Tsai Ing-Wen’s Time Magazine Cover and Lessons to be Learned From Disproportionate Influence of International Media On Taiwan?

by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Adam Ferguson/Time Magazine

IT IS REMARKABLE at times to note the electrifying effect of foreign media on public discourse in Taiwan. How could it not, given Taiwan’s state of existential obscurity? So it is no surprise that when DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-Wen was featured on the cover of Time Magazine’s Asia edition, an enormous amount of discussion broke out within Taiwan about the significance of this event.

Where that the fundamental assumptions that the Time Magazine article based itself off of were pro-Beijing and the majority of sources quoted took KMT talking points has been well documented by Michael Turton. Thus, here we might concern ourselves less with the content of the article itself, but the reception of the article and what that bodes for the future of 2016 elections.

A Hodgepodge of Social Media Reactions

AS HAS BEEN most commented upon, images comparing Tsai’s photograph on the cover to an image of Yoda is the best known Internet meme that arose on Taiwanese social media in the aftermath of the cover of the issue being released. At least some accusations that the cover did not depict Tsai in a flattering light and made her look far older than she is emerged, apparently to the surprise of the photographer, who claimed in public comments to have attempted to depict Tsai in a grave and serious manner. The photographer in question would later respond to the controversy and explain the circumstances under which the picture had taken place.


Anime-ified versions of the cover and manga depictions of some of the events described in the article, particularly its conclusion, also quickly appeared. So, too, did memes mocking presumed KMT presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-Chu’s lack of media coverage, including imaginings of what the Time Magazine cover would have looked like had it featured Hung instead of Tsai, and comparisons between the Time cover featuring Tsai and covers featuring female heads of state. As we see quite often with news developments in Taiwan, this is, of course, another demonstration of the constantly irreverent political commentary which comes out of Taiwanese civil society and takes place on social media, whether from the anime or pop culture memes which circulate endlessly, to the the “Kaobei”-themed Facebook pages covering every possible political angle from Kaobei Disanshili (“Fuck the Third Force”) to Kaobei Kuomingtang (“Fuck KMT”).

PhotoCreditTimeMagazineTime Magazine cover from March 2000, featuring Chen Shui-Bian as a presidential candidate alongside his then-competitors. Photo credit: Time Magazine

But more to the point, Taiwanese social media was also quick dredge up past covers of Time Magazine featuring past Taiwanese president Chen Shui-Bian. The Tsai Ing-Wen cover would seem not to be unique, in regards to featuring a DPP candidate. But we might note that among the Time Magazine covers which featured Chen Shui-Bian, only one dated from when he was a presidential candidate, and it did not feature him alone, also featuring then-competitors James Soong and Lien Chan. Perhaps that Tsai Ing-Wen was featured alone on Time Magazine’s cover does indicate the significance of Tsai Ing-Wen where her victory has been forecast by international commentators since the defeat of the KMT in past nine-in-one elections. Indeed, the article itself suggests Tsai as the probable victor of 2016 presidential elections in Taiwan, maybe even overstating itself when it suggests Hung Hsiu-Chu poses a significant threat to Tsai’s election.

“Chinese” Democracy? Or “Taiwanese” Democracy?

APART FROM issues concerning Tsai’s photograph on the front cover of time, other controversy which followed was pertaining to the cover’s referring to Tsai as the potential leader of the “only Chinese democracy.” Taiwanese independence advocates were among those who took offense with the reference to “Chinese” rather than “Taiwanese,” although there were also those who sought explanations in “Chinese” as referring to the Chinese language, or that this might have been a translation of huaren (華人). Huaren is a term ambiguously referring to ethnic Chinese, but without reference necessarily to residents of mainland China, that is, zhongguoren (中國人). Even there, this is contestation where some back away from the term huaren as too Sinocentric or Han-centric in nature given the multiethnic nature of Taiwanese society, as predicated on that huaren excludes indigenous peoples, or effaces that the majority of benshengren native Taiwanese have some degree of indigenous descent. Others argued that huaren was still not sufficiently distinct from zhongguoren.

