What Would “Cultural Sovereignty” Mean for Taiwan in an Age of Digital Media?

by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Solomon203/WikiCommons/CC

MINISTER OF CULTURE Lee Yung-te made comments at the recent National Culture Congress earlier this month that might strike as somewhat unusual. 

Namely, Lee asserted that Taiwan has a need to defend its “cultural sovereignty” in an age full of dangers, due to the advent of digital streaming platforms. To this extent, Lee touted efforts by the Ministry of Culture to promote the creation of Taiwanese cultural content, in pushing for young people to not only be active consumers of content, but also creators of it. 

The National Culture Congress is usually held every four years, though this year’s National Culture Congress took place as the first event in five years due to the effects of COVID-19. The event aims to collect suggestions from cultural workers in a wide range of sectors. 

The four symposiums held at this year’s National Culture Congress were on the visual arts, performing arts, digital culture, and use of technology as part of culture. The suggestions provided by the attendees were collated into 122 proposals. 

In particular, Lee’s comments about international streaming were due to the fact that young people often consume content from digital over-the-top (OTT) platforms. Examples include western platforms as Netflix, but also Chinese platforms such as iQiyi or Tencent Video. 

Despite survey polling showing that young people overwhelmingly identify with Taiwan and not with China, there has been an increased concern in recent years about the influence of Chinese media on Taiwanese young people. For example, due to young people’s consumption of Chinese programs, there has been concern about Chinese vocabulary creeping into the Taiwanese lexicon. 

However, more generally, there is concern that the cultural front could prove a means for China to project soft power and, in this way, sway a generation of Taiwanese young people. This could particularly prove concerning with regards to shaping perceptions of China, such as how China is positioned as bigger, better, and grander than Taiwan in Chinese talent programs, many of which feature Taiwanese entertainers as guests or judges. 

The fear, then, is that this may convince young Taiwanese that China is indeed better than Taiwan, and that they may not be sufficiently conscious of restrictions on political freedoms in China. There have also been past incidents in which Chinese OTT providers cut sensitive content because of its political implications, such as when iQiyi abruptly axed the broadcast of Days We Stared at the Sun 2, a Public Television Service television drama, because it is set during the 2014 Sunflower Movement. 

Taiwan is, of course, a democracy, and so there is little consideration of banning Chinese programs, though the Tsai administration has struggled to regulate them. The Tsai administration has moved to ban Taiwanese agents of Chinese OTT providers, but it does not mean to block Chinese streaming access outright, given that this would infringe upon freedoms of speech. That being said, the KMT has tried to frame the Tsai administration’s efforts to rein in Chinese OTT providers as part of its broader attack on the media, with the pan-Blue depicting itself as under attack following the loss of broadcast license for networks such as CtiTV due to broadcasting aimed at favoring its preferred political candidates, to the extent that 70% of CtiTV’s airtime was about the network’s preferred KMT presidential candidate, Han Kuo-yu, in May 2019. 

The way to curb Chinese influence is, of course, to have more compelling original Taiwanese cultural content. But this proves difficult when Taiwanese productions are surpassed by Chinese productions in terms of budget and production values. 

Yet even if there are greater concerns regarding the potential political effects of Chinese media, this is also the case with western programming as disseminated through platforms as Netflix. Indeed, looking back at Taiwanese history, Taiwan’s domestic film industry collapsed after the influx of Hollywood films following Taiwan’s admittance to the World Trade Organization. Given the popularity of Netflix, there also is the possibility of Taiwanese content being edged out through the platform, even if collaborative endeavors between Netflix and Taiwanese productions are also on the rise. Otherwise, among other Asian countries, one notes that cultural content from Japan and South Korea, may edge out Taiwanese content. This is also worth considering.