For Taiwanese students, does studying in China lead to changes in political identity?

Lu Chen-wei of the National Policy Foundation says studying in China helps Taiwanese students change stereotypical perceptions. But does the same apply to their own political identities?

 Students from Kinmen Island on a field trip to Guangzhou, China. Image courtesy of  Hong Chi Association .

Students from Kinmen Island on a field trip to Guangzhou, China. Image courtesy of Hong Chi Association.

By Lu Chen-wei (盧宸緯)

This editorial was originally published in The Initium in Traditional Chinese. It is being reprinted in English with permission of the publishers.


On October 13th, 2017, on the eve of the Communist Party of China’s 19th National Congress, China’s Ministries of Finance and Education jointly released the “Measures for the Administration of Scholarships for Taiwanese Students.”

It wasn’t just the sheer scale and expansion of scholarships offered that captured Taiwan’s attention, but the specific eligibility criterion detailed in the documents — the applicants must identify with the “One China Principle” and “defend the national unity of the motherland”.

In fact, this isn’t the first time the Chinese government has shown concern about the identity of Taiwanese studying in mainland China.

On December 1st, 2016, China’s Ministry of Education (MOE) released the “People’s Republic of China’s Ordinary Post-Secondary Institutions’ Joint Recruitment Examination Syllabus for Admissions of Chinese Students Overseas in Hong Kong and Macau Regions, and from the Province of Taiwan.”

The document explicitly states that the spirit of this amendment is to “reinforce the observance of quality traditional Chinese culture and content”, and to “guide students towards strengthening their cultural and national identities as well as establish correct world views and value systems.”

Because these measures were only recently launched, we’re unable to confirm the effectiveness of such policies. But according to China’s MOE, the number of Taiwanese students pursuing higher education in China has steadily increasing since 2011. The number grew into the five-digits by 2015 and reached a total of 11,329 students in 2017.

Since said education involves the transmission and communication of particular values, one can't help but wonder whether Taiwanese youth studying in mainland China have undergone changes in their identities or political recognition. If so, in what ways have their identities changed?

These questions are discussed regularly in Taiwanese media. However, there are some Chinese scholars also studying and researching this topic. In fact, from the perspective of Beijing, the findings of such studies are quite surprising.

First, separate public opinion polls conducted by the Taiwanese media and by Chinese scholars both reflect a similar trend: The majority of Taiwanese students who visit mainland China develop more positive impressions of the country.

In other words, the experience of Taiwanese youth does indeed lead them to drop some stereotypical ideas about mainland China. Such exposure also convinces Taiwanese youth that the rise of China presents more opportunities than dangers.

However, with regards to the political identities of Taiwanese students, the research outcomes of two groups of Chinese scholars are interesting to reflect upon.

Professors Zhu Jie (祝捷) and Lai Yanjun (赖彦君) of Wuhan University studied a group of students from Central Taiwan with study experience in China to understand the political preferences and voting tendencies of Taiwanese youth during the 2014 local elections.

The study discovered that the political inclinations of Taiwanese youth differed completely from the conventional beliefs of Chinese society. The thinking goes, that upon returning to Taiwan from China, Taiwanese students will vote for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).

Their research shows that Taiwanese students actually lean more towards a middle ground, with 59.78 percent of students expressing a lack of preference for any particular political party. The main factors impacting students is their families’ political leanings and the location of their household registration. The duration of their stay in China did not sway their vote. Rather, when Taiwanese students cast their votes, their main concerns were predominantly about issues of day-to-day livelihood, such as the Taiwan food scandals of 2013-14.

Among the students who returned to Taiwan to cast their votes, 97.6 percent believed that Taiwanese young people would have an impact on the local elections. Moreover, students believed that partisan political factors do not have a significant impact on the development of peaceful cross-strait relations.

Their opinion was that the rotation and transition of political parties in Taiwan do not lead to negative consequences for cross-strait relations, or for the kind of treatment they receive in mainland China.

At the Shanghai Academy of Educational Sciences, scholars Shang Hongjuan (尚红娟) and Zhang Yiping (张一平) surveyed 300 Taiwanese students studying in China using paper and electronic forms. Their research found that the students’ experience had no influence on their views of unification and independence.

In fact, their time in China had a “negative effect” on their opinions of Chinese identity, cross-strait relations and the development of trade relations. In other words, Taiwanese students either adhered to their original stance, or changed their stance from support for unification, to opposition to unification.

For example, when examining the dimension of “self-identification”:

•    52.34 percent did not identify as Chinese from a cultural or historical perspective.

•    21 percent changed their previous position of “self-identity as Chinese” to holding an opinion that China and Taiwan are “two different countries”.

•    46 percent did not change their personal identity after spending time in China.

With regards to their opinions on “cross-strait unification versus Taiwan’s political independence”:

•    After their experience in China, 17.59 percent changed their opinion from supporting unification to opposing unification.

•    41.03 percent did not have an opinion before or after their experience in China.

•    18.62 percent persisted in their opposition to political unification.

In the field of “cross-strait economic relations”:

•    10.73 percent who previously supported the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) and the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) opposed these agreements after their experience in China.

