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Taiwan Is Desperate for Fee-Paying, Mainland Chinese Students. That Could Be Bad for Academic Freedom

Taiwan's universities are reeling from accusations that they are indulging in widespread academic censorship to secure lucrative fee-paying exchange students from the Chinese mainland.

This week the Ministry of Education launched an emergency probe of pledges allegedly signed by universities with their Chinese counterparts to uphold China’s official view on Taiwan’s status and avoid teaching sensitive content like Taiwanese independence.

The controversy has struck at a particularly sensitive time, with the island nation smarting from a strong rebuke last weekend by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who warned that China would not tolerate any activity attempting to “separate Taiwan from the motherland.”

Taiwan, a democracy of 23 million, has its own parliament, military and foreign policy, but Beijing views it as a renegade province that will eventually be reunited with the mainland — by military force if necessary.

The Education Ministry refused to confirm press reports that at least 80 out of 157 universities may have compromised their academic independence to attract Chinese students, until it completes its full investigation next week.

But Yang Min-ling, head of the ministry’s International Department, warned that any institution found guilty of violating laws governing “cross-strait relations” between Taiwan and China could face fines of up to $16,000.

Fearful that Beijing is trying to erode their jealously guarded academic liberties, Taiwanese professors and students are in revolt.

A new campaign against political restrictions on academic freedom by Professor Fan Yun, who teaches sociology at National Taiwan University, has been supported by professors and students from over 20 institutions.

“Universities are supposed to protect the democratic values of a society,” says Fan.

“I visit Hong Kong universities and what’s happening there is quite depressing. They already lost the freedom to talk about what they want to. So I hope that we are ‘overworried,’ but we don’t want to wait until it’s too late,” she argues.

“We still want to facilitate academic exchange with China, but we have to have our bottom line.”

With Taiwan’s low birth rate fueling fears of a future shortfall in students, however, that line appears to be flexible for many universities competing for funding. Taiwan, which has a glut of universities, gratefully receives over 30,000 Chinese exchange students every year.

The latest controversy began at Shih Hsin University in the capital, Taipei, after it revealed that in letters to some mainland Chinese students it vowed to avoid sensitive subjects.

A spokesman, Yeh I-jan, argued that the letters were nonbinding and only necessary for about 5% of the institution’s annual 1,500 Chinese students.

Shih Hsin and other universities claim such documents are a formality to placate the Chinese authorities, denying that teaching standards are compromised. But Yeh did recall several instances where Chinese students had complained about the content of lessons and stopped attending.

Young activists in both Hong Kong and Taiwan have irked Beijing in recent years by pushing for greater autonomy or even independence. In 2014, hundreds of students formed the Sunflower Movement and occupied Taiwan’s parliament to protest China’s political influence.

Lin Fei-fan, one of Sunflower’s leaders, is alarmed that the letters issued by universities have both “violated Taiwan’s academic freedom” and burdened visiting Chinese students with self-censorship. But he also sees an opportunity.

“This incident actually gives us a rare chance to rethink how a democratic Taiwan can engage with an authoritarian and inimical neighbor country through education exchange,” he says.

Concerns about China using its overseas students for political leverage have occurred elsewhere.

In San Diego, Chinese students protested against a decision by the University of California to invite Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Meanwhile, the Chinese embassy in the U.K. is said to have warned students at Durham University against engaging with human-rights activist, Anastasia Lin.

“It’s part of how they want to promote their cultural and social agenda in other societies, particularly in Taiwan,” said Hsu Yung-ming, a legislator with the government-aligned New Power Party.

“We worry that our universities maybe have some under-the-table compromise with China.”

But Jason Hsu, a legislator from the opposition party, the Kuomintang, warned the government against a “kneejerk” reaction.

While opposing pledges to Chinese universities, Hsu believes that the Ministry of Education probe, with the threat of financial penalties, is also “overreaching.”

He asks: “Do we want zero students from China in Taiwan, or do we want to promote more exchange and understanding towards each other? I think I would vote for the latter.”

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