BBC News in Taipei recently published an article celebrating one full year of Chinese student enrollment in Taiwanese universities. The widely-reposted article’s catchy headline poses the question, “Is Taiwanese democracy changing Chinese students?”
Those Chinese students who started their studies in Taiwan last year were not only able to gain a new perspective on Taiwan, they were also witnesses to the January 2012 election in which Taiwan’s current president Ma Ying-jeou scraped out a second-term victory. But aside from politics, what do Chinese students who study in Taiwan care about most?
By leaving home to study in Taiwan, Chinese students gain access to a wealth of information not available in China. Responding to the BBC article’s comments about Chinese students pouring over Chinese history textbooks in bookstores, @王思多Shawn from China’s Hunan province wrote on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter: “I think every Chinese student is very curious about the history that has been erased and the truths that have been hidden. Going to Taiwan to study is a good option!”
After years of heated competition to reach the top of the class and gain eligibility to study abroad, Chinese students are also quick to notice the differences and similarities between Taiwanese and Chinese education. One Beijing exchange student, @安噗啦, complained that her professors frequently ask her to spice up her reports by tackling issues from multiple perspectives: “Why is it that when Chinese students in Taiwan give reports, Taiwanese professors and media always recommend that the follow-up should continue to compare the different angles from which both sides look at a problem? What is the point of such a comparison? The chairman of the board for Taiwan’s China Television news channel (CTV) said that the reason is because China can draw on Taiwan’s experience, and in the future China will become the way Taiwan is today. I strongly disagree.”
At times, Taiwan’s liberal-arts education can also confuse Chinese students. Another exchange student from Beijing, @i蔷薇, complained about the quality of her Taiwanese teachers: “Taiwan also has teachers who don’t understand logic! After class, four of us Chinese students discussed this and agreed that we were all almost ready to start arguing back!”
Political tensions have also surfaced. @猖狂参阅隋唐 reposted a Sina article with the comment: “Taiwan invited the former Japanese representative to Taiwan to give a lecture discussing Taiwan’s accession to the United Nations and other political and diplomatic issues. One after another, the Chinese students sitting in the lecture got up and left the room angrily. The topic: Nanjing temporarily halting interactions with Nagoya’s official.” After a lifetime learning only the official Chinese version of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, it is no surprise that the Chinese students were shocked and angry after earlier hearing Nagoya’s mayor downplay the atrocity.
Practical Chinese students simply worry that because of differences in the education system, it will be hard for them to maintain top grades in their classes. A freshly arrived exchange student in Kaohsiung @vivi–le worried about her new classes in Taiwan by saying: “My afternoon class suddenly has more than 60 Taiwanese students, even though it’s usually capped at 40…this Chinese student is very panicked.” With an extra 20 students in her class, she fears she’ll either have to study much harder or watch her class ranking slip away.
Some Taiwanese students are quick to criticize their Chinese classmates, believing that because the Chinese students have spent most of their lives isolated in a country with government-imposed restrictions on available knowledge, their opinions will not be as fruitful as those of their Taiwanese peers. Taiwanese netizen @addison3138145 reposted a recent internet article arguing that, “After going through a highly competitive process to stand out from their peers, some Chinese students choose to study overseas in Taiwan, but some people believe that Chinese students who come to Taiwan were only accepted because they doctored their records, and their grades actually aren’t on par with those of their Taiwanese classmates.”
Professor Wuchang Zhe from Fu Jen Catholic University sees Chinese students more favorably. According to Professor Zhe:
“Chinese students have two major advantages. The first is that they have experienced fierce competition and are more resistant to everyday stress than their Taiwanese classmates. Second, their attitude towards learning is often more serious than their Taiwanese peers, and if there is something they don’t understand they will figure it out. Taiwanese students who belong to the status quo will not improve their learning. However, hardworking, visionary, self-motivated students will respond when the going gets tough, and students from both sides of the strait will find opponents striving to better themselves.
“Taiwanese students can’t use excuses to hide the ways in which they are inferior to Chinese students, because Taiwan is a democratic country and should have more adequate resources to search for information than on the Mainland. While participating in cross-strait relations camps, [I] found that although the Chinese students grew up in a Communist country, their ideas were not rigid, and in fact they had more ideas and creativity than their Taiwanese counterparts—something which Taiwanese students need to learn.”
Only time will tell how Taiwan and its mainland Chinese students affect one another. For now, the clearest contrasts are those in education. Letting Chinese and Taiwanese students earn degrees on the other side of the strait creates an opportunity to bridge the gap between two education systems and ways of thinking. Instead of simply accepting Taiwan as a renegade province, Chinese students have the chance to form their own opinions about Taiwan’s present and future identity. With first-hand knowledge of Taiwan, these students will also be the best poised to create closer cross-strait economic and political ties, regardless of Taiwan’s status.