It’s easy to lose track of the number of occasions in the media where one encounters language that seeks to create a moral equivalence in the Taiwan Strait. The conflict, as anyone who bothers to learn the facts will quickly realize, is not symmetrical and does not involve two belligerents. Only one side, China, threatens the other, Taiwan, through economic or political absorption — or, in the extreme, war.
Still, even in the supposedly apolitical realms of, say, education and culture, one often comes upon language that not only politicizes the matter, but also portrays Taiwan as the aggressor or unjust, irresponsible party.
Our exhibit today is an article by the government-owned Central News Agency (CNA) published on Saturday — and later carried in this newspaper (“Policy on China students needs change: experts,” March 26, page 3) that discusses the prevailing divisions among Taiwanese on how to treat Chinese students, who were last year for the first time allowed to enroll full-time in local schools.
Following a series of uncontroversial and self-evident remarks about the need to make the Taiwanese education system more global and competitive, the article turns to Yu Zelin (余澤霖), a Chinese student at the Chinese Culture University, who voices a number of complaints about the system.
After bemoaning the fact that students like him were afraid to see a doctor when they got sick or did not dare get sick, as they could end up paying expensive medical bills because of their exclusion from the national health insurance plan, Yu then complains that Chinese students’ hard work at school is not rewarded, as they are not allowed to receive scholarships from the Taiwanese government.
The article then says that the environment of free speech in Taiwan can create pressure on young people in their 20s thanks to “ignorant” and “xenophobic” comments on the Internet, such as “swim back if you’re upset,” directed at Chinese students by some Taiwanese (remarks that pale in comparison with a recent one I received in which the anonymous writer recommended I should “gtfo of Taiwan”).
We should note that the complaint about free speech had no attribution. We do not know whether this is still Yu talking, or the reporter or the CNA editor as a “father figure,” perhaps speaking on behalf of the government (and which one, I could fairly ask). Free speech, furthermore, is portrayed negatively in the article, as it allows for “ignorance” and “xenophobia” (as if societies where free speech isn’t exercised, such as in China, for example, did not have media or youth that spew their own xenophobia).
Taiwanese who do not agree with state assets sponsoring students from a country that threatens them and denies their existence are “ignorant” and “xenophobes,” or ostensibly “pressured” to adopt language that reflects such views. And yet, the article remains silent about the racist, xenophobic and authoritarian policies of the Chinese government and about the Chinese students in Taiwan who, on some occasions, have verbally assailed, or completely overtook, their Taiwanese counterparts or lecturers such as Chinese activist Wang Dan (王丹).
The article is not done with us yet. An academic, who we are told studies cross-strait affairs, but who remains unnamed, tells us that Taipei’s current policy on Chinese students is “uncivilized.”
So now Taiwanese are not only ignorant and xenophobic, they’re also “uncivilized.” Whereas, of course, negating the separate existence of 23 million people, threatening them with hundreds upon hundreds of ballistic missiles and an increasingly formidable military, or engaging in a hostile takeover by force of trade and investment, is perfectly civilized. This, of course, is not to mention the Chinese Communist Party’s civilized treatment of Tibetans, Uighurs, Falun Gong practitioners, prisoners of conscience, rights activists, dissidents, lawyers, environmentalists, investigative journalists — all of whom, we can assume, are as “uncivilized” as those pesky Taiwanese.
Voicing opposition to policies that were imposed without proper consultation with the legislature and the public is not, as the CNA article implies, xenophobic, ignorant or uncivilized. It is a right exercised by citizens of a democratic society in which free speech is not only permissible, but sine qua non.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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