The predominantly student-based Youth Alliance Against Media Monsters helped organize protests in Taipei last week against the buyout of the Next Media Group’s four Taiwanese outlets that attracted students from all over country. This prompted the Ministry of Education’s Student Affairs Committee to e-mail a “reminder” to universities that they should “find out more about and show concern” for students who took part in the protests. The e-mail included a list of the universities whose students are members of the alliance. This attempt at intervention smacks of trying to control students and harkens back to the obscurantist government policies of the past.
The ministry’s reaction to the protests, especially the e-mail, seems to spring from a distrust of political activism and students’ participation in civil movements. The ministry appears to have characterized university students as unsophisticated, easily incited and in need of guidance. On the surface, the part of the e-mail that voiced apprehension over the students’ health, given last week’s “changeable weather,” could be seen as a legitimate concern, but neither the students nor the wider society are likely to read it that way. The draconian thought-control measures employed in Taiwan’s authoritarian past are far too recent to allow for such naivete.
Educational authorities have long adopted a patriarchal approach toward students, but the concern expressed in the e-mail was more about social order, and this anxiety has led them to attempt to discourage students from taking part in protests. Adults themselves are not sure what these complex issues imply, or what they want their outcome to be, so they do not want students meddling in affairs beyond their textbooks and classes in a way that they cannot control. This is why they have attempted to stop student movements from developing. Even reportedly liberal institutions have shown a tendency for such shortsighted actions, such as National Taiwan University’s request last month for the police to clamp down on any protests on campus.
The growing conservativeness among educational authorities will not help cultivate critical thinking in university students; it will only produce compliant citizens who do not question the powers that be.
Freedom of speech, freedom of the press and censorship are important social issues that deserve to be debated at all levels of society. Student movements may lack sophistication or maturity of thought, but it is precisely because of this deficiency, and because of their idealism, that they can be the perfect antidote to social stagnation and corruption. Student movements have other qualities — passion, impetuousness and forthrightness — that allow them to dare to challenge the establishment and entrenched ideas, and to push for reform. Student movements may make mistakes, but all the mistakes made to date have just been part of the learning process. These experiences will teach them much about how better to communicate and refine their ideas and how to compromise. Members of the 1960s hippy movement in the US, and of the Wild Lillies and Wild Strawberries movements in Taiwan, have gone from protesting to reforming to becoming active members of society.
Hundreds of students gathered last week outside the Fair Trade Commission, just a stone’s throw from the ministry. If the ministry was so concerned for the students’ health, why did Minister of Education Chiang Wei-ling (蔣偉寧) not simply remind them to bring waterproof gear, instead of asking universities to “show concern” for those taking part in the protest?
Chiang could at least have taken a leaf from the book of one of his predecessors, Cheng Jei-cheng (鄭瑞城) who, in 2008, not only sent ministry officials to talk to protesters, but went in person to meet the students taking part in the Wild Strawberries Movement protests. Cheng showed actions speak louder than e-mails.