Lately, there has been a fear that hordes of Chinese will invade Taiwan, whether they be students, workers or professionals, and these fears are well grounded. If a multitude of Chinese students suddenly appear, it is possible that many university positions would not be available for Taiwanese students. Others fear that Chinese workers would accept lower wages, thus squeezing out local workers. Moreover, some feel white-collar Chinese workers would be detrimental to Taiwanese professionals because they work for Chinese firms.
However, all these arguments are missing a fundamental point: When people interact with each other as equals, they come to understand each other.
Ten years ago, it was impossible to imagine a low-paid musician from across the Taiwan Strait coming to Taiwan to play shows at bars in Taipei. Now, it is possible, and when it happens, all the pent up curiosities between Taiwanese and Chinese come out. The first thing Taiwanese notice is the accent of the Chinese musician. He sounds like somebody’s grandfather, only he’s young.
Then a Taiwanese starts asking the Chinese about where he’s from: Do you eat beef noodle soup in your country; do people listen to Taiwanese music; and is it safe to walk around on the streets? The Chinese musician answers in kind, telling the curious questioner that: Yes, we do eat a form of beef noodle soup; yes, we download all the music you listen to; and yes, it is safe in most places to walk around on the street. This sometimes comes as a shock to the average person who might read, listen or see in various media that China is backward and dangerous.
Most Taiwanese, who do not travel to or work in China, can only learn about Chinese by reading newspapers, watching television or listening to the radio. However, when Chinese come to Taiwan, locals can learn about their cousins from across the Strait first-hand, both the good and the bad. It’s a type of low-level diplomacy that cuts through misunderstandings and prejudices better than any government-sponsored effort.
Take students for example. Colleges throughout the world recruit international students for many reasons. They bring a new perspective to the student body — new experiences — turning the student body of a given university into a multi-cultural, dynamic group. Taiwanese universities are eager to do this, and the most likely candidate would be Chinese students, partly because of the shared language and culture.
Some fear that these Chinese students could form a sort of fifth column, and the fears are well founded. However, the majority just want to study and gain new opportunities to make a living, not very different from the average Taiwanese student. It would be ignorant to say that Chinese students don’t have anything to offer the education system in Taiwan and that they would not contribute their experiences to the student body.
Yes, there would be challenges, but should they be shut out just to avoid these challenges. The answer is clearly no.
China and Taiwan are neighbors, for better or worse. The sooner Taiwanese realize that not everyone from China represents their government, the better. Chinese have a lot to learn from Taiwanese know-how, but Taiwanese can also gain in these personal exchanges.
Cutting off the lines of communication is not an option, while the reverse is beneficial for both sides. Of course, exchanges should be managed, much as they are in Australia and the US — neither country ever simply opened the floodgates to Chinese students or workers. However, opposing the entry of Chinese into the education system or workplace based on fear is tantamount to shooting oneself in the foot.
Tom Walk is a copy editor at the Taipei Times.
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