When the government announced a few years ago that it would open Taiwan’s universities to Chinese students, it had more than dropping university enrolment and the world’s lowest birth rate in mind — it also hoped to enhance sympathy for Taiwan among the future political leaders of China.
With about 1,000 Chinese undergraduate and graduate students having just completed their first academic year in Taiwan, the signs are for the most part encouraging. A report in the New York Times last month was replete with quotes of Chinese students’ laudatory comments about the kindness of Taiwanese, the less rigid educational system and political openness. A number of them candidly admitted they had paid close attention to the Jan. 14 presidential election, or had looked up information about the Tiananmen Massacre and the Cultural Revolution on the Web that is unavailable to them on China’s heavily censored Internet.
Some, who did not even request anonymity, went further, saying they felt it was their responsibility to bring back what they had learned in Taiwan to help change their country.
This is all promising, were it not for one thing: The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does not want political change to occur in China, as its leaders firmly believe that the party alone has the legitimacy and ability to guide China’s development toward a bright future.
Young Chinese who absorb “dangerous” notions abroad, such as the virtues of multi-party democracy, are likely to run into difficulties once they return home, especially if they decide to engage in politics. Given that the situation in China has actually deteriorated since China’s “opening” for the 2008 Olympic Games, with censorship and detentions of dissidents increasing, there is cause for worry about the fate of the more outspoken among the Chinese returnees. Yes, they are China’s future and possibly Taiwan’s best hopes for peaceful coexistence with China, but those liberal students will be no good to the future of China if they end up in jail, or are forced to undergo re-education through hard labor, for “thought crimes” or political activity that threatens the survival of the CCP.
Although Chinese have been studying in Europe and North America for decades, Taiwan’s cultural proximity to China, an unresolved historical legacy as well as Beijing’s claims upon the island — not to mention the widely shared view that Taiwan can serve as an example of possible political transformation in China — make it especially worrisome to the CCP. In fact, every Chinese student who applies to come study here must first obtain the approval of Chinese authorities, presumably to screen out potential “troublemakers.”
Still, some may fall through the cracks, and to ensure they do not diverge too far off what is considered acceptable by the CCP, there are signs that China is using what authoritarian regimes have relied on since time immemorial to keep tabs on students abroad: professional students who spy on fellow students and report their activities to the authorities back home.
A number of professors who teach at Western universities told me in interviews that such practices are not uncommon at their schools. In many instances, professional students go to conferences on subjects deemed sensitive by the CCP and identity the Chinese students who attend or participate, paying special attention to those who show too much enthusiasm for the subject. Similarly, they take notes on what Chinese students say in the classroom.