Editorial: The time for cover-ups is over

Shih Hsin University. (By Central News Agency)

In one of the most bizarre news items in the relationship between Taiwan and China for a while, Shih Hsin University in Taipei City reportedly signed an agreement with China to promise that Chinese students coming to Taiwan for a course from February to June would not be faced with topics like Taiwan Independence, “One China, One Taiwan,” or “two Chinas.”

The university reportedly concluded similar agreements with three universities in China, guaranteeing their students would not be exposed to sensitive political suspects during their stay in Taiwan.

The Ministry of Education immediately stepped in to describe the promise as illegal, though the school argued that it had not specifically mentioned it would adhere to a “One China” and the document only applied to departments such as tourism where political topics were not taught in the first place. Shih Hsin University also argued that Taiwanese students in China would similarly not want to be taught about the “One China Principle” all the time.

Prominent Chinese democracy activist Wang Dan, who teaches in Taiwan, accused the university of having itself committed a controversial political act by signing the agreement in the first place.

A university should be an environment where students are free to acquire any new knowledge, so if Shih Hsin wants to restrict that freedom, it will be guilty of fraud, Wang said.

The college had no right to restrict the freedom of speech of its lecturers unless they broke the law, he concluded, advising Chinese students to avoid Shih Hsin University.

China’s campaign to limit and destroy free speech was already finding its way into Taiwanese universities with the help of school management, Wang reportedly said.

Other schools, some of them teaching hundreds of students from China, hastened to say they had signed no such agreements with their Chinese counterparts and had never received any requests to do so.

Let’s hope it’s true, because doing so would amount to an incredibly brazen type of capitulation and appeasement in the face of demands from an authoritarian foreign power.

Taiwanese activists did not fight for years to achieve freedom of speech and basic political freedoms and human rights in order to have those very achievements subverted by foreign demands supported by local academic institutions.

During the years of President Ma Ying-jeou, rapprochement with China was the foremost concern of the administration, leading to several incidents where the government pulled back in the face of Chinese pressure. There were repeated incidents when the national flag was removed in order not to “offend” Chinese visitors, or where names of official institutions or the country’s official name of Republic of China were covered up, all in the name of positive cross-straits relations.

Luckily, this time, the Ministry of Education and even the Presidential Office were quick in underlining the importance of education and democracy.

Would the United States agree to a demand from China that Chinese students in the U.S. not be faced with talks about Tiananmen or the Dalai Lama, and Japanese students not with the Nanjing massacre? Totally unthinkable, and it should remain that way in Taiwan too.

Ironically, the incident with Shih Hsin University came the same week as Taiwan was trying to get to the bottom of its own history in a search for the truth behind the 228 Incident.

The name itself sounds like a massive understatement, referring as it does not to a one-day clash, but to the estimated deaths of between 18,000 and 28,000 people at the hands of then-President Chiang Kai-shek’s troops.

The issue remained a “sensitive topic” for decades and was not allowed to be fully discussed until after Martial Law was abolished in 1987.

On its 70th anniversary Tuesday, President Tsai Ing-wen promised she would do her best to find out the full truth in the interest of national reconciliation. There can be no closure if the issue of responsibility is not dealt with, she said.

It is a public secret that Chiang’s representative in Taiwan at the time, Chen Yi, was the person who called in the troops from China that helped him put down the uprising against corruption and economic mismanagement, killing thousands of people, and leading to imprisonment, torture, disappearances and employment difficulties for people during the subsequent decade, known as the ‘White Terror,’ and after.

A dwindling band of people who still worship Chiang as the man who kept Taiwan free from communism and led it to economic prosperity have accused the government of fueling divisions, but as Tsai rightly pointed out, it is not possible to heal if you haven’t made the proper diagnosis.

The critics have failed to ask themselves, whether Taiwan’s economic miracle might not have occurred even sooner and with less sacrifice if the native Taiwanese intelligentsia had not been butchered and repressed in 1947.

The handling of the 228 Incident over the past decades shows why academic and personal freedoms are a valuable good which should never be compromised, and certainly not just to attract an extra dozen foreign students to these shores.