The decision by the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration to allow Chinese to study in Taiwan has understandably given rise to apprehensions about the impact this will have on the country. Some, including the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), have argued that an influx of Chinese students could have a negative effect on Taiwanese youth’s chances of finding a job, while others caution, if perhaps speculatively, that this could increase the threat of espionage by so-called “professional students.” The policy also raises questions about recognizing Chinese diplomas, the credibility of which is often disputed.
Though these fears are not without basis, the presence of Chinese students on Taiwanese campuses could also bear fruit — in unexpected ways. As only about 2,000 Chinese students, or 1 percent of the total number of applicants, will initially be allowed to enroll in Taiwanese colleges and universities, the benefits will not be financial, nor will the impact on the quality of students admitted into university be substantial.
Rather, the real upswing will lie in the opportunities for contact between young Taiwanese and Chinese — in many ways a first in Taiwan. As I argued previously in “The risks of opening to Chinese students” (Taipei Times, Nov. 24, page 8), the fact that the first wave of Chinese students will come from 41 top Chinese universities, added to the rigorous screening process that Chinese students will have to undergo before they are allowed to come to Taiwan, means that the majority of them will be toeing the Beijing line on the Taiwan question (students who are easily influenced by “thought pollution,” or who are not from families associated with the Chinese Communist Party, are unlikely to make it to Taiwan, lest their minds be warped by democratic and liberal ideas).
As one Chinese exchange student at National Chengchi University told me on the sidelines of a conference in October, obtaining permission from the Taiwanese government to come study here is rather easy — the rigorous screening occurs on the Chinese side, a clear indication that not just any student will be allowed to make the journey across the Taiwan Strait.
This, ironically, is actually a good thing, because it will finally concretize what for many young Taiwanese has hitherto been nothing more than an abstract. One of the reasons why, in the many demonstrations organized by the DPP in recent months, the great majority of participants were elderly Taiwanese is that young Taiwanese, those upon whom the future of this nation hinges, have little understanding of what it means to live under an authoritarian system.
Given the general lack of intellectual curiosity about formative developments such as the 228 Incident and the White Terror era, added to the fact that in many families those subjects remain taboo, we can hardly expect young Taiwanese to fully comprehend what it means to grow up in, and be shaped by, a system that relies on firm ideology, mythmaking and censorship to perpetuate itself.
The superficiality of most news in Taiwan, with a focus on trivialities and the economy, also disinclines young people from learning more about the sociopolitical conditions that prevail in China. They are told the Chinese economic engine is in full thrust, that jobs are created by the millions and that great fortunes are being made in the process. Everything else, the darker side of life in China, is treated with passing interest at best, a mere footnote in the history of the Chinese miracle.
All this could change, however, when Chinese students start bringing their intellectual baggage to Taiwan. For many young Taiwanese, this will be their first chance to interact with individuals who, because of the education they received, were conditioned into denying the existence of Taiwan as a nation. This will also be the first occasion for them to experience Chinese nationalism first-hand, which, in certain instances, will likely come in the form of verbal assault and ganging up on a lecturer or student, as was witnessed during Chinese activist Wang Dan’s (王丹) presentation on China at Providence University in Taichung last month.
Clashes will almost inevitably occur, especially when Chinese nationalism boils to the surface. Some sensitive topics, such as Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan, often touch a raw nerve with the Chinese. They can be at the most liberal campuses in Western universities, be top of their class in whatever subject, but when it comes to these emotional issues, many will rally to the Chinese flag and in some, though not necessarily rare, instances, engage in irrational acts — hacking Web servers, beating up other students — to make their point.
While Taiwanese should be commended for their coolheaded response to such bullying in the past, that politeness is likely to dissipate once repeated assaults are made against their identity on Taiwanese soil. Again, this is a good thing, as it will contrast differing realities. Sometimes people need to be pushed around a little before they will emerge from their stupor, which arguably is what young Taiwanese are in, given their general lack of interest in politics and apathetic response to the many signs that Taiwan as we know it may be on the brink of extinction.
So far, it has been easy for young Taiwanese to characterize differences of opinion between Taiwanese and Chinese as nothing more than the narcissism of small differences, artifacts from an ancient past that have no real ramifications for them today. Once these substantial differences are made concrete through contact and interaction, however, there is hope that Taiwanese youth will realize that the denial of their identity is actually something that matters, that there is more to existence than finding a good job and making money.
This certainly wasn’t the intention of the Ma administration when it decided to open Taiwan to Chinese students, but as young Taiwanese and Chinese rub elbows on university campuses and feathers get ruffled in the process, we could see an awakening among Taiwanese youth last seen when the enemy was authoritarianism at home.
J. Michael Cole is an editor at the Taipei Times.
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