Recent efforts by President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) government to emphasize Chinese studies in school curricula have led some people to warn of a possible “brainwashing” of the nation’s youth and the eventual dissolution of national identity. While the government’s measures are a cause for concern, their effectiveness in undermining Taiwanese identity is questionable.
For decades following its relocation to Taiwan in 1949, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) imposed strict controls on education and the media to re-sinicize Taiwanese after half a decade of Japanese colonial rule. However, even in an authoritarian and pre-Internet society, those efforts failed to transform Taiwanese into something they were not (for another example of the failure of government propaganda to turn people into mindless automatons, even in closed societies, just ask any cab driver in Cuba for his views on Fidel Castro and communism). However, despite the KMT’s repressive tactics, Taiwanese identity flourished, first as an underground movement and, after the lifting of Martial Law in 1987, as part of national politics with the emergence of the Democratic Progressive Party.
Gone are the days where state control of education can fundamentally shape young people, if it ever did. What the government failed to accomplish in a closed society with limited external sources of information has become an even more formidable task today, thanks to the multiplicity of electronic sources from which young people can access information. One need only look at China, where dissidents continue to defy the Chinese Communist Party thanks to social media, mobile phones and various Internet platforms, despite strict controls on information.
The implication of this radical change in how young people learn about their surroundings cannot be overstated and has direct ramifications in terms of how they develop their identity, both as individuals and members of a shared community. However hard a teacher might try to inculcate the view that apples are blue, young people will have access to innumerable sources of information to discredit that contention. In the electronic age, the environment that shapes young people has become much larger than the classroom. Unless the KMT turns back the clock and cracks down on freedom of expression — and does so far more successfully than even the most repressive of authoritarian regimes — convincing young Taiwanese that they are Chinese will be an exercise in futility. The genie of identity is out of the bottle and it is not going back in.
Admittedly, resistance to the kind of top-down educational propaganda feared by the more alarmist among us requires a modicum of critical thinking, but there is every reason to believe that today’s youth have the ability to do so. After all, their parents and teachers experienced the passage from authoritarian rule to democracy, a key element in the nation’s consciousness and one whose impact has been passed down by that generation. It is the responsibility of adults to ensure that such values continue to flourish. There is no reason to believe they intend to do otherwise.
The claim that young Taiwanese can somehow be “brainwashed” and will receive information uncritically not only counters the evidence, seen in public opinion polls, but is also insulting and condescending. Such views echo the contention by some in the older generation that young Taiwanese are disinterested in politics and apathetic to issues of national concern. However, the young not being easily mobilized or vocal on matters of, say, sovereignty, does not mean that they do not care or are wavering when it comes to fundamental issues. Their apparent disinterest could stem from the fact that the issue of identity is already resolved in their minds and therefore does not necessitate action.