Education or politics? Chinese visit to Taiwan stirs debate

A high-profile visit to Taiwan this week by a delegation of students and officials from mainland Chinese universities has been touted as paving a path to the resumption of stalled mainland student enrolments in Taiwan. But some lawmakers and academics in Taiwan decried the visit as a ‘political stunt’ in the lead-up to Taiwan’s presidential elections.

The delegation of three dozen students and academics from five mainland universities to universities in Taiwan – the first exchange visit from mainland universities to Taiwan in three years – was invited by Taiwan’s former president Ma Ying-jeou as an exercise in “student exchange diplomacy” and organised by the Ma Ying-jeou Foundation which promotes ties across the Taiwan Strait that separates the Island from the Chinese mainland.

“This is the first visit by a major university student delegation from the mainland since cross-strait exchanges were suspended and [relations worsened] to the point of the brink of war under the rule of the government of [Taiwanese President] Tsai Ing-wen,” Hsiao Hsu-tsen, executive director of the Ma Ying-jeou Foundation, said on 15 July when the university group arrived in Taipei for the nine-day visit.

The group from Peking, Tsinghua, Fudan, Wuhan and Hunan Universities, was led by Hao Ping, the Communist Party secretary from Peking University, who was also a former vice-minister for education in China.

On the itinerary are visits to National Taiwan University in Taipei, National Chengchi University, Chinese Culture University and National Dong Hwa University in Hualien, Eastern Taiwan.

Just before the delegation arrived, Ma, who was head of the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party, which promoted cross-strait relations, said: “The visit is the most important youth exchange programme from the mainland in recent years and I will personally receive them in the hopes of contributing to the restoration of cross-strait relations.”

Liao Yuan-hao, an associate professor in the Law Department of National Chengchi University, who is also a director of the foundation, said whether due to politics or the pandemic, students on both sides of the strait have not had normal exchanges for several years, which will cause “a lot of estrangement and distrust”. He said it was time to “break the ice”.

Political points

The delegation followed Ma’s two-week ‘private’ visit to the mainland in late March when he travelled around with some 30 mainland students and said he hoped that youth exchanges would help improve tensions across the strait. That visit was seen as highly political, with some Taiwan academics accusing him of “doing Beijing’s bidding”.

The arrival of the mainland group has been blatantly used to score political points, according to academics in Taiwan, aiming to boost the opposition KMT. Ma himself has blamed the stagnation of cross-strait exchanges on the policies of Taiwan’s current administration under Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leader President Tsai Ing-wen.

The DPP government at first opposed the visit, before a meeting of various ministries approved it on 11 July, just days before the delegation was due to arrive. In a statement the Taiwan government said it was “happy to see orderly and positive academic exchanges between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, given that Taiwan has gradually eased the COVID-19 pandemic border restrictions”.

China’s study ban

Beijing has still not lifted a ban on its students enrolling in degree courses universities in Taiwan, which was imposed during the pandemic in 2020. The ban remained in place as tensions in China-Taiwan relations remained high this year. Beijing continues to ban individual mainland tourists from travelling to Taiwan.

Taiwan authorities have said the last cohort of bachelor degree students from the mainland have just graduated in Taiwan and none from the mainland are expected for the new academic year which starts next month.

Mainland students were first allowed to study in Taiwan from 2011, during Ma’s 2008-2016 presidency. Only short-term students and mainland graduates in Taiwan who are moving on to postgraduate degrees are currently enrolled in Taiwan universities.

There are currently an estimated 2,000 mainland students in Taiwan, down from over 25,000 in 2019 before the pandemic and a high of almost 42,000 in 2016 just before the DPP came to power and Beijing subsequently halved the quota for new mainland undergraduate students enrolling in Taiwan.

By contrast, around 12,000 Taiwanese students are studying on the mainland.

Mainland students brought in much-needed income to Taiwan’s university sector amid Taiwan’s own demographic decline. Taipei is now trying to bridge the gap by attracting more foreign students, including a special scholarship plan for an additional 10,000 foreign students, planned for 2024-2027. Those students would also be allowed to work in Taiwan, according to a draft regulation currently being prepared by the government.

‘Publicity stunt’

Mainland official media has played up the importance of the mainland visit. Chen Binhua, spokesman for the State Council Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing, said the delegation was “conducive to” the resumption of cross-strait exchanges.

“We support and encourage young people on both sides of the strait to enhance exchanges and mutual understanding, learn from each other through exchanges and interactions, and jointly create a bright future,” he said via official Chinese media.

According to the Ma foundation, Peking University’s Hao indicated that as a member of the university he would “do his best” to push for the resumption of student exchanges beginning next year.

But academics point out that these comments are made against the backdrop of presidential elections due to be held in Taiwan in January 2024. Beijing is concerned about the outcome: another DPP victory could mean a continued freeze on people-to-people and education exchanges while an opposition KMT victory could reopen the gates.

The resumption of exchanges was unlikely to be decided by the current visit, described as “no more than a KMT publicity stunt”, according to one academic. The Ma Foundation’s Hsiao admitted this week no talks have been conducted with universities on the topic.

Within the Taiwan government, the visit is also being viewed through the prism of the impact on the election.

Cross-strait ‘risk control’

Pao Tsung-ho, vice-president of National Taiwan University, told Taiwan’s China Review News Agency the Taiwan government’s earlier refusal to allow the visit to go ahead may have been because the ruling DPP party “assessed it would add points to the KMT electoral situation. But if cross-strait relations are tense, the Tsai government will lose even more points which will not be beneficial to next year’s election”, he noted.

Pao added that by finally approving the visit “the Tsai government is doing some cross-strait risk control”.

But DPP legislators are watching the visit closely. DPP legislator Lai Jui-lung questioned whether it was a ‘United Front’ exercise, referring to the Chinese Communist Party strategy of influencing policies beyond its borders, pointing to controversial remarks made by some of the visiting students.

Lai said mainland students had “deliberately repeated” Beijing’s “political rhetoric”, including saying peoples on both sides of the strait “originate from the same root”.

This is seen as sensitive in Taiwan. While the Taiwan government was established by Chinese nationalists fleeing the Communist advance in the 1940s, Taiwan also has its own indigenous population.

“It is likely they were told to voice these viewpoints, with instruction from their [Beijing] political masters,” Lai said.