Science and education create knowledge. Knowledge helps create communities, break down barriers and build bridges. While it is often said that knowledge is power, on the global stage power tends to manifest itself in confidence. This holds true for nations and countries across the globe.
However, it is in particular pertinent in the case of Taiwan, a thriving democracy located off the coast of communist China. That Taiwan has successfully contained COVID-19 with transparency and, most importantly, science, makes the importance of putting the knowledge science provides to best use all the more relevant.
It also indicates that Taiwan, in spite of its abnormal international status, has acquired new power — and used it wisely — to withstand Beijing’s attempts to undermine its democratic governance system.
In the past decade, Beijing, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has increasingly sought to promote an alternative model of governance, incompatible with the democratic values of human rights, democracy and rule of law. This was the reason the EU labeled it a “systemic rival.”
In contrast, Taiwan not only upholds these values at home, but seeks to project them through its external relations, despite Beijing’s constraints.
Unlike Taiwan, China did not choose transparency and science to fight the novel coronavirus, but withheld information and took top-down, murky measures dictated by political considerations, choosing to disregard the well-being of its people.
Beijing has claimed, falsely, that this alternative model — draconian and authoritarian — has proved superior to Taiwan’s approach, and with that the approach of democracies in general.
Yet, ironically, it is now China, with its obscure record, that is blocking Taiwan and its impeccable performance on so many fronts, from participating in international efforts.
Taiwan remains excluded from the WHO because of China; Beijing claims Taiwan is a province of China and only the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has the right to represent all of China in the UN.
Taiwanese scientists were excluded from participating in UNESCO-affiliated events, indicating China’s growing influence within UN organizations and the shrinking of Taiwan’s international space.
With the pandemic, Beijing’s efforts to further isolate Taiwan will only intensify.
However, what Beijing cannot do in the hyperconnected global community is to prevent Taiwanese from connecting with the world through their knowledge, talent and skills, and through participation in international scientific and education exchange. Knowledge and skills will remain central to enabling Taiwanese to shape their own future, build confidence and acquire power.
They help create bridges and ensure Taiwan’s resilience in the face of hostile forces. These tools already support Taiwan in circumventing the barriers Beijing seeks to cement around it.
In this context, several initiatives between European and Taiwanese science and arts institutes and universities can be viewed as mutually beneficial, while also serving as statements of solidarity.
Although more must be done, such links connect tomorrow’s change makers and enable Taiwan to not only contribute, but lead the work of strengthening democracy globally and, in so doing, build bridges that directly counter attempts at isolation.
Some might view this as lofty rhetoric. Yet, efforts of differing shapes and sizes continue to take place. These should be celebrated in the open so as to inspire others and directly counter efforts at suppression.
One such example includes the inauguration of an Archives Center at National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU) on the work of French-Chinese dissident writer Gao Xingjian (高行健), the 2000 Nobel laurate for literature, through an initiative colaunched with the French Office in Taipei.
The center operates within a partnership between NTNU and the Aix-Marseille University in France. This initiative also serves as a testimony to Taiwan’s love of fundamental freedoms.
Other initiatives stand out because they facilitate knowledge-sharing, such as a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed in November last year between Taiwan and Hungary, committing to provide scholarships for 20 Taiwanese and 30 Hungarian students yearly through 2023 to study in Hungary and Taiwan respectively.
Other EU member states, including Germany, Poland and Sweden, have MOUs in place on academic research and development synergy cooperation, and others.
Europe and Taiwan need to understand each other better. Education cooperation is key to bringing people together, encouraging them to play an integral role in each other’s communities.
Cooperation in science is important, as the world needs the contribution of all to address challenges like global health, poverty and climate change.
Yet, jointly leveraging academic and scientific prowess to create more opportunities in cutting-edge areas is even more important, as China seeks to shape the sector “with Chinese characteristics.”
However, this would take more than good initiatives. It would require strategic vision and strategic planning in Europe and Taiwan alike.
As it rethinks its China policy, the EU must embrace a positive approach to Taiwan. The European Parliament has already urged “to revisit its engagement policy with Taiwan.”
The EU must stay firm on its commitment to become greener and more digital, including via cooperation in education and science with Taiwan, in the context, for example, of its ambitious 100 billion euro (US$120 billion) research and innovation program, Horizon Europe.
For Taiwan, the government must maintain its commitment to facilitate exchanges with like-minded countries through its New Southbound Policy and help bolster the region’s sense of community.
Taiwan must also look more at Europe and appreciate the long-term value of education and scientific cooperation.
For now, international academic and scientific partnerships remain the most effective tools for Taiwan to share knowledge and circumvent its international isolation.
Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy is a research fellow at Academia Sinica, an affiliated scholar in Vrije Universiteit Brussel’s political science department and a former political adviser at the European Parliament.
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