Monday, March 6, 2017

Those "letters of agreement" Taiwanese universities signed are scarier than you think

The caption reads "Chinese hearts are easily broken" - it can also be read as "Handle Fragile Chinese Hearts With Care"

Update: apparently the number of schools who signed these letters is "at least half" of the originally reported 157. Here's a link to an updated article. 

I just want to make a quick comment on the story that at least 80 or so universities in Taiwan have signed "letters of agreement" that students from China would not be exposed in class to certain areas of political discussion (namely, Taiwanese independence or sovereignty, or anything that might challenge the idea of "One China").

The agreements don't seem to have had any impact on what is actually taught in classes (from at least one account, orders are not handed down to the actual educators regarding what they may and may not cover in class and these issues are discussed), and seem at this point to be mainly intended to smooth the process for Chinese students coming to Taiwan.

I'd argue, though, that this doesn't mean they are a non-issue.

Chinese universities are hardly independent academic entities with the full range of academic freedoms one can reasonably expect in free societies. I am not an expert, and so do not know the exact extent to which individual universities are beholden to, or take orders from, the Chinese government, but I believe I can safely assume that they are all beholden to some extent, and take orders to some extent - more likely than not, to a great extent.

If, then, the letters are indeed 'pro forma', it is because nobody in China is insisting they be enforced. I don't see it as being a strategy far removed from "we'll send Chinese tourists": sure, they'll send Chinese tourists, until it is strategically convenient for them not to do so anymore. That move backfired (ha ha) but we all know it was the intended strategy. Those who relied on Chinese tourism complained as predicted, and "Taiwan's economy hit hard! Cross-strait tensions!!!!" became a bigger issue than it ever ought to have been, had the whole truth been reported rather than simply the loudest voices.

In this case, is it too hard to imagine that these letters are being asked for, and yet compliance not insisted on, for now - but that once it is strategically convenient to do so, that could easily change?

What happens when there are enough Chinese students in Taiwan, or at any given university that can be reliably expected to complain, that immediately cutting off new enrollments could serve as a threat, or be otherwise beneficial to China, the next time the people of Taiwan vote in a way China doesn't like, or the government they've elected doesn't adopt the supplicant position China demands? It seems clear to me the government could do that, and their own universities would comply.

Then it turns into headlines around the world: "Taiwanese universities suffering as China cuts off student programs", which lead to articles about how this is hurting Taiwan, which lead to piss-poor punditry about how Taiwan, by being a 'troublemaker' rather than taking the most conciliatory stance possible, is causing its own problems and creating 'tensions' across the strait. It never seems to matter that China is usually the one taking the actions and making the threats.

Indeed, bent-over, cheeks agape appears to be the only position many around the world feel Taiwan is allowed to reasonably take vis-a-vis China - often from people who in any other context talk real big about freedom, democracy and respect for sovereignty.

This would be worse than the tourism strategy, however, because Taiwan does have too many universities and, rather than allowing them to close without complaint, they actually will suffer when Chinese students are recalled or new enrollments ceased because China has found it strategically convenient to suddenly insist on the enforcement of these agreements. And they will complain, and it will make the news, and people will call Taiwan the 'troublemaker', wash, rinse, repeat.

Meanwhile every other country gets to more reasonably debate what growing Chinese influence means for academic freedom in their country. Everyone else gets to talk about how China's actions globally - most clearly revealed by the actions of Confucius Institutes worldwide - are part of a strategy to dominate the narrative about China, and truth in general.

Some universities may feel the pressure to comply, and, if this practice continues now that it's been brought into the public eye, we will have no idea which ones they will be. Academic freedom will be threatened, and students from Taiwan (as far as I am aware no class is made up entirely of students from China - even if one is, China has no right to insist that a university abroad educate them in a certain way) will also be shorted. China wins either way: the universities comply and education in Taiwan becomes influenced by Chinese censorship, or they don't and a bunch of bullshit articles are spawned that make it look as though Taiwan is the problem.

This is one reason why I get so annoyed with the "but any warming relations with China are good! It's always great for us to have good relations with China!" crowd. No, it's not, because every single thing the Chinese government does towards Taiwan that appears conciliatory is meant to advance their end goal of annexing Taiwan. No exceptions. The tourists, the students, the trade deals, the investment, all of it - is aimed directly at eating away at Taiwanese sovereignty and creating a vortex of integration that they hope will eventually push Taiwan over a critical event horizon.

In truth, this is their strategy around the world - it's not even that subtle! - but with the less critical aim of controlling the world narrative. With Taiwan they want both to control the narrative and to succeed in their goal of territorial expansion. In other countries it's a problem to be discussed, a peripheral concern to be addressed. In Taiwan it's critical to address for the very survival of the nation. Many countries do this - the US tries to promote its own narrative as well - but again, in the case of Taiwan, its own continued existence is at stake.

So, perhaps this sounds like a crazy-ass conspiracy theory - the Chinese are always out to get us. But it's quite plausible, it's in line with their actions toward Taiwan in the past, it's in line with their actual stated goal (it's not like they hide it!) of annexing Taiwan, and it makes perfect sense in the context of how universities and academic freedom operate in China.

These letters may seem like pro-forma non-issues now, but, even if you call me crazy, I truly do not believe that if they continue to be signed that they will remain a non-issue. This does not mean that I have a problem with Chinese students in Taiwan - I would like to see them here, and be exposed to Taiwan, the successes of Taiwanese freedom and democracy, and what true academic freedom means. I have no problem with them, and in at least one of my work capacities I engage with them frequently. With very few exceptions, I have never had a problem or complaint. This is not about the students.

However, I cannot stress enough that agreements like this are not an acceptable pre-condition for those exchanges to happen, and that the Chinese government will certainly attempt to use its flow of students abroad to further their political agenda.


Guy said...

Good post. But note that the Taipei Times issued a correction saying that the quoted number of universities involved (157) was an error, as Taiwan's Ministry of Education said "at least half of the 157 schools had signed such deals."


Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Good to know. Will update to include that information, thanks!