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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Taiwan's Exercises Its Soft Power Through Bicycle Diplomacy

Michael Turton at The View From Taiwan has recently posted on a look into Taiwan's use of "soft power" in creating a type of informal international space that is not regulated by the language of international diplomacy, charter associations, membership agreements, historical tropes or the murky world of real politik. Taiwan's soft power seeps through the diplomatic cracks in the walls of international protocol and invades our individual and collective mind-space, despite the best work of professional propagandists to block or subvert the message.

The bicycle has become one arrow in Taiwan's often unintentional quiver of defecto national and cultural independence.

As I mention in other posts, Taiwan has gained a reputation for providing some of the world's best OEM/ODM manufacturing for bicycles and bicycle components. Despite its former pejorative label, "Taiwan" has become synonymous with quality bicycle production. This awareness has even trickled down to the consumer who is now confident in the quality of a Taiwanese frame that it is often preferred over a Chinese model. This is also a key point as the consumer who might not be even remotely aware of Taiwan's geographic location or complicated history, may be fully aware that Taiwan and China are different and that difference translates into the perception of a disparity in quality between Chinese and Taiwanese products. In the mind of the consumer there is already a huge quality gap between Chinese and Taiwanese goods and the recent melamine scandal and other health scares from adulterated products has further cemented the perceived differences.

Taiwan's government and ordinary Taiwanese cyclists have used the bicycle numerous times as a convenient meme to gain international awareness, recognition and greater international space. Here, here, here, here!!!

The Taiwanese bicycle industry has not only raised Taiwan's profile internationally, but it has also led to a domestic awareness of the bicycle's symbolic power in expressing and exporting the Taiwanese identity.

This type of soft power that both creates international space and projects a type of national pride is also the source of internal friction as Taiwan's political actors are divided on whether to exploit these popular images and perceptions to raise Taiwan's international stature, or seek to rein it in, in deference to China and Chinese pressure. This friction becomes more acute during a rising election cycle as each politician wants to be photographed on a bike, but not every politician wishes to raise Taiwan's international stature with soft power.

It will be interesting to see how the soft power of the bicycle will be used in the future and whether China will be able to erase the perceived gap in quality in the short to medium term.