlightenment liberalism and weaponised it in the name of self defence. There is no media organisation on the planet able to resist the pull of the Taiwan strait and it is to Taipei’s credit that their island regularly features implicitly as the rebels in a thrilling battle with the empire. Everybody likes an underdog - especially an underdog with open democracy and human rights protections. The tale may be as old as time, but the consequences could define our future. Nothing is “soft” about the Taiwan-China rivalry, but the nations' stories and their tellings carry enormous power.


1. Officially the Republic of China (ROC) since the heirs of the October Revolution retreated there upon loosing their civil conflict with Mao’s Communists in 1951.

2. People’s Republic of China, or what is commonly thought of as just “China”. The PRC.

3. The Taiwan-China relationship is often portmanteau’d as ‘cross-strait relations’ in reference to the narrow strip of ocean which, like many other narrow strips of ocean, has served as the critical defence of sovereignty for Taiwan over the last seventy years.

4. Cultural or otherwise. The semantics are argued here and here, etc.





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