China’s equal status policy causes Taiwan brain drain

Moves by Beijing to give Taiwanese students and graduates equal status with mainland Chinese, granting them greater access to mainland universities, professional qualifications and jobs, has caused consternation in Taiwan, which has seen a major brain drain of qualified people.

In a raft of measures unveiled by Beijing in recent months, high school students from Taiwan can, since October last year, apply directly to mainland universities and will also be eligible for more mainland scholarships tenable at mainland institutions.

In a directive published last year, the Ministry of Education in Beijing called on China’s universities to relax entrance requirements for Taiwan students so Taiwanese high school graduates with a passing grade can apply – previously only Taiwan students with top grades were eligible, and the overall numbers were restricted.

More than 200 mainland universities approved students with lower scores than in previous years in the General Scholastic Ability Test, Taiwan's college entrance exam, the official China Daily newspaper reported in November.

China’s Ministry of Education also instructed mainland universities to offer career guidance for Taiwan students wanting to stay on after graduation to work on the mainland.

Another dozen or so measures were unveiled last week by China’s State Council bodies, the Taiwan Affairs Office and National Development and Reform Commission, and other Beijing government agencies which are ‘effective immediately’ and will grant ‘equal treatment’ with mainlanders for a number of professions.

Taiwanese people will be allowed to sit some 53 professional and technical qualifications, Beijing announced on 28 February. The Beijing government had already flagged up earlier that licensing regulations for Taiwanese accountants, architects and doctors would be eased this year, while Taiwanese lawyers previously restricted to practising law in some 20 areas, can now handle legal cases in 237 areas.

These are in addition to easier work and residence permits and other measures giving Taiwanese investors equal treatment with their Chinese counterparts, as well as tax incentives. Easier collaborations in the arts and entertainment industries are also among the easing of cross-strait restrictions – a package of 31 measures in all.

Concern in Taiwan

Taiwan is beginning to talk of an acute brain drain which would threaten its economy, as China – a far bigger and faster growing economy – lures some of Taiwan’s most educated people. Graduate salaries on the mainland are higher than in Taiwan where salaries have stagnated over the past decade or more.

Unemployment for graduates in Taiwan at 4.5% is also higher than general unemployment in Taiwan at just over 3%.

Some 10,800 students from Taiwan were studying at mainland universities in 2015, the latest figures available, but the new measures will increase that number dramatically, Taiwan academics fear.

Some in Taiwan have questioned the attractiveness of mainland university degrees as not all mainland diplomas are recognised back in Taiwan. But in disciplines such as arts and design, film and animation – which are seeing a huge rise in applications from students aiming for the film and entertainment sectors which are growing rapidly in both Taiwan and on the mainland – qualification recognition is less of an issue.

Provincial offer

Other policies have been unveiled by individual mainland provinces. The education department of China’s Fujian province, the coastal province closest to Taiwan, said last year it would recruit some 1,000 Taiwanese academics to teach at its universities over the next two years.

It said it wanted to promote bilateral collaboration with Taiwan in certain disciplines and in the long term wanted to open universities, junior colleges and vocational schools in collaboration with Taiwanese academics, the Chinese language Xiamen News reported in October.

The report shocked Taiwan’s academic community. Kuo Tei-Wei, the then outgoing president of National Taiwan University, warned that Taiwan’s higher education system could collapse if more academics leave and the number of top-ranked universities continues to shrink.

More junior and senior lecturers could leave Taiwan because of relatively low wages for academics aged between 30 and 60, and the low pensions paid to retired academics, Kuo said, and additionally cited a worsening research environment for academics in Taiwan.

Targeting youth

Wang Hsin-hsien, professor at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University’s Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies, and a former advisor to Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, which handles Taiwan’s China policy, said China is directly targeting Taiwan’s youth.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who upholds the Communist Party principle that Taiwan is a breakaway province of China that will be reunited with the mainland eventually, realises that the approval of young Taiwanese is the biggest obstacle to reunification. This is why the Beijing government is “attempting to gain the support of Taiwanese youth by facilitating visits to China and lowering the bar for enrolling in Chinese universities”, Wang said.

These moves have come unilaterally from Beijing and without reciprocal offers or negotiation with Taipei, as relations between Beijing and Taipei have been strained since Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) under Tsai Ing-wen swept to victory in elections in May 2016. The DPP supports independence for Taiwan.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) and other relevant government agencies will investigate the 31 measures announced by Beijing last week, said MAC deputy head Chiu Chui-cheng on 28 February, in particular to see whether they contradict Taiwan’s laws or existing agreements.

The MAC urged “vigilance”, warning that China, which has not renounced the use of force to ensure eventual unification, had not changed its policy.

China "recently has continued to tighten up and put pressure on us, and at the same time has come out with so-called 'measures to benefit Taiwanese' to entice our people", it said.

"The mainland side has for a long time repeatedly put forward many types of similar measures, all of which are aimed at unilaterally enhancing the benefits of its economic development goals and absorbing Taiwan's resources," MAC added.