History Curriculum Protests: Future Implications for US-Taiwan Relations

The history curriculum protests and their significance for U.S.-Taiwan relations

For Taiwanese students, this has been a summer vacation to remember. In an attempt to make the Ministry of Education abandon its Taiwanese history curriculum revision that went into effect this August 1, a group of high school students captured the nation’s attention for over a fortnight by first attempting to occupy the ministry building and then occupying its courtyard for a week. On his 20th birthday, student spokesman Dai Lin (林冠華), who had spent a night in prison and faced further legal action for storming the ministry, called on Facebook for the curriculum to be abolished and then committed suicide. Students engaged in a two and a half-hour, highly-viewed, highly emotionally charged debate with the minister of education. Nor were the events limited to Taipei, as concerned students across the nation mobilized to seek dialogue with education officials and, when denied, to protest against them.

Dai Lin, Photo Credit: Apple Daily Due to the ministry’s and Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislative caucus’s refusal to entertain any changes or abandonment of the curriculum revisions, the new curriculum will stand. The major parties did agree that every school will be able to choose whether to use textbooks following the old or new curriculum; however, this is less a compromise than it appears, because schools have already ordered their textbooks and made preparations for the coming school year, not to mention the ministry has great political power over schools that discourages them from disobeying its wishes. Even so, the protests have reportedly already caused some schools to return to the old textbooks, and the movement is sure to revive once the school year begins in September and students launch campaigns on campus.

Tsai’s visit to the Ministry of Education, Photo: Apple DailyIn a twist U.S. history teachers can still only dream of, the history curriculum will even be a presidential election issue: Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has called for the new curriculum to be abolished; People’s First Party (PFP) candidate James Soong (宋楚瑜) has called for its implementation to be suspended a year and the issue left to the next president; and Chinese Nationalist Party candidate Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) has not only supported the revisions, but said they don’t go nearly far enough, and has even stated that the issue is a “matter for adults” so “children” (the students) shouldn’t take an active role.

The Revisions

When examining the curriculum revisions, one doesn’t need a history degree to see that the role of non-Chinese people in Taiwan’s history—including the Dutch, and the Japanese, and the island’s indigenous peoples—have been greatly diminished, while the roles of the Chinese and the Chinese Nationalist Party have been greatly expanded. (See the English translation of the curriculum revision, used by textbook publishers to create the new books. New material is highlighted in yellow, rearranged material in green, and deleted material in gray.) Some of the revisions are as follows. In one section, added text includes: “Explain the reasons for and the process of the Han’s arrival in Taiwan and Penghu, such as the Song and Yuan dynasties’ operations in Penghu and the arrival of Ming dynasty figures like Yan Siqi 顏思齊 and Cheng Chih-lung 鄭芝龍 on Taiwan. Explain the interaction between the Han and the indigenous ethnic groups.” That replaces this text, which has been removed entirely: “Explain the contact between the Han, Japanese, and Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. Narrate Taiwan’s interaction with the world system during the era of the Dutch, Spanish, and Cheng Chih-lung.” In another area, “Explain the preservation and innovation of Chinese culture in Taiwan” is added, while “[Explain] Taiwan’s exchanges with world culture” is deleted.

Overview of Fort Zeelandia in Tainan, Taiwan; from The Hague National Bureau of Archives, Netherlands, by Johannes Vingboons in 1665Dutch “rule of” Taiwan is turned into “entry into” Taiwan. In examples of cross-ethnic interaction of the Dutch colonial period, stories centered on Westerners and Japanese (the Hamada-Nuyts hostage incident and Mattau incident) are removed. Students will no longer be taught contents of the treaties the 17th-century Cheng state (renamed the “Ming Cheng”) signed with the Dutch and English, but will learn the process of its collapse and destruction by the Manchurian Empire. Concern about curricular whitewashing has focused on the alterations to content about the Martial Law era, but another example is the elimination of teaching that under Qing rule, Taiwan had secret societies and bandits. Taiwan-China interaction during the Japanese colonial era receives its own new section. The influence Taiwan’s 1920s native intellectuals drew from the May 4 Movement and the New Culture Movement will now be taught, but the more significant influence they received from the Taisho Democracy zeitgeist on Japan’s home islands will not be. Many of the numerous Japanese economic development projects will no longer be taught, and Japanese wrongdoing will be emphasized.