•     43.6 percent expressed their lack of opinion before and after their experience in China.

In comparison, Taiwan scholars Lan Pei-Chia (蓝佩嘉) and Wu Yifan (吴伊凡) at National Taiwan University’s Department of Sociology arrived at different conclusions.

Their research found that Taiwanese students who intend to stay in China for long-term career development and work in multinational corporations adopted strategies of “diluting cross-strait differences” and “developing a global identity”.

However, Taiwanese students whose only focus is to obtain diplomas at Chinese universities rather than settling in for the long-term take an approach of persisting in their Taiwanese identity and strengthening cross-strait differences.

Through this research, one can see that the self-identification and cultural identities of Taiwanese students who visited China for school or exchange are not necessarily impacted by their experience on the other side of the strait. But why is this so?

 Taiwanese university students on a beach facing the Taiwan Strait. Image courtesy of  Chao-Wei Juan .

Taiwanese university students on a beach facing the Taiwan Strait. Image courtesy of Chao-Wei Juan.

Taiwanese students grew up in an atmosphere of “native consciousness”

In Taiwan, “cross-strait relations” is a topic closely linked to political ideology, thus making it a sphere of competing cultural discourses. Complex networks between the two sides has been simplified into a choice between “pro-Chinese”, “anti-Chinese”, or even “de-Sinification”, a trichotomy which acutely reflects Taiwan’s “native consciousness” (本土意識).

This native consciousness in modern Taiwanese society can be traced back to the 1980s. With the development of political movements and the repeal of martial law, the discursive debate between a “Taiwanese consciousness” and a “Chinese consciousness” gradually emerged.

In 1999, the newly drafted “General Secondary School Syllabus” was officially introduced, marking the first time “Taiwanese history” became an independent unit in the curriculum. Since then, historical perspectives of cross-strait relations began to diverge generationally.

With the introduction of the 2006 “Interim Curriculum Syllabus”, course content on Taiwanese history was completely separated from Chinese history for the first time, with this framework continuing to the present day.

The Taiwanese youth of today have been socialized in this societal context, thereby forming traits unique to their particular generation.

First, the generational identity of Taiwanese students is shifting towards the “Taiwanese only” end of the spectrum. According to a recent survey by CommonWealth Magazine, 72.6 percent of Taiwanese ages 20-29, and 59 percent of Taiwanese ages 30-39 identified solely as “Taiwanese”.

Second, Taiwanese young people have a relatively high degree of sensitivity towards political issues. Chinese scholars Chen Xiaoxiao (陈晓晓) and Li Peng (李鹏) selected 30 post-secondary institutions in Taiwan at random and then surveyed students about their political opinions. In all, Chen and Li collected 1575 surveys and conducted 30 interviews.

Their research shows that Taiwanese students are wary of Chinese strategies to foster cross-strait economic dependence. Such sensitivity is especially present in relation to united front tactics, where Taiwanese students see China as trying to “annex Taiwan” through political relations, “suppressing Taiwan” on the international stage, and attempting to “take Taiwan by force” by deploying missiles.

As for political views of unification versus independence, a poll by Global Views Research found that in March 2016, prior to Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) election to office, 36.8 percent of Taiwanese ages 20-29 supported Taiwan’s independence. However, by January 2018, the proportion of interviewees aged 18-29 who supported independence had fallen to 27.4 percent.

In contrast, when examining the proportion of proponents for unification, this figure underwent growth from 5.29 percent in September 2016 to 13.1 percent in January 2018. Evidently, the attitude of the Taiwanese student generation towards cross-strait relations is not monolithic. Rather, such views are easily influenced and changed by the broader social context.

Finally, this generation of Taiwanese students leans towards “separating politics and economics” when considering cross-strait relations. As mentioned before, the Taiwanese student generation tends to identify themselves as “Taiwanese”, and simultaneously hold a high level of sensitivity towards China’s political influence on Taiwanese affairs.

However, it is worth mentioning that according to the Global Views Survey and Research Center’s findings, 53 percent of Taiwanese ages of 18-29 expressed willingness to pursue career development in mainland China, a figure that increased by 10.5 percent compared to the year prior.

In a recent public opinion poll, the Taiwan Competitiveness Forum raised an interesting question: “Some people insist that they are Taiwanese rather than Chinese when in Taiwan but turn to declare their Chinese identity when they visit, organize events or do business in China. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon?”

The results of this survey found that respondents under the age of 39 are clearly and comparatively more tolerant of such behaviour than interviewees above the age of 40. It is evident that the current generation of Taiwanese youth tend to adopt a practical approach towards their personal development in mainland China, namely by “separating their political and economic opinions.”

In comparison to aspects of identity and politics, this generation places more emphasis on individual or economic development.

 Taiwanese students at a protest during the Sunflower Movement of March 2014. Image courtesy of Chung-tsen Fan-chiang.

Taiwanese students at a protest during the Sunflower Movement of March 2014. Image courtesy of Chung-tsen Fan-chiang.

