High School Students Shaking Up Taiwan’s Politics

(Photo by tenz1225, Creative Commons License)
(Photo by tenz1225, Creative Commons License)

On a sweltering Friday in late July, Taiwan’s minister of education, Wu Se-hwa, emerged on the front steps of his besieged ministry. Waiting below were a half dozen high school students in a swarm of reporters. They were holding a banner that read, “Stop the pretense of caring. Apologize and resign.”

For weeks, they had sought an audience with Wu, and several hours had passed since the 10:00 am deadline they’d imposed. The students were demanding a yes or no answer to whether he’d postpone the issuing of revised textbooks scheduled for release the next day, August 1. Wu waffled, and cries of “Minister, resign!” erupted. A rubber sandal was thrown, and Wu retreated.

An engineer by training and a former professor of business management, Wu has been at the helm of Taiwan’s ministry of education during the most incongruent chapter of its history. The tail was wagging the dog, or at least trying to. Normally compliant, barely pubescent minors had decided to neglect their studies as final exams approached and form district-by-district coalitions of activist cells capable of coordinated nationwide protests.

Their ire was directed at revisions to high school textbooks — history, in particular — which they claimed were orchestrated by a secretive panel handpicked by President Ma Ying-jeou and which devalued Taiwan’s national identity.

As August 1 drew near, the protests escalated. Late on the evening of July 23, ladders were pitched against a side wall of the education ministry, and students made their way in. They briefly occupied Wu’s office before police evicted them and led them away in handcuffs. Thirty-three were arrested at the behest of the ministry, including three journalists who ventured along inside.

One of those arrested — 20-year-old Dai Lin, a spokesperson for the Northern Taiwan Anti-Curriculum Changes Alliance — committed suicide a week later in the wee hours of July 30, becoming a martyr for the movement. On the eve of Lin’s death, the students threw quilted blankets over the razor wire that topped the riot barricades at the front of the ministry. They toppled the barriers and stormed into the ministry’s courtyard.

Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, a political independent, intervened and ordered the police to stand down. This time there were no arrests, and the students occupied the courtyard. When Minister Wu stepped out to meet the students on July 31, his ministry was festooned with banners calling him the “minister of murder.” Here and there were shrines for Lin, decorated with funereal flowers and posters of him holding a placard with the slogan, “Education is not a political tool.”

The Battle over Textbooks

For the moment, the kids are the public face of Taiwan’s education fracas. The international wire services have taken a sudden interest. The kids are precocious and photogenic, and they make for good copy.

Yet the high schoolers were late to the scene. The island’s adults — coalitions of grade school teachers, experts on education, scholars of Taiwan history, advocates of Taiwan independence — had taken to the streets in January and February 2014, expressing outrage over the direction of the Ma administration’s textbook revisions.

Education reform in any country is a long, drawn-out process, and Ma got to work as soon as he took office in 2008. The key plank of Ma’s first term was improving cross-strait relations, sorely strained under 20 years of leadership by Presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian. His opponents fully expected Ma’s education reforms to have a pro-unification slant toward China.

Textbook revision was but one aspect. In 2012 came the announcement of a “fine-tuning” of existing curricula by a panel of experts, most of whose identities and qualifications remain unknown yet to this date. Little else was made public at that point.

The Chinese, ironically, seemed better informed than were Taiwan’s citizens of the intended end game. On June 13, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office expressed its delight with Ma’s pending textbook revisions. “Taiwan’s society has voiced its desire,” said spokesperson Fan Li-ching, “to correct revisions made to high school textbooks during the independence-leaning era… Textbooks greatly influence future generations. If written from the perspective of Taiwan independence, history textbooks will mislead our Taiwan compatriots.”

Ma’s textbook revisions would not erupt into controversy in Taiwan until 2014, eventually leading to the high schoolers’ occupation of the education ministry’s courtyard. But when the 2014 uproar began, it would eerily recall a textbook debate two decades earlier in 1997 under Lee, except that the positions of the major parties were reversed.

During the Chiang Kai-shek regimes, national history in textbooks had focused on the glories of China’s past, with Taiwan mentioned only as a temporary way station for Chiang’s Chinese Nationalists — who’d been deposed by Mao’s Communists and relegated to Taiwan — in their effort to retake the mainland. In 1997, a decade after the lifting of martial law, the Lee administration introduced a supplementary text, “Getting to Know Taiwan,” with three volumes — history, geography, and society. Into the classroom came secrets students had only heard whispered at home. Native Taiwanese scholars hailed it as a watershed moment.

Nationalist stalwarts from Chiang’s Kuomintang, or KMT party, viewed it as an apostasy. Particularly sensitive were the February 28 massacre of Taiwanese intellectuals by KMT soldiers in 1947, the following period of White Terror, and the notion that economic and social achievements occurred in Taiwan during the Japanese colonial period. Equally contentious, Taiwan was portrayed as if it had a history separate from China and was a plural society of Han men and women of multiple ethnicities and a homeland of non-Han aboriginal tribes. Fierce debates played out in the island’s newly liberalized media.

Taiwanization continued under the next president, Chen Shui-bian — the first from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP. First, the “supplementary” lessons of Lee were integrated into official textbooks, which China’s state-run media decried as a clear sign of his party’s separatist intentions. Even worse, near the end of Chen’s presidency, in 2007, the histories of China and Taiwan were published in separate volumes, further inflaming the tealeaf reading proclivities of political analysts in Beijing.

Ma Swings the Other Way

In 2014, under the KMT’s Ma, the shoe was now on the other foot. In January, the public got its first look at the “fine tuning” underway, and what Ma’s critics saw was a China-centric rollback of textbook content related to Taiwan’s history.

