By Jens Kastner
TAIPEI – Unlike their grandparents, who in the 1950s tried to set foot on the Taiwanese islands of Kinmen with the help of bombing and artillery campaigns by Chairman Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), mainland Chinese youngsters today are being welcomed with scholarships and tuition waivers.
A loophole in laws that restrict to 2,000 the annual number of enrollments of mainland students on Taiwan proper allows Taiwanese-controlled Kinmen to become an offshore university center for mainland Chinese students. The archipelago, also
known as Quemoy, is just 10 kilometers from the mainland China coast.
More than 20 Taiwanese universities intend to set up branches on the outlying island, catering to the growing demand for higher education among young Chinese. The influx of Chinese students is seen as a panacea not only for Kinmen but also for Taiwan’s universities. Chronically plagued by dwindling student enrollment, they regard students from across the Taiwan Strait as a desperately needed remedy.
“It’s good for Taiwan when mainland Chinese study here since it solves our universities’ student shortage problem,” Professor Alex Chiang of Taiwan’s National Chengchi University’s Department of Diplomacy said in an interview with Asia Times Online. “Another reason that we should welcome the mainlanders is that they are very hard-working, in fact even more hard-working than their Taiwanese peers,” Chiang said.
Kinmen was once the scene of heavy fighting between Mao’s Communists and the Nationalists (the Kuomintang or KMT) under Chiang Kai-shek. The PLA saw Kinmen as the ultimate stepping stone for the invasion of Taiwan proper. However, the KMT troops resisted intensive shelling which lasted years, and at one point the US even threatened to use nuclear weapons against the Communists to stop the attacks.
Although the shelling ceased in 1978 and the island was returned to the civilian government in the mid-1990s, the proximity to the Chinese coast and the 230-kilometer distance to Taiwan have continued to shape the fate of the small archipelago.
In the late 1990s, Kinmen turned to smuggling as boatloads full of tourists met mainland fishing boats to purchase cheap goods from the Chinese. After direct ferry services were launched between Kinmen and the mainland city of Xiamen under the so-called “mini three links” initiative in 2001, the island witnessed extensive tourism development. However, when direct transportation, trade and postal links between Taiwan and China were fully implemented in late 2008, the advantage that Kinmen had during the mini-link years became less profitable.
A bitter controversy is now raging between the ruling KMT and the main opposition, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), over the mainland Chinese students who may come to Kinmen’s rescue.
The DPP vehemently opposes the opening to mainland students, fearing they will stay after graduation and compete with their Taiwanese peers for jobs. Along with the ease of restrictions proposed by the KMT comes the recognition of Chinese academic credentials which, in the eyes of the DPP, will lead to a brain drain since most talented Taiwanese students would likely pursue their studies and possibly their careers in China instead of Taiwan. As an effort to cut ties between Taiwan and China, Taiwan’s previous DPP government refused accreditation for Chinese universities, effectively preventing Taiwanese who studied in China from finding jobs in Taiwan after returning.
Since the topic remains politically sensitive, the government in Taipei is under pressure to restrict the number of Chinese students to be permitted to enroll at Taiwanese universities to 1% of total students, or roughly 2,000 students annually. If the University Act, the Junior College Law and the Statute Governing the Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area are amended later this month as expected, Chinese students will be able to enroll in doctorate programs from March 2011 on at the earliest, but will have to wait until September 2011 to enroll in bachelor degree programs.
Much to the delight of Kinmen’s local officials, it turned out their islands won’t be subject to the 1% quota which is going to apply for campuses on Taiwan proper. Anticipating the spending power of tens of thousands young mainlanders, the Kinmen County government promised to provide 2.5 hectares of land for use by the 20 odd universities that have so far applied to set up branches on Kinmen.
Scholarships will be offered to attract top Chinese students, and the best 20 students in each class will be granted full tuition and fee waivers. As if these incentives weren’t enough, tuition aid and transportation allowance for every student will be raised to roughly US$600.
Taiwanese universities are scrambling to open branches on Kinmen because there are too many of them of the institutions. Taiwan’s higher education problem began in the 1980s, when along with democratization the government intended to raise the number of students accepted into institutes of higher education. This policy turned out to be too popular with the electorate to be reversed by any succeeding administration.
Taiwan now has as many as 147 private and public colleges and universities, serving 1.2 million students. Practically every applicant – 97% – were accepted in 2009. High school students who scored 10 points out of a hundred in the university entrance exams are enrolled.
Taiwan’s low birth rate also contributes to many universities and colleges operating at far below their normal student capacity.
In stark contrast, only about 60% of mainland students who sit entry exams in China end up being enrolled, since there are too few universities. The government can’t do what its Taiwanese counterpart did in the 1980s. Although the Chinese economy now needs its workforce to be more educated, the authorities cannot simply raise the number of universities due to likely demographic effects of the “one-child” policy, which has been in place for three decades. If China were to open new universities now, they are bound to run into the same oversupply problems with which Taiwanese universities are struggling now.
Therefore, for many Chinese students, the only way into higher education is to study overseas. Taiwan, thanks to shared culture and language, low tuition fees and living expenses, is a plausible choice. The 2,000 students that Taiwan’s government wants to accept annually is far too small to meet the Chinese demand, according to a survey report by the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Around 2 million university students in China, or about 30% of total students there, would consider taking up advanced studies in Taiwan, the survey found.
Professor Chiang believes that by opening Kinmen to mainland students, Taiwan’s government is seeking to make the public slowly comfortable with the idea of lifting the 1% quota limit for Taiwan proper itself. In his eyes, the government wants to see how the Taiwanese react, and open up the whole country after it has become apparent to the Taiwanese that mainland students are nothing to be afraid of. This, says Chiang, would be benefit society as a whole.
“Those students are to stay much longer than the Chinese tourists who have been visiting Taiwan. Therefore, through Taiwan’s opening to mainland students, more mutual understanding between Taiwan’s and China’s young generations will be established,” he said.
Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based writer.