Thu, May 12, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Changing China is a pipe dream

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將

Tellingly, speaking of the positive effects of academic exchanges with Der Spiegel, Ma said they would be of “tremendous significance for bilateral exchanges and mutual influence between the sides in the future.” The policy will indeed be of tremendous significance, but the influence will hardly be mutual; in fact, as with everything else, it will most assuredly be one-way.

This week, National Taiwan University announced it had signed three memorandums on academic exchanges with Peking University, allowing for guest and adjunct professor exchanges and bringing the number of exchange students from two to 10 per year. More agreements between universities on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are likely to follow, as doing so dovetails with Ma’s policy of closer academic cooperation.

However, as we discussed above, it is highly improbable that China will act any differently on educational matters than it did with trade, freedom of expression or human rights. In fact, we can be assured that whoever is allowed to leave China to come study or teach in Taiwan will have been vetted by the Chinese authorities, meaning that they will not depart from Beijing’s script.

As with WTO rules, goodwill will be observed in the breach, and their counterparts will counsel patience, but the fact of the matter is, they won’t change, and will not pick up notions of freedom and democracy by virtue of being in Taiwan.

This is not to mention the growing body of evidence that many Chinese students and professors worldwide are beholden to the Chinese intelligence apparatus. (The problem of Chinese espionage has become so serious in the US that, as reported by Forbes on Saturday, a clause added to the US spending bill approved by US Congress a few weeks ago prohibits the Office of Science and Technology Policy and NASA from coordinating any joint scientific activity with China.)

However, the situation will be markedly different for Taiwanese students and professors going to China. For one, we can expect that any academic who has publicly criticized China on human rights or advocated Taiwanese independence, for example, will not be extended an invitation to teach in China. In other words, China will likely be vetting Taiwanese professors and ensuring that only those who toe the Beijing line are allowed in.

This already holds true to visiting professors from the West and there is no reason to think that China will behave any differently when it comes to Taiwan. As for Taiwanese students, they will have every incentive to lie low and self-censor lest they get into trouble, meaning they will remain silent in the face of intellectual injustice and learn to live with the cost of “doing business” with China.

Do that often enough and it becomes acceptable practice — again, ask just about any Western firm or government that has chosen to do business with China in the past two decades, allowing themselves to be transformed to such an extent as to become complicit (as did firms like Nortel, Yahoo or American Motors Corp, to name a few) in China’s system of repression.

Given its political situation and China’s claims over its sovereignty, Taiwan, more than any nation on earth, has every incentive to be aware of the dynamics of engaging China.

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