If readers are feeling confused about the legalities of learning Mandarin in Taiwan, then they might gain a little comfort knowing that the government is even more confused -- for the moment.
Recent weeks have seen a flurry of rumors warning of crackdowns on "illegal" schools that teach Mandarin by removing visa privileges, apparently out of the desire to weed out illegal English teachers. Since then, we have been treated to the spectacle of ministries at cross purposes and in some instances unaware of the law.
Perhaps out of panic, yesterday a senior Ministry of Education official announced a plan allowing indefinite extensions of visitor visas for bona fide students of Mandarin, including students at private schools. Encouraging news, indeed. But there's more to this than meets the bureaucrat's eye.
The Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of the Interior are negotiating the details. But even if they agree on terms, it seems unlikely that they will take the intelligent step of allowing all bona fide students to support themselves while studying.
As with the appalling treatment of Senegalese students who were sent packing after their government switched allegiances to Beijing, these ministries' strange motivations and indifference to the needs of foreign students will continue to needlessly damage the nation's interests if students are arbitrarily banned from employment.
But even after putting aside the mystery of why many students are not allowed to work, we are still faced with a wider conundrum.
The fact is that Taiwan has a superb resource that is criminally underexploited: It is a first-rate language learning environment that offers visitors a wide choice of learning and social opportunities in a country that does not intrude upon the personal freedoms of foreigners. Indeed, it is a place where foreigners have the right to become locals.
Taiwan sells itself, or at least it used to.
China, as it grows wealthier and more bourgeois, has the ability to attract increasing numbers of students -- full-fee paying and stipend holders -- from around the world. Taiwanese officials may not have noticed this, but these days in China foreign students can pretty much do what they like without fear of official molestation. One can be a different color and date a local girl without necessarily triggering protests among the proletariat. How times change.
The opportunity therefore presents itself: Taiwan could devote more resources to selling and subsidizing its linguistic wares to both the affluent and the meritorious and in the process gain the country tremendous sympathy, support and awareness among the next generations of "Sinologists," businesspeople and other groups.
The government could, if it wished, implement an accreditation mechanism that does not unfairly privilege universities over professionally run private schools, and at the same time ensure that students are meeting minimum requirements. Such students could then be allowed work privileges appropriate to the cost of living.
These students are, after all, entitled to them. We are dealing with adult education, not protectionist structures that standardize curriculums for children.
In the meantime, however, a good number of this nation's valuable foreign guests are in the dark about their student status. And for no good reason.