Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Educational Detente Across Taiwan Strait

Educational Détente Across Taiwan Strait.

TAIPEI — Last January, Chao Ying, a student from northeastern China, stepped out of the train station into the rain at Jiufen, a picturesque former gold mining town in northern Taiwan, and saw something that puzzled her.

A politician from the governing Kuomintang party, who had won a legislative seat in Taiwan’s elections the day before, was standing in the back of an open van that was driving up and down the road outside the station, shouting his thanks through a loudspeaker to passers-by.

“At first I didn’t know who this might be, or what exactly he was doing,” said Ms. Chao, 25, who is studying veterinary sciences at National Chung Hsing University in Taichung, in central Taiwan. “I had to ask someone on the street.”

“I thought it was very good to see a politician thanking the people,” she said. “The Taiwanese must be very touched when they see such a thing.”

It was one more eye-opening experience for a mainland Chinese student in Taiwan. Ms. Chao is among more than 1,000 mainlanders who, for the first time, have been permitted to study for academic degrees in Taiwan and have just completed their inaugural academic year.

The government of Taiwan, the self-ruling island over which Beijing claims sovereignty, has been inching toward more amicable relations with the mainland in recent years. The full opening of the island’s universities to students from across the strait last year followed more limited academic exchange programs and the expansion of tourism and direct flights from the Chinese mainland.

The new admissions policy has been hailed as a success by universities and officials in Taiwan. Allowing young people who could eventually rise to influential positions in Communist-ruled China to immerse themselves in Taiwan society, they say, should enhance sympathy for the mainland’s democratic neighbor.

“Many Taiwanese students go to the U.S. and return very pro-American. We want to generate that same kind of effect,” said Ho Jow-fei, director general of higher education in the Ministry of Education. He added, “It is possible that some of the mainland students who come to study here may one day become political leaders.”

Taiwan also sees a partial solution to the problem of maintaining enrollments and standards as a falling birth rate shrinks the pool of applicants at home.

As for the motives of the students from mainland China, several cited an education system modeled on that of the United States that could position them well for a career abroad, but at a more reasonable cost and offered in Mandarin.

Xu Jincheng, 22, of Shanghai, who is studying engineering at Feng Chia University, said that in Taiwan he was learning to think on his feet. At his mainland university, which he did not want to identify for fear of embarrassing his former teachers, the approach was “too narrow and theoretical.”

His tutors in Taiwan, he said, push him to come up with creative solutions to real-life challenges. This was useful, he added, because “in many companies the boss expects employees to solve practical problems.”

The mainland students have grown up hearing their government’s oft-stated position that Taiwan, separately ruled since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, rightfully belongs to China and that no means, including military force, can be excluded to achieve eventual reunification.

Still, Joseph Wong, a University of Toronto political science professor, said the students were likely to return home with the message that “these two societies are unlikely to become one.”

“These mainland Chinese students tend to experience Taiwan as a fundamentally different place,” said Mr. Wong, who also teaches at Fudan University in Shanghai and says he visits Taiwan at least twice a year.

One student who has noted sharp contrasts is Zhu Haoqing, a 24-year-old from Hebei Province who is studying for a master’s degree in land management at Feng Chia University in Taichung. 


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