Guidance or appeasement: A two-pronged approach to China’s policies towards Taiwan

In October 2016, the Chinese Ministry of Education released the “Measures for Ordinary Secondary Institution Admissions and Development of Students from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Macau Special Administrative Region, and from the Region of Taiwan”. In this document, two provisions were particularly striking:

“Secondary schools should establish special courses based on the learning outcomes, and cultural and psychological characteristics of students from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. The curriculum should organize and deliver its teaching in a targeted fashion. Credits for courses such as politics and military training can be substituted by other studies of contemporary Chinese society.” (Clause 16)

“According to the curricular plan, secondary schools should organize opportunities for hands-on learning and practical understanding outside of the classroom. Schools should also appropriately consider the special characteristics and needs of students from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan.” (Clause 19)

These two clauses show Beijing’s observation that when Taiwanese students come to study in mainland China, they may experience challenges or differences adapting to a new environment.

As a result, the Chinese government intends to provide extra flexibility and assistance on this issue. This also means that in the eyes of Beijing, Taiwanese students are viewed as subjects of particular concern and attention, thereby highlighting their differences and potential space for additional guidance and discipline.

These attempts to “guide” Taiwanese students are also obvious in the newly established scholarships, as well as in Beijing's “Joint Recruitment Examination Syllabus for Students from the Regions of Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan.”

Through institutional design and preferential treatment for Taiwanese students, the Chinese government is adopting measures of guidance rather than repression. Such meticulous strategies to specifically shape the identity and behaviour of Taiwanese students reflect the theories of micro-power described by Michel Foucault.

In contrast to traditional understandings of power, which consist of exerting one’s domination or ownership, Foucault believes that power penetrates and proliferates through normal social interactions.

Foucault also believes that power is a type of social relation that operates through one acting unit bringing out other actions through a set of consecutive actions. Instead of repressive control, power is manifested by correcting certain actions by using other actions.

The Chinese approach to Taiwan has consistently been underpinned by the “One China Principle” and the belief that “compatriots on both sides of the Strait belong to the same Chinese nation”. By applying Foucault’s theories to Chinese policies towards Taiwan, one can observe that these fundamental values are extrapolated into strategies of “positive guidance”, specifically by trying to guide the behaviour and identities of Taiwanese youth, creating a shift on the broader political spectrum.

Another power-extending strategy used by China is an "appeal to conciliation.” By standing in the shoes of Taiwanese students and demonstrating understanding, China considers many factors for these visiting Taiwanese students. From employment to long-term development, China concretely provides policy measures to address the challenges and satisfy the needs of Taiwanese students.

Such measures are intended for Taiwanese students to experience China’s willingness to share development opportunities and prosperity.

By helping students personally experience the concept that “people on both sides of the Strait are of one family”, China hopes to guide them in the direction of building people-to-people connections and integrated development.

Guidance and resistance: A reflection on the dynamism of Taiwanese student groups

As China continues to introduce more measures and opportunities for Taiwanese students, why is there a continued trend of alienation and estrangement towards a Chinese identity? Such deviation can also be understood by applying Foucault’s writing on strategies of “resistance”.

Foucault notes that power and resistance co-exist and co-constitute each other. The premise of power relations is that the individuals involved are free and independent entities with the ability and potential to make a variety of decisions, actions and reactions. Where there is power, there must also be “resistance”. It’s also this rational that provides power with the space and possibility to operate its strategies.

Concepts of the “One China Principle” and “both sides of the strait belonging to the same Chinese nation” are very familiar to Taiwanese students through continuous media messaging.

However, Taiwanese student groups have their own dynamism and free will. Growing up heavily influenced by native consciousness, the identities of Taiwanese youth conflicts with the value systems promoted by China. They are highly sensitive to China’s political influence on Taiwanese affairs.

Taiwanese youth can easily sense the agenda behind China’s preferential measures that attempt to sway their identities and cultural recognition. However, the foundation of this generation’s understanding of cross-strait relations is grounded in the separation of political and economic considerations.

That means Taiwanese youth are still likely to visit or stay in China for purposes of employment and will take economic and personal development into account.

They will, however, maintain their own agency by reinforcing native consciousness or adopting a strategy of “resistance” differentiating “us” (Taiwan) from “them” (China).

In other words, the phenomenon of Taiwanese youth becoming “closer physically but mentally more distant” to China can be explained by the Foucauldian power theory. As autonomous agents who can take self-initiative, students possess the generational traits shaped by Taiwanese culture and contexts.

When facing Chinese power—which operates through forces of “guidance”—Taiwanese students will respond with the “resistance” borne out of their own initiative. This type of “guidance” and “resistance” share an ecology of co-existence, which has persisted under cross-strait relations.

As for the future, as Taiwan faces growing economic disparity and proactive measures from China, will Taiwanese change their views of cross-strait relations and their identities?  It’s a topic that merits future exploration and attention.

Lu Chen-wei is deputy secretary-general and researcher at Association of Strategic Foresight, ROC (ASF). She’s also senior assistant researcher at the National Policy Foundation, a think tank linked to the KMT.

Taiwan Gazette