To be sure, we might remember it was frequently a claim during the Sunflower Movement that Taiwan was the only huaren democracy and so that the international world should pay attention to Taiwan on that basis. Where Singapore was excluded from the boundaries of huaren democracy that is quite justifiably on the basis of its authoritarian social order, but we might also note that the claim that Taiwanese was the only huaren democracy in the world as an argument for why Taiwan was significant was often predicated on ethnic grounds. That is, it was argued that Taiwan was significant because it proved on essentialist grounds that huaren were capable of democracy where, for example, we often hear the relativistic argument that democracy is only suited for western peoples and that the ethnic composition of huaren makes them unsuitable for democracy.

It proves problematic, to be sure, to assert the importance of huaren democracy on grounds which assume the essentialist capacity of a ethnic people for democracy or not. But we might note also the claim that ethnic Chinese are not suited for or incapable of achieving democracy is quite often heard from proponents of maintaining an authoritarian political system in China, not only Chinese but also westerners who look at China through the lens of racial essentialism. Indeed, this was also claimed by Lee Kuan Yew during his lifetime to justify Singapore’s unsuitability for democracy and this view is a highly circulated claim with strong discursive power in the so-called “huaren world” (華人世界), the “ethnic Chinese world” consisting of countries with majority ethnically Chinese populations as China, Taiwan, and Singapore.

Would Taiwan really draw such a line in the sand for democracy in the so-called “ethnic Chinese world”, and does this “ethnic Chinese world” have their eyes set on Taiwan as potentially the proof that ethnic Chinese are capable of democracy? That remains to be seen. When such a claim comes out of civil society, it runs the risk of belying a form of selectively forgetful pride in the achievements of Taiwanese democracy even when civil society at times also seeks to call attention to the incomplete nature of Taiwanese democracy because the power of KMT rule has yet to be broken. It is however, also true that sympathizers and supporters of China have sought to call attention to Taiwanese democracy as broken, inefficient compared to the CCP one-party rule, and its failure as proof that ethnic Chinese—or as we might say perhaps more accurately, Han—are incapable of democracy.

Lastly, as was pointed out to me by a journalist, we might also note that the use of “Chinese” on the cover was very probably less out of political considerations, but because “Chinese democracy” draws the attention to the issue of 2016 elections in Taiwan as important where the use of “Taiwanese democracy” as a phrase would not serve to draw in readers. This, of course, takes us back to what extent Taiwan is overshadowed by its larger and more culturally famous neighbor, China, and leads us to recall that the reason Taiwan fails to have a distinct cultural identity from China in the international sphere is the product of KMT policies which for decades aimed to efface the differences between Taiwan and China in order to claim Taiwan as being wholly and genuinely China—more so than even mainland China itself. Even after the end of martial law, we continue to see where Taiwan is depicted culturally as China in, for example, the attempts of the government to attract tourists or language students to Taiwan instead of China, and that this continues to provide for the lack of cultural distinction made between Taiwan and China. But that such controversy resulted once again about the use of “Taiwanese” and “Chinese” reflects continued anxiety about how Taiwan is thought of relative to China in the international sphere.

Lessons to be Learned From Disproportionate Influence of International Media On Taiwan

TRUTH BE TOLD, what is in some ways perhaps the most fascinating response to the Tsai Ing-Wen Time Magazine cover appearance is the United Daily Newsattempt to convince a Taiwanese readership that the article depicted Tsai as in a negative light, as “wonky.” For even if we might note that attention paid by Taiwanese and individuals concerned with Taiwan to that the Time article was written on a flawed basis in terms of who it cited and quoted, this has, in some respects, masked that for all its flaws the article, it largely took a positive tone towards Tsai.

