When asked about his impressions of Taiwan after spending the past six years studying in the nation, Chinese student “Fatty” has only positive things to say, including how he sees Taiwan as this “extremely amazing place.”
“The level of free speech here is much higher than in China. Not just on academic issues, you can also talk freely about religion, political systems and the things you do not like,” said Fatty, a nickname the student chose to conceal his identity due to the sensitivity of the issues he discussed.
What Fatty particularly enjoys doing is writing his personal views in articles and submitting them to local news outlets for publication, which he considers to be an important form of civic participation.
He believes people’s inability to do so in China is one of the main causes of a prevalent feeling of powerlessness.
He said that the nation’s democratic way of life has turned him into a Taiwan sympathizer.
“The values Taiwan embraces are really appealing and they make sense, which is why I have grown to lean toward Taiwan and sympathize with its predicament,” Fatty said. “I particularly sympathize with the situation faced by many talented young Taiwanese, who are not able to represent their nation on the international stage, not because they are not good enough, but because of [political] environmental factors.”
Fatty’s experiences check almost all the boxes the government hoped for when it started allowing Chinese students to come to Taiwan to study for academic degrees in 2011 — increased mutual understanding between Taiwanese and Chinese; the development of people-to-people connections to facilitate cross-strait peace; and the spread of the universal values of freedom and democracy.
Some academics at the time also suggested that after living in a Chinese-speaking democracy like Taiwan for an extended time, Chinese students would one day become a catalyst for China’s democratization when they return home.
The theory would be a solution to most cross-strait problems, the root of which are the stark difference in political systems across the Taiwan Strait, they said.
However, that theory does not describe every Chinese student’s experiences of Taiwan.
“Hsiao Huo” (小火) said he first arrived in Taiwan in the early 2010s with a neutral impression, only to find out the hard way that Chinese are treated as the “enemy of the people” in Taiwan.
“I did not feel it when my flight landed, but immediately after school started I began to face many questions from my classmates that reeked of hostility and discrimination,” Hsiao Huo said. “You could tell from the questions that they think I come from a backward, politically uncivilized country.”
Another thing that devastated Hsiao Huo is the patchy protection of Chinese students’ rights, which he also considers a sign that they are not welcome.
“Even though the government has tried to help Chinese students, it has been really difficult for lawmakers to pass bills friendly to Chinese students,” Hsiao Huo said, quoting as an example a draft amendment to the National Health Insurance Act (全民健保法), which would include Chinese students in the National Health Insurance program and which has been stalled since it was forwarded for cross-party negotiation in 2017.
Many Chinese students in Taiwan experience emotional distress because it is increasingly difficult for them to fit into society due to strong anti-Chinese sentiment, he said.
They even get “booed” on online discussion forums just because they are Chinese or use simplified Chinese characters, he added.
“If what most Chinese experience here is discrimination, you can hardly expect them to think positively about freedom and democracy,” he said.
“Tom,” a student who describes himself as a Chinese patriot, said his experience in Taiwan has been more complicated, as it has challenged his core beliefs and left him feeling conflicted.
“When I was little, Taiwan often appeared in children’s songs, especially in the parts that talked about the motherland,” Tom said. “Even though we were just singing songs and chanting slogans, we have developed a deep-rooted belief that maintaining territorial integrity is the most fundamental task of a nation.”
Despite growing up supporting cross-strait unification and believing in the need for an authoritarian system in China due to its susceptibility to ethnic conflicts and the lack of civic literacy among its people, Tom said that he has been doing things that made his friends back in China think he might have been “brainwashed.”
“I went to listen to [President] Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) inauguration speech and I read about the Dalai Lama. I even listened to the stories of Falun Gong members,” Tom said, adding that he did all these things to avoid falling victim to media manipulation because of his ignorance.
Even though Tom still tried to defend the Chinese government when asked about the dire situation faced by Taiwan, the Dalai Lama and Falun Gong, he admitted that he feels torn about them, particularly on the Taiwan issue.
“I used to want to see Taiwan return to our fold as soon as possible, but now I think there are many wonderful things about Taiwan and maybe the motherland is not good enough at the moment [for unification],” Tom said.
He would stay in Taiwan to be with his Taiwanese friends if Beijing ever resorted to force to attempt unification, he said.
“Even though I agree with Beijing’s action, I would not want Taiwan and its people to suffer alone,” he said.
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