The zenith of Chinese Nationalist Party rule, the economic boom of the 1960s to 1980s, receives much-expanded coverage, as do the many economic development projects initiated by Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國).Chiang Ching-kuo; Photo: Academia Historica However, nothing is said about the US’s decades-long guarantee of Taiwan’s security (although “the influence of the outbreak of the Korean War” is an oblique reference), nor about the massive sums of U.S. government aid to Taiwan. This aid sustained the island’s citizens during a time of great poverty and helped establish the foundation for its economic boom at a time when the ROC government was spending most of its own budget on the military. Everyone who was alive then remembers it. But it doesn’t fit the overarching narrative. In fact, the only mention of Taiwan-US relations is the US’s official diplomatic derecognition of the ROC during the Carter administration, with no word about the Taiwan Relations Act that followed and mitigated this event and is still crucial to preserving the nation’s security. These crucial aspects of US-Taiwan relations were not included in the previous curriculum, either, but their absence is much more keenly felt now because numerous milestones in cross-strait relations have been added to the curriculum instead, such as the Three Noes, opening up of both sides to family visits, Guidelines for National Unification, and Wang-Koo summit.

The Revisionists’ Motives

From left to right: Lien Chan, Sean Lien, Xi Jinping; Photo: DWNEWS.COMThe root motive for these revisions was alluded to last year by former vice president and Chinese Nationalist Party chair Lien Chan (連戰), whose son Sean Lien (連勝文) was then the Chinese Nationalist Party’s Taipei mayoral candidate and whose grandfather Lien Heng (連橫) wrote a history of Taiwan that began “Taiwan's sorrow is that it has no history.” With his son trailing in the polls, and with just two weeks to go until election day, Lien Chan said the following:

“Ever since the Chinese Nationalist Party lost power in 2000, [then-president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) administration] started implementing a series of ‘de-Sinicization’ policies, forcing children at the age of 11 or 12 to receive non-Sinicized education. We were saddened to see Chinese ethics, traditional morality and history being twisted to such an extent. As for those children who grew up being fed erroneous ideas, they are now in their 20s or 30s and may have different occupations, such as in the media or Internet sectors.”

Lien followed up on those remarks by alleging that his son’s opponent, Ko Wen-je dismisses everything pertaining to “Chinese culture” (中華文化), including its values and history, because he received “imperialization” education as a result of being the descendent of a man who “served the Japanese government” (Ko’s grandfather was a schoolteacher during the Japanese colonial era).

In truth, hardcore supporters of annexation of Taiwan to China trace the “rot” in youth today back to the Lee Teng-hui (李登輝)Lee Teng-Hui administration, which inaugurated the teaching of Taiwanese history. Lien couldn’t say this because he was Lee’s vice president at the time, but the point was made this month in a performance of political theater conducted in front of DPP headquarters by prominent gang leader Chang An-lo (張安樂) and other hardcore unification supporters. They arrived dressed and armed as soldiers of the Japanese empire, and while speaking with fake Japanese accents, “thanked” the DPP and President Lee for raising Taiwan’s youth to be such loyal servants of the empire by teaching them such a pro-Japan (in reality, instituting a more Taiwan-centric) history curriculum.

The Chinese Nationalist Party’s most reliable voting demographic consists of citizens who were educated during the Chiang Kai-shek (蔣中正) and Chiang Ching-kuo presidencies. Their history classes were almost entirely about China, with only token facts about Taiwan. It is commonly said that students knew far more about the Yellow River in China than they did about Taiwan’s biggest river, the Zhuoshui River. Not only were they taught all about China, they were also indoctrinated with the Chinese Nationalist Party’s historic mission to save the people of China who were suffering under Communist misrule. Of course, they were also taught of the great morality of their wise presidents, the Chiangs, and they learned nothing about the Japanese colonial era except that it was a dark age. As a result, students were heartbroken when Chiang Kai-shek died, and even now they are inclined to see the Chinese Nationalist Party as the legitimate ruling class and unification with China as inevitable.