In all likelihood, the article will ultimately be beneficial to Tsai’s image as a figure capable of engaging with the international sphere in Taiwan and has raised Tsai’s profile abroad, even if we might also point out that the article ventures only speculative conclusions about Tsai’s position on cross-strait relations in the future given the vagueness of her position to date. Some will see this as casting Tsai in a negative light where cross-strait relations are concerned, but this also reflects the very real ambiguities of Tsai’s current position or lack thereof, where Tsai has gestured towards maintaining the current status quo but not clarified what actions will be taken to do so.

screencapture-udn-com-news-story-1-1010288-E5-A4-96-E4-BA-A4-E8-BC-83-E9-87-8F-E6-B4-AA-E9-99-A3-E7-87-9F-E6-8C-87-E7-B6-A0-E7-87-9F-E9-8C-AF-E7-BF-BBWonky-1435299826258The United Daily News article in question.

But what the United Daily News honed in on was when the article referred to Tsai as “wonky”. “Wonky” was used in the meaning of Tsai being a political wonk, which is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a person preoccupied with arcane details or procedures in a specialized field”. It is such, for example, that the Washington Post’s politics blog is playfully named the “Wonkblog.” In the case of Tsai, the word was used in reference to her being slightly bookish in her approach to to politics. The sentence in which Tsai is referred to as “wonky” reads:

“As a minister, party chair and presidential candidate (she narrowly lost to two-term incumbent Ma Ying-jeou in the 2012 race), Tsai gained a reputation for being wonky—the type who likes to debate protectionism over early-morning sips of black coffee or oolong tea.”

However, where “wonky” also has the separate meaning of being “unreliable” or “unsteady,” the United Daily News seized upon that fact, leveraging on the critical responses to the Time Magazine cover which had appeared in public discourse, as well as the fact that most Taiwanese did not have access to the article or would have had difficulty reading the English in order to claim that the main thrust of the article was to claim Tsai was unreliable and did not have the faith of America to maintain cross-strait relations. Where there are not enough Taiwanese who would read the article in Time Magazine to call out the United Daily News on its falsehoods that the United Daily News decided it had sufficient chances of getting away with this and would take the risk of publishing such an outright lie in the hopes that it would work. That this would be able to work as a ploy, evidences that Taiwanese perhaps have not given enough attention to the international representations of Taiwan in the media. Rather than causing a massive debate, Taiwanese should instead have been able to examine the original article, confirm the usage of the word, and disprove United Daily News’ claims. But the large public debate which followed illustrates that this did not happen.

Indeed, as evidenced by the Time Magazine cover and the hullaballoo that followed within Taiwan about the word “wonky”, we can point to the uneven relation of power between international media and Taiwan. Again, it is such that the cover would incite such debate to begin with. Not much is written about Taiwan, but what does get written about become hugely talked about in Taiwan, just because so little is written about Taiwan in general that when a major news outlet covers Taiwan, it becomes a major event, even when coverage is minor, or about what is in fact a trivial event. We can point to any number of examples, ranging from when Taiwanese news media becomes overexcited that minor news sites claim Taiwan is the number one vacation destination in the world, or, say, to the giant inflatable rubber duck which got so much attention last year and that it was attracting much in the way of foreign attention. It seems likely that Time Magazine put out this cover article without any consideration of what effect it would have on a Taiwanese audience, after all, and that would seem to point to where the Time Magazine cover might not be significant at all.

We might point to Taiwanese becoming overexcited about the influence of Tsai’s appearance on the cover of Time Magazine when the cover will probably not have a great deal of influence in the western world, but be only one among many Time Magazine covers. But it is also true, we might take the present occasion as an object lesson that Taiwanese should pay much more attention to their representations in international media, even if in this case United Daily News’ claims should have been shot down more easily. If so little is written about Taiwan in the international world to begin with, what little that does has disproportionate influence on international perceptions. In this sense, if Taiwanese do not pay attention to how Taiwan is depicted abroad, misunderstandings of Taiwan’s situation will result and how individuals abroad react towards or think of Taiwan will be founded upon those misunderstandings.

