With the January elections approaching, the nation’s universities received a reminder from the Ministry of Education earlier this month that campuses must respect certain rules regarding political activity to ensure neutrality.
For academics and rights activists who look at the regulations from a strictly Western, liberal perspective, the limitations imposed on campus might sound like echoes of the nation’s authoritarian past — and they do — but not necessarily for the reasons that immediately come to mind.
First, let’s take a look at the restrictions contained in Article 6 of the Basic Education Act (教育基本法), which lays out the principles about “educational neutrality” and reinforces the need for “peace and quiet” from learning environments during elections.
Under the rules, schools may not help spread word or beliefs of particular political parties and organizations in charge of administrative functions cannot force administrative personnel, teachers or students to participate in any activities held by political (or religious) parties.
Civil servants — including public school teachers — are also barred from inviting presidential candidates to give speeches or participate in symposiums on campus during the elections. They also cannot put up fliers, posters and other election-related items or hand out pamphlets during the same period. Educational staff are also told not to participate in political parties or organizations during work hours and also should not help with elections. They are also encouraged to show “self-restraint” about participating in political activities after work hours.
Anyone who has studied or taught at Western universities would bristle at such regulations, which are indeed an assault on freedom of expression and could very well prevent the nation’s best and brightest young minds from debating issues that will be key to their future. Oftentimes, the most exciting moments in US elections occur when the candidates visit university campuses, and surely Taiwan’s campaigns would benefit from similar exchanges.
However, these regulations did not emerge out of nowhere and are organic to the nation’s history. Rather than some machinations by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to prevent freedom of expression, as some would readily charge, the measures were meant to undermine the party’s hold on the educational sector. In fact, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) favored the measure, even before it won the presidency in 2000.
So yes, there is a connection between Article 6 and authoritarianism, but rather than pointing to a return to it, it is instead a means to counter its afterglow. Without those restrictions, and given the KMT’s still formidable grip on almost every segment of society, it is likely that university campuses would be even less favorable to the DPP than they are now.
The issue at the core of Article 6, then, is one that has yet to be resolved even after decades of democratization: The imbalance of power that stems from nearly half a century of one-party rule by the KMT.
Until that imbalance is rectified, some measures, however non-liberal and unpalatable they might be, will likely be necessary to ensure a certain degree of fairness. It goes without saying that their application must be closely monitored to ensure that they do not unduly restrict freedom of speech or target specific political parties — some in the KMT will remember that it “lost” China in part because of communist mobilization on campuses.
Article 6 is a built-in contradiction and ideally Taiwan should make every effort to rid itself of such illiberal practices, but it is likely that those can only be phased out over time as the nation’s political environment normalizes itself.
In light of Taiwan’s special historical circumstances, those restrictions are really the lesser of two evils.
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