University in row over deal with Chinese universities

A university in Taiwan has got itself into political hot water by signing written agreements with Chinese universities not to touch on sensitive political issues that might include Taiwanese independence, or the controversial ‘one China’ policy, while hosting students from the Chinese mainland.

Taiwanese academics and politicians from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party or DPP have said the agreement may be illegal and that the university should not restrict freedom of speech on campus just to accommodate Chinese mainland students.

Taiwan’s Education Minister Pan Wen-Chung said on 2 March that Shih Hsin University, a private university in Taipei particularly known for its prestigious journalism college, had violated laws on cross-strait exchanges with mainland China by agreeing to a 'letter of commitment' that class subjects for mainland Chinese exchange students would not involve sensitive political issues, or activities pertaining to Taiwanese independence or 'two Chinas'.

Pan told journalists the agreement violated the island’s laws governing relations between Taiwan and the mainland which states that cross-strait academic agreements “shall not violate any provision of any law or regulation or involve any content of political nature”.

Pan said: “We welcome cross-strait academic exchanges but they must be done under the principle of equality and the advantages to both parties involved.”

Beijing maintains that Taiwan is a breakaway province of China under its ‘one China’ policy that recognises only the government in Beijing as the government of all China, and is committed to reunification eventually, saying any attempt by Taiwan at formal independence could by prevented militarily. Under its ‘one China’ policy any country with diplomatic relations with mainland China cannot also have diplomatic ties with Taipei.

‘Illegal’ agreements

Shih Hsin University’s school of lifelong learning reportedly concluded agreements in December with three mainland universities – Jiangsu Normal University, Zhejiang University of Science and Technology and Zhejiang University of Media and Communications, all of them on China’s eastern seaboard facing Taiwan.

The agreements guarantee that sensitive political issues would not be brought up in classes in Taiwan although 'one China' was not specifically mentioned in the document. The university maintains that the document only applied to departments such as tourism where political issues do not form part of the curriculum.

The issue of Taiwanese independence has become highly sensitive, in particular since the election of independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP, which rejects the ‘one China’ principle.

The university insists the commitment not to touch on politically sensitive issues “is in no way the same as supporting the ‘one China’ principle”, Yah I-jan, head of Shih Hsin University’s public affairs office was quoted by Taiwan’s Central News Agency as saying.

The university engages in frequent exchanges with some 50 universities on the mainland but only a few had asked the university to sign such an agreement before letting their students come to Taiwan, Yah said.

Lawmakers have pointed out that under the regulations governing relations between Taiwan and mainland China a written agreement with Chinese counterparts cannot be signed without informing the Ministry of Education and seeking approval in advance, which the university did not do.

Pan confirmed at a legislative hearing on Thursday that the university had not informed the ministry about the written agreements.

Other universities in Taiwan teach several hundred students from the Chinese mainland, compared to just a dozen at Shih Hsin University, but they said they had no such agreements with mainland universities and never received requests for such, according to an editorial in the newspaper Taiwan News.

Taiwan’s Education Ministry has said it is still determining how it will respond to the University’s actions. But DPP legislators have said that the violation of regulations on cross-strait ties would normally be subject to a fine of up to TWD$500,000 (US$16,000).

Freedom of speech

DPP lawmaker Yeh Yi-jin said Taiwan’s universities should promote freedom of speech, but by signing the agreements Shih Hsin University had effectively banned students from discussing international relations and Taiwan’s political orientation.

Wang Dan, a prominent Chinese democracy activist, who was jailed in China after the Tiananmen uprising in 1989 and who now teaches history at Taiwan’s National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu, claimed Beijing’s campaign to limit free speech was finding its way into Taiwan’s universities with the help of university management in Taiwan, according to media reports.