Negative material on the KMT party’s early days in Taiwan was watered down, while positive commentary on Japan’s contributions during a half century of colonial rule disappeared. Meanwhile, links to Taiwan during early Chinese dynasties were emphasized, bolstering China’s claim of sovereignty of the island.

The Taipei Times is a handy English-language barometer of the opposition DPP party’s opinion. From January 19 onward, DPP legislators and Taiwan history scholars filled its pages filled with criticism. Before long, city and county governments under their control, then a minority, announced plans to boycott Ma’s revised curriculum.

High school teachers held rallies outside the ministry of education, distributing fliers to passersby. They were still there when, just a block away on March 18, university students occupied the Legislative Yuan, in protest over the lack of transparency of the Ma administration’s handling of the Cross Strait Services Trade Agreement.

That so-called Sunflower Movement quickly overshadowed the teachers’ anti-curriculum revision protest. The teachers joined the scores of social activist groups encamped around the Legislative Yuan. Hundreds of thousands of citizens came to Taipei in a show of solidarity before the occupation ended after three weeks.

The Sunflower Movement turned public opinion against Ma’s cross-strait embrace. His party took a beating in the November 29 elections, with the DPP winning 10 out of 16 mayoral and commissioner races and the KMT losing ground even in traditional strongholds.

Taiwan’s DPP faction breathed a collective sigh of relief, and street protests waned. Nothing much would garner international media attention again until the high school kids picked up the mantle of the anti-curriculum revision movement and laid siege to their education ministry.

Among the Protestors

Taiwan’s press has dubbed the recent protests Sunflower Movement, High School Edition. Participants numbered in the low hundreds, except on Sunday afternoon, August 2, when several teacher coalitions marched in the street outside. The demographic in the courtyard was mostly kids and senior citizens. Few working-age adults were present.

The older folk sat in a tree-shaded area. I recognized many familiar faces from the streets outside the Legislative Yuan during the Sunflower Movement. These were lifelong human rights activists, many of them affiliated with church groups. I found Lau Mengsin, whom I’d interviewed for a previous Foreign Policy In Focus story. He patiently explained the twists and turns of the textbook issue.

“These children have it tough,” Lau told me. “During the Sunflower Movement parents protested alongside their sons and daughters. That is because, if passed, the Cross Strait Services Trade Agreement would affect everyone. It was about jobs and China’s influence over our economy.”

Others joined the discussion. They brought up brainwashing. “My mother and father were brainwashed by the Japanese,” said the grey haired woman across from me, “while our generation was brainwashed by the Chiangs. We didn’t dare open our mouths.”

Lau fast-forwarded to the present. “The Ma administration is trying to take us back to the days before the lifting of martial law,” he said.

On another occasion, a high school protestor read aloud to me an English press release. The release was handwritten, in beautiful script rarely seen these days among the young, on the inside back cover of what I thought was a notebook. I flipped it over. It was Gene Sharp’s How to Start a Revolution translated into Mandarin.

These kids belonged to several different anti-curriculum revision coalitions, and several had bussed from the far south of the island, Tainan and Pingtung. The previous evening TV news showed a mother and father pulling their son away from the protest site. “That’s quite exaggerated,” said a boy from Taipei. “Our parents don’t want us here,” he continued. “Not for political reasons, but because they fear the government will use water cannons.”

I asked why I hadn’t seen any celebrity radicals from the Sunflower Movement among the crowd. “Chen Wei-ting came to our press conference yesterday,” said another Taipei boy. “He told us he could advise us, but he could not participate. This is your movement, he told us, and you have to see it through.”

After the Protests

Minister Wu agreed to meet the student leaders on August 3, behind closed doors at the National Central Library, and the proceedings were broadcast live in the courtyard of the ministry of education. The high schoolers repeated their plea for a temporary suspension of the implementation of the revised curriculum guidelines. Pointing at flow charts, Wu insisted that such action was a legal impossibility. TV reporting focused on the kids breaking down into tears. On the Internet, animated gifs of Wu rolling his eyes went viral.

When the forum ended, Deputy Minister of Education Lin Teng-chiao, in the spirit of “goodwill,” offered four concessions. The oddest was a promise to reveal the names of members of the guideline review committee, but only of members who gave permission. The rest were old hats. Last June, the ministry had already announced that schools had the option of using either the newly revised or the old textbooks, and that students would not be tested on the revised content when taking the island’s college entrance exams.

The Ma administration’s closed-door negotiations of the cross-strait trade pact led to the Sunflower Movement and a walloping in last November’s elections. In the upcoming January presidential election, DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen has long been far ahead in the polls over KMT candidate Hung Hsiu-chu.

To the kids in the ministry courtyard and adult voters watching from TV screens, a willingness of the KMT-dominated education ministry to negotiate would have been sweet. Instead the KMT appears in disarray as Ma’s two terms as president come to a close. On August 6, former KMT heavyweight James Soong, 73, now chairman of the pro-unification People First Party, announced his bid for the presidency, dividing the KMT vote. The DPP candidate, Tsai, is surely a shoo-in.

Right on cue, Zhang Zhijun, head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, warned that Taiwan was at a crucial point “facing profound societal changes, endless political disputes, and frequent ‘interference’ in ties with China,” as reported by Reuters.

In the ministry courtyard, the kids vowed to fight on. But larger forces were brewing.Typhoon Soudelor was bearing down on the island, and officials from both sides of the divide were begging the students to decamp. But the tussle over Taiwan’s curriculum revisions is far from over. The battlefield has simply moved to the classroom.

Glenn Smith is a journalist who’s been based in Taipei for 30 years. He has contributed to more than 100 publications, including Foreign Policy In Focus.

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