Taiwan: A Centre of Reading, Publishing…and Democracy

Credit: Taipei Book Fair Foundation.

A recent article in Publishing Perspectives on the 2019 Taipei International Book Exhibition (TIBE) caught my attention because it highlighted both the progress that Taiwan has made over the years in becoming an important centre for publishing (despite some ongoing problems with content piracy) and the important connection between reading, publishing, good governance and democratic values. The book fair, the 26th edition, took place in mid-February, featuring Germany as the “Guest of Honour” this year. The Director-General of the German Institute in Taipei (in effect Germany’s “unofficial embassy” to Taiwan), commented that;

“Taiwan has an exceptional publishing industry and a superior culture of reading. Every year, 5,000 publishers bring out 40,000 books, generating sales of more than €600 million (but) the value of books is not expressed in sales figures alone. In this case, it shows the high degree to which Taiwan has developed as a free and democratic society.”

Juergen Boos, CEO of the Frankfurter Buchmesse, the world’s largest and probably oldest trade fair for books commented that, “Publishing houses have a special responsibility when it comes to upholding freedom of opinion and ensuring free speech. Reading is crucial in this digital age for forming political opinions and for participating—something that begins in early childhood.” This was a theme emphasized by Taiwanese officials at the opening ceremony, with Vice President Chen Chien-ren calling for the preservation of democratic values through reading. For Taiwan, increasingly isolated diplomatically by Beijing’s push to strip away its remaining diplomatic partners, standing up for democratic values has become a defining feature of its identity. The hosting of TIBE, which has become the largest book fair in Asia (in 2018 there were 684 exhibitors from 60 countries) and reportedly the fourth largest globally (after Frankfurt, BookExpoAmerica, and Bologna), helps to keep Taiwan on the map of international commerce and underlines the connection between freedom of expression and publishing. It hasn’t always been that way.

As I recounted in a blog a couple of years ago, (From the Pirate Booksellers of Chungking Street to Taiwan Today), Taiwan was once the epicentre of book piracy in Asia, indeed one of the centres of pirate publishing globally owing to the fact that it recognized only copyrights registered in the Republic of China (Taiwan) at the time. In those days Taiwan was under the repressive rule of the Kuomintang (KMT) regime of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, a regime no less undemocratic than its counterpart across the Taiwan Strait, the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC), which had just undergone the book-burning excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Both Taiwan and the PRC have evolved considerably from those days of armed confrontation, with both making enormous economic and social strides. However, whereas Taiwan has become a multi-party democracy with regular elections and change of political leaders through the electoral process, China remains a one-party state under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Taiwan’s transition to a full-fledged democracy was, not surprisingly, accompanied by a lifting of the heavy censorship that prevailed under the KMT.

In Mainland China too there is considerably more academic and literary freedom than existed in the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, but political censorship remains an ever-present fact of life, in both offline and online publishing. Prominent cases like that of the writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who was repeatedly incarcerated in China, are but the most obvious examples. Recently with the tightening of propaganda controls under General Secretary and President Xi Jinping, there are new reports of books being banned, with noted law professor Jerome Cohen commenting on the fact that a constitutional law textbook written by Prof. Zhang Qianfan of Peking University, one of China’s best-known reform-minded legal scholars has reportedly been removed from book shops. The reason is apparently the Party’s ongoing campaign against western influence. These developments make the example of open publication and press freedom in Taiwan even more important and striking.

Freedom to publish is one thing; protection against copyright theft is another. I have commented on how Taiwan has moved over the years from an authoritarian one-party system to become a vibrant democracy. At the same time, it has evolved from being a copyright outlier to one where it has a full suite of modern copyright laws and where, by and large, copyright is well-respected. In the most recent edition of the Global Innovation Protection Index (GIPC) issued by the US Chamber of Commerce in January of this year, Taiwan ranked 20 out of 50 economies listed, just behind Canada and ahead of countries like Morocco, Mexico–and China. Likewise, for a number of years Taiwan has not appeared on USTR’s “Special 301” Watch List (WL) or Priority Watch List (PWL), the list of US trading partners considered by the US government to provide inadequate IP protection to US businesses, inventors and creators. That said, not all US copyright industries are happy with the current situation in Taiwan, largely owing to concerns about growing online piracy.

These online piracy issues affect publishing. In its 2019 submission to USTR as part of the annual Special 301 review process, the International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA), an alliance of US copyright-based industry associations, comments–with respect to publishing–that;

“Online piracy of reading materials has overtaken the longstanding problem of unauthorized photocopying of textbooks. In addition to e-book piracy, copyrighted teaching materials are increasingly made widely available without authorization on university digital platforms, and are often downloaded, printed and/or disseminated by students without authorization. Taiwan’s government needs to do more to combat these mounting problems”.

IIPA recommends to the US Government, as it did in 2018, that Taiwan be placed on the Priority Watch List, the most severe category of IP offender (or the one offering the weakest form of IP protection, to look at it another way) that exists in the USTR pantheon of the infamous. Whether the US government will accept this recommendation is another matter since the final decision on which countries are placed on the WL or PWL has political dimensions as well. The best example of this was the placing of Canada on the PWL in 2018 (IIPA had recommended only a WL listing) by USTR in the run-up to the NAFTA renegotiation. As I commented at the time, putting Canada in the same “global worst offender” category as China, Indonesia, Algeria, Russia, Venezuela, India, Kuwait, Ukraine, Colombia, Argentina and Chile not only strained the credibility of the process, but was clearly a negotiating ploy prior to the final tense stages of concluding a multi-faceted trade agreement.

Thus it is not likely (in my view) that Taiwan will appear on USTR’s transgressor list in 2019, either PWL or WL, although it should not be complacent. Taiwan has aspirations to join the recently established Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a regional trade liberalization agreement which includes eleven economies in the Asia-Pacific region (although not the US). If it is to do so, it will need to up its game on IP as well as in several other areas. That may well happen. CPTPP membership will not only help cement Taiwan’s role as an important element in Asia-Pacific supply chains, but will also help recognize it as an open economy sharing democratic values with many of the other CPTPP members. Coming back to the Taiwan International Book Exhibition (TIBE), the fair is a good barometer of these values. As James Chao, Chairman of the Exhibition noted;

“Thanks to our freedom of speech, Taiwan has the most diversified publishing market and reading environment among the Chinese-speaking countries”.

While not everyone in a democracy reads, many people who read believe in democracy and freedom of expression. Taiwan is a good example of this virtuous circle and long may it remain so.

And when publishing is undermined by piracy, the rights of creators and their ability to produce the thoughtful reflections that inform our democracies are likewise undermined. That is not in Taiwan’s interest. I hope that when Taiwan welcomes the 27th edition of the TIBE in 2020, domestic and international publishers will be able to note that progress is being made in dealing with their piracy concerns.

In the meantime, long live reading and vive la democratie!–in Taiwan and elsewhere.

© Hugh Stephens, 2019. All Rights Reserved.



Author: hughstephensblog

I am a former Canadian foreign service officer and a retired executive with Time Warner. In both capacities I worked for many years in Asia. I have been writing this copyright blog since 2016, and recently published a book "In Defence of Copyright" to raise awareness of the importance of good copyright protection in Canada and globally. It is written from and for the layman's perspective (not a legal text or scholarly work), illustrated with some of the unusual copyright stories drawn from the blog. Available on Amazon and local book stores.

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