May 29, 2007

Taiwan: Recognition Through Fame

Regularly denied membership in international organisations, Taiwan is resorting to the fame of its celebrities to achieve international recognition.

Regularly denied membership in international organisations, Taiwan is resorting to the fame of its celebrities to achieve international recognition.

Below is an article published by the Peninsula:

TAIPEI • When Kevin Lin returned home to Taiwan after a 111-day run across the Sahara Desert, the government enlisted him in a public relations campaign aimed at stealing some spotlight from arch-rival China.

At a news conference organised by the government, the long-distance runner recounted stories about drinking water contaminated with animal urine and suffering from diarrhoea so bad that it made his head spin. But the main emphasis was on the 30-year-old sports psychology student's Taiwan background as part of a government campaign to use local celebrities to raise the island's international profile amidst pressure from China.

"It especially touches me that in news reports Lin likes to tell people he comes from Taiwan, and he wears the (Taiwan) flag on his chest," Government Information Office Deputy Minister William Yih told the news conference.

China actively pressures countries to resist Taiwan's efforts to establish ties or join international organisations, seeing the self-ruled island which broke away in 1949 as part of its territory rather than a country. It has threatened to invade Taiwan if it declares independence.

Taiwan faces a sometimes impossible task of finding allies among countries eager to court Beijing because of its market size and global influence.

The island is regularly rebuffed by international organisations it seeks to join such as the United Nations and the World Health Organisation. The WHO rejected another overture by Taiwan this month.

That is where Lin comes in along with celebrities such as Taiwan-born New York Yankees baseball pitcher Wang Chien-ming and Oscar-winner director Ang Lee, whose films include "Brokeback Mountain" and "Crouching Tiger, hidden dragon".

Top government leaders fete these and other big-name Taiwan-born stars whenever they return.

"They show the international community there is a location called Taiwan, not as China claims as part of the PRC (People's Republic of China)," said Steve Chen, director of the Conflict Study and Research Center at Chang Jung University in Taiwan.

Taiwan is proud of even small successes on the international stage such as the renewal in early May of diplomatic relations with St Lucia, a Caribbean nation with a population of 165,000. "That is the first step for Taiwan to be recognised as a country," said Shane Lee, a political science professor at Chang Jung University in Taiwan. "It's difficult to assess the result. But it's better doing something than doing nothing."

Taiwan's worship of home-grown celebrities is part of a broader campaign for international recognition that includes lobbying against China for official ties with other countries and repeated efforts to join global organisations. At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Taiwan will compete as Chinese Taipei, theoretically a province of China, though it will be allowed to send its own team.

Taiwan's athletes cooperate with their government's publicity efforts, but some also have their own agendas. Lin said he ran across the Sahara partly to inspire Taiwan youth to try adventure sports in the face of protective parents and lack of emphasis on such activities in school.

"They should be able to have dreams, too," Lin said. "This is a problem with our environment. There are few people who can stand (adventure sports). They don't know the spirit of it.

A year from now Lin will join Taiwan's first team to compete in the annual Polar Challenge, a 563-km (350-mile) ski trek from far northern Canada over an ice pack to the magnetic north pole.

The government is not behind the effort yet, but that could change if the team wins the race, said Lo Chih-cheng, political science department chairman at Soochow University in Taiwan.