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.
Sometimes, individuals who have not enrolled in a course will show up for class and listen for a while, never to come back after being confronted by the professor. Embassies, consulates and Confucius Institutes attached to universities worldwide are also known to monitor student activity and “take notes” on course content and students.
Taiwanese tour operators told this newspaper last year they had every reason to believe that Chinese “agents” were accompanying Chinese tour groups to monitor their activities while in Taiwan; it would be naive to think that the CCP has not resorted to similar practices when it comes to young Chinese receiving an education in Taiwan. Already, academics at three top academic institutions in Taiwan told me that their Chinese students tended to keep a low profile, as they sensed they were “being watched.”
There is one loophole that allows potentially non-conformist Chinese students — students whom the Chinese authorities would have barred from leaving — to come here for study, and that is via a third country. In some instances, the Taiwanese government and academic institutions found creative ways to admit those students, including one case of a Chinese who, after spending two years at a university in Europe, came to Taiwan in February, via Hong Kong, to continue his education. (To protect the individuals involved, their identity has been withheld.)
After a few months studying here, the student returned to China in the summer. Everything was fine at first, until about a month later, when he stopped e-mailing a foreign professor here, who had helped him with his studies and with whom he had been in frequent contact.
Eventually the student reappeared, telling a tale that was enough to send chills down one’s spine. After about a week following his return to China, “police” — not plainclothes, but rather secret police — had contacted him and “cordially” invited him to come in for a chat. While his brush with secret police did not, according to the student, constitute interrogation per se, the officials were nevertheless keen on learning about what he had researched while in Taiwan and who had been his professor in the West. The student was subsequently contacted again and this time invited to a meal for “follow-up questions.”
According to the professor, the student had been denounced by a young female exchange student in Taiwan who reported on “liberal” Chinese and those who asked “too many questions.”
After what must have been very pleasant exchanges with the Chinese secret police, the student managed to secure the necessary permissions to leave China again.
“Finally, I will be able to leave this country,” he wrote in a recent e-mail.
There is no doubt that a good number of young Chinese who come to Taiwan for their studies are enjoying their experience here and find its liberties, openness and democracy rather appealing. Some, perhaps many, will return to China wondering whether Taiwan’s political system might not one day apply to China.
The first step, that of allowing them to come study in Taiwan, has been taken, while the second, a work in progress, is to encourage them to learn more about Taiwan’s way of life and politics. There is a third, crucial step, which might require that we remain in contact with Chinese students after they return to their country and that we do everything in our power to help them should they run afoul of the authorities as a result of the values they learned here.
Being aware of the presence of professional students on campus and preventing those from spying on their peers is something we can start with.
China is too big a place for us not to care about its future development. Here is a chance for us to get to know and cultivate its future leaders. We cannot let them down if they get into trouble.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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