In regards to the present case, for example, while pro-Taiwan English commentators called out the Time Magazine article for misleading content, this did not happen so much on the Taiwanese side. For example, initial Taiwanese commentary was largely preoccupied with the cover of the magazine. When individuals criticized Time Magazine on the basis of its cover and its cover only in reference to Taiwanese as Chinese, this was a failure to take the time to defuse the claims of the article one by one where they can provide for a dangerous representation of Taiwan, becoming perhaps too preoccupied only with the question of “Chinese” or “Taiwanese” to note where the article propagates a number of dangerous misunderstandings about Taiwan’s precarious position in the world relative to China and the United States. We can say much the same thing about “wonky”, where debate subsequently honed in on the use of word “wonky” in the article, and almost nothing else about the article’s content. And so the claims made in the article which are incorrect or misleading will continue to circulate.

But many have seen little use in engaging with international media representations of Taiwan, because it seems to have little effect on the struggles which take place on a daily basis in Taiwan itself, against the KMT or Chinese encroachment. True enough. We might note also that, rather than depending on the western world or the United States to be their savior, it needs to be Taiwanese who save themselves—nobody else will and nobody else can. Nobody else will care so much about Taiwan’s problems. Yet is it not that, in some way, Taiwan’s internal problems are international ones in nature? Namely, the misunderstandings of the international sphere about Taiwan’s relation to China pose a threat to Taiwan because if the world perceives Taiwan as China, it increases the likelihood of Taiwan becoming part of China in the future. And if Taiwan’s complicated relation to China and America is misunderstood, the result is that the misunderstanding becomes the factual basis upon which the world acts, making falsehoods into reality.

After all, it may be that the fundamental root of Taiwan’s problems lay in problems of representation. For so many years the KMT claimed that Taiwan is part of China. It continues to do so in the present. But that Taiwan is in danger of being swallowed up by and becoming part of China in the present is because so much of the world has come to accept the claims that Taiwan is part of China which come from both the KMT and China. If China says Taiwan is part of China and the KMT, who were thought of as representing Taiwanese, also says so, it must be true! As a result, much of the world not only came to believe that Taiwan was part of China, but remained unaware of that the KMT did not represent Taiwanese, representations of the KMT’s authoritarianism being largely kept out of western media in order to prop up the image of the KMT as an ally of the western world against the threat of China. Had the world’s eye been on these circumstances, the ability of China to encroach upon Taiwan would be under greater scrutiny, and the actions of the KMT against the Taiwanese people would be constrained under the gaze of the international world, even if it is also futile to think that the international world would have necessarily done anything about it. This remains also true where the fictive nature of the 1992 consensus remains unchallenged, allowing what was purely falsehood to become something with a very real influence upon how international actors regard the relation of Taiwan to China.

Similarly, many Taiwanese remain convinced that America has a treaty obligation to defend Taiwan in the case of Chinese invasion when it does not. Yet many remain convinced that this is so and that becomes the factual basis upon which they regard the complicated three-way relation between Taiwan, China, and America. One can see where the results for Taiwan could be disastrous, not only on the part of Taiwanese seeing the solution to cross-strait relations as to prostrate themselves before their savior, America, which will certainly not unconditionally come to the rescue of Taiwan from China. This, of course, is largely because media often propagates the falsehood that Taiwan and US relations are such that the US has a treaty obligation to defend Taiwan.

But accordingly, it is where Taiwan’s image in the international sphere has real world effect on Taiwan and Taiwanese need to safeguard their representations. And rather than issue be elated about Tsai Ing-Wen’s appearance on the cover of Time Magazine, or issue blazing condemnations of Time Magazine’s coverage, that may be the real lesson that should be drawn here.

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