Taiwan’s Cute Power Playbook
How adorable Olympians, cat-warrior diplomats and Star Trek ministers give Taiwan outsized international clout
While Team Japan and Team Taiwan (excuse me…Chinese Taipei) celebrated their respective Gold and Bronze medal wins in mixed doubles table tennis, the Chinese silver medalists stood stiffly off to one side. OK. They just missed out on glory, right? Maybe give them a minute.
Meanwhile, this was how Taiwanese Judo player Yang Yung-Wei celebrated his silver medal win.
All on their own, but especially in contrast with the Chinese, the Taiwanese are just undeniably, incontrovertibly cute. And I will make the case that it’s not just in sports.
When Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) was appointed Taiwan’s top envoy to the U.S., she described herself as a “cat warrior,” drawing direct contrast with the “wolf warrior diplomats” of China. She also brought her four cats to Washington, of course. Aww.
When Digital Minister Audrey Tang (唐鳳) went on CNN, she flashed a “live long and prosper” sign before launching into how Taiwan managed to successfully contain the COVID-19 outbreak by leveraging technology and trusting citizens. It’s adorable.
Idiosyncratic gestures? Or a tactic to create space internationally by building goodwill? Why not both? Both at home and abroad, the Taiwanese are increasingly deploying an unusual weapon in their political arsenal: cuteness.
There is something very cute about Taiwan. It’s very small, but also very complete. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people are obsessed with cuteness in culture here. The animated emoji use is out of control.
Before the current outbreak I was procrastinating on my stories when another reporter in the press room howled (adorably) “no, no, no, no, no, no, NO!” and literally stomped his feet. This adult man did little tappity-taps like a thumping bunny. “My editor just made me write another story! Now I’ll never get out of here by 7:30p.m. and I’ll miss my movie!”
A full round of ritualistic complaints about the unreasonableness of editors as a species was launched. I think the ritualistic complaints might have taken more time than writing the story, which he tapped out in 15 minutes and headed out at 7:25p.m., after showing off the extensive capabilities of his new Sony clip-on camera. This reporter is very cute.
Maybe it’s because we’re an island country that is small and densely populated. Performing cuteness is a way of showing others your authenticity without taking up too much space. Or, as Ambassador Hsiao puts it, ¨Navigating complicated and turbulent waters, the Cat Warrior finds survival space in difficult conditions.”
President Tsai Ing-wen herself is hardly shy about weaponizing cuteness politically. Pictures of her two cats and three rescued dogs regularly grace her Facebook, where aides say they garner 50% more “likes” than posts on political issues.
Taiwanese YouTuber Potter King came to prominence with a series of “Flirting with…” videos, where he tries on increasingly cringe-worthy pick-up lines on unsuspecting subjects to great comic effect. When the presidential office called to suggest a collaboration in the run-up to the 2020 Taiwanese presidential elections, Potter King had just one condition: “I’m going to mack on the president!”
The video quickly went viral. The response from China was just as swift. Papitube, Potter King’s Chinese media partner, dropped the Taiwanese YouTuber for referring to Tsai as “the president of Taiwan.”
President Tsai came to the defense of Potter King with a wry comment: “We are a free and democratic society. If you can’t even flirt with the president of Taiwan a little on video, that’s contrary to our cherished democratic values.”
The opposition KMT candidate for the presidency, Han Guo-yu came up with a much more staid response, making a profit-driven appeal to Papitube. “Please don’t let Potter King’s interview of the Taiwanese president end up causing economic loss!”
Tsai won the election in a landslide.
There is another side to Taiwan’s Cute Power playbook. In addition to meaning “endearing”, being “cute” can also mean being clever or cunning, often to the point of impertinence. On the international stage, Taiwan is trying to be very cute in both senses of the word.
When things other countries take for granted like international recognition of existence is out of reach, Cute Power becomes a cover for Taiwan to assert its presence while signalling that it is well aware of boundaries it must not cross.
Speaking to Bloomberg, China expert Jonathan Sullivan said “Taiwan has become more and more adept at finding space behind the ‘red lines’”
When Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu was asked by NPR during the chest-thumping Trump administration whether Taiwan would seek formal relations with the US, he politely demurred, “not right now.” However, when China sent threatening letters to Indian media outlets for openly recognizing Taiwan’s national day celebrations, Wu didn’t mince words on Twitter, telling China to “GET LOST!”
Aditya Raj Kaul @AdityaRajKaul#BREAKING: Chinese Embassy, New Delhi issues diktat letter to Indian media about reporting the National Day of Taiwan on Oct 10th. Says, ‘Taiwan is inalienable part of China’s territory.’ Is this an indirect threat to Indian media who cover Taiwan? @MOFA_Taiwan @digidiploTaiwan https://t.co/vPLRZhVuTR
The irritated and belligerent Beijing becomes, the better this strategy works. By maintaining disciplined control when unprovoked but cheekily striking back only when China acts like a bully, Taiwan maximizes goodwill in the eyes of potential allies.
When Czech senate president Miloš Vystrčil led a trade delegation to Taiwan last year, Beijing went ballistic. Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) described Vystrčil’s visit as a “provocation” and said the senate president “would pay a heavy price.” This lead German Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas to issue a rebuke on the spot, saying “Threat have no place here [in Europe]” while Wang stood awkwardly in an adjacent podium, just like a silver-medaled Chinese Olympian.
Meanwhile, Taiwan’s cat warrior diplomats are busy branching out into cooking videos. It’s called “we do a little recipe-swapping diplomacy.”
The big question is, as totes adorbs as Taiwan is, does this “cute power” transform into actual international clout? I would argue that Cute Power Diplomacy has already given Taiwan concrete gains. For instance, when our COVID-19 wall was finally breached, America, Japan, Lithuania and Slovakia quickly came to our aid with vaccine donations, large and small.
How did we thank them? Of course, in the cutest way possible. This is the sticker they give you at the NTU hospital after you get a vaccine shot.
In Chinese, “cute” , or “ke-ai” (可愛), literally means “possible to love.” The more Beijing attempts to flex its military and economic muscles, the less lovable it appears. The contrast makes the orderly and democratic Taiwan all the more possible to love.