Wang Hsiao-po; Photo: Apple DailyWith the clock ticking on Ma’s presidency, Chinese nationalists considered it time to turn the clock back on the textbooks. Wang Hsiao-po (王曉波), convener of the curricular adjustment committee and an ardent unificationist (who recently affirmed “our country’s capital is Nanjing, but Taipei is the current capital of the Taiwan area” for example) recently told the Chinese press that the revisions were aimed at helping the Chinese Nationalist Party by bringing pan-blue supporters together. “A lack of ‘national goals’ is a critical problem facing the Chinese Nationalist Party,” he said. “The party requires more convincing rhetoric to persuade the public and that was exactly what we aimed to achieve through the curriculum changes.”

The Students’ Motives

Having access to alternate information sources and the old curriculum, the students had strong convictions that the textbook changes were biased.

Protest infront of Mnistry of Education, Photo: 楊明(Voice of America)What’s more, they strongly resisted the government pushing them to take on a Chinese identity. Instead, they are embracing a multiethnic, multicultural identity. In part this is a reaction to the Chiangs’ and now the PRC’s argument that unification is a sacred duty because of the blood ties of the “Han race,” but it is more importantly a reflection of Taiwan’s reality, as the nation takes in ever more non-Han immigrants; its economy becomes more integrated with Southeast Asia’s; and the need to diversify away from a slowing Chinese market becomes more apparent. In an interview with New Bloom, student activist Paul Peng said the following:

“We believe the changes will affect our sense of identity, the racial cohesiveness in our country, and our culture business, because Taiwan is a diverse society that has Aborigines, Spaniards, Portuguese, Japanese, and later on Americans and ‘new immigrants’ from Southeast Asian countries. These people built the spine of Taiwan's culture. We believe that Taiwan should not lose these cultures in order to advance our cultural development. If our government only focuses on pushing a Chinese centrist version of curriculum, it will be a setback for Taiwan and will have a negative influence on our country.”

The students also took issue with the process leading to the revisions. Neither the members of the committee nor the contents of their meetings have been made public. Even after the minister promised the students he would give them a list of the revision committee members, he reneged. Among those members whose names are known, none is a historian of Taiwan, but plenty are ideologues. There was not public participation in the revision, and the ministry has resisted input after the fact. Having already embraced transparency during the Sunflower Movement, Taiwanese youth rallied for it again during these protests.

This curriculum controversy strongly indicates that the present Chinese Nationalist Party-led government and presidential candidate feel far greater affinity for China than they do for Taiwan’s allies such as the United States, Japan, and European countries. (The vitriol directed at Lee Teng-hui recently for affirming Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands and pointing out Taiwanese fought for Japan during World War II further underscore this.) This pro-China tendency among these influential politicians should be kept in mind by the foreign service.

As I have written on Thinking Taiwan, the protests also showed that today’s Taiwanese students identify very strongly with democratic values and in the future this generation will push to implement more liberal education. There should be great interest in educational exchanges between Taiwan and Western countries.

TAIPEI, TAIWAN - MARCH 30: Protestors holds signs as over two hundred thousand people rally on March 30, 2014 in Taipei, Taiwan. Taiwanese student protesters opposing the contentious cross-strait service trade agreement with China called for a huge weekend rally filling Ketagalan Boulevard leading from the Presidential Office to the Legislature Yuan to increase pressure on President Ma Ying-jeou. (Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)I believe the protest also has implications for another issue further afield. The students expressed strong opposition against the “black box” procedures that produced the new textbooks, just as they did against the “black box” negotiations that produced the Cross-Strait Agreement on Trade in Services, so