Taiwanese universities appeasing Chinese insecurities is a dangerous game

Academic freedom is not something that Taiwanese Universities can bargain with

Photo source: 范雲 FAN, Yun Facebook page

In the last few days, news has come to light that at least half of Taiwanese Universities signed agreements, or as some universities have claimed, "documents," to exclude sensitive topics in their courses that are offered to Chinese students. These actions have been defended as nothing more than formalities that allow Chinese students to gain the necessary paperwork to study in Taiwan. This is, however, no excuse for jeopardizing the academic integrity of institutions in Taiwan through self-censorship.

Academic freedom is the cornerstone to create institutions that will flourish. Both faculty members and students should not fear reprisals for discussing ideas and facts on any topic. This freedom of expression in the world of academics can allow greater debate on issues that are both ideologically charged and neutral. The bottom line is that faculty members and students must be allowed to question and research freely.

The agreements and documents that universities have signed are nothing more than appeasement for Chinese insecurities that have emerged since President Tsai took office last year. They affirm that the universities will respect the One-China policy and discussion on topics such as “Taiwanese Independence” or “two Chinas” will not be taught or discussed.


Shih Hsin University (Wikimedia Commons photo)

President Tsai Ying-wen did not affirm the 1992 consensus when she became president, and as such, it seems that universities in Taiwan are doing this for her, albeit at the cost of their integrity.

Some universities in media reports have been treating the situation as a non-issue, with some stating that these agreements have been signed since 2014, or that the signed documents are of little consequence. I argue, such appeasement for Chinese political insecurities will tarnish the reputations of universities that continue to sign these agreements. 

National Taiwan University professor, Fan Yun, has stated that “If the humanities and social sciences can discuss only about China and not about China and Taiwan, then in the future, discussion on Taiwanese Independence cannot happen and then where will be our Academic Freedom?”


Photo source: 范雲 FAN, Yun Facebook page

Standing in this photo holding a sign that says “Academic Freedom Not For Sale” Fan Yun displays that discord exists in Universities. This discord is not without its own reasoning. This issue touches the nerve of identity and autonomy. Regardless as to what you view yourself as, Chinese or Taiwanese, what everyone can agree on is that universities, and, Taiwanese society should be allowed to openly discuss its identity.

According to the international watch-dog on freedom and democracy Freedom House, Taiwan ranks extremely high on their Freedom in the World score, with 91/100. China on the other hand, ranks a score of 16/100. It is no surprise then that the academic culture in China is also different to Taiwan’s.

The former Education Minister in China, Yuan Guiren, in 2015 stated that Western values did not belong in Chinese classrooms. This of course is somewhat ironic when it is considered that the wealthiest members of Chinese society send their children to the West to be educated. There are even 7 topics off limits to academics, such as freedom of press, mistakes committed by the Communist Party and civil rights.

As such, it is imperative that universities in Taiwan no longer sign these agreements or documents. Cross-strait academic ties are an important means of co-operation between China and Taiwan, but the relationship must be met with a mutual understanding that two academic systems have differences.

What is worrying is that these agreements could somewhere down the line become more significant.

Chinese soft-power abroad has been growing in line with China’s economic rise to the world stage. The Confucius Institutes (CI), which claim to spread education on China, have been heavily criticized for interfering with universities. The 480 CI centres dotted around the world offer funding to universities at the cost of being exempt from following rules of the university.

 The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has called for all universities in the US and Canada to either cut ties or renegotiate their partnerships with Confucius Institutes. The main issue has been academic freedom. The Confucius Institutes restrict their curriculum to only pro-party leanings. Discussion on the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong are not allowed, despite these institutions not being in China.

This is where the issue really boils down to. The short-term gains of accommodating agreements that specify self-censorship should never be worth it. Much like the Trojan horse tactic used by the Confucius Institutes to gain a footing in international universities, agreements between Taiwanese universities and Chinese ones could be the beginning of an unequal relationship that could lead to further concessions on the part of Taiwanese students to appease Chinese ideological leanings.

This unequal relationship was clearly seen when Tsai Ying-wen was elected. The number of Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan were reduced to pressure Taiwan through economical means to give concessions to China. In the future, universities in China could also use their influence to gain concessions from Taiwan.

It is hard to tell in the future how relationships between Taiwanese and Chinese institutions of higher education will develop, but one thing is certain, it must be done so on an equal footing.

 

TOMÁS FRANCIS SWINBURNE(孫柯), an Irish-born freelancer and now a graduate student in Taiwan, knowledgeable of Taiwanese history and cross-strait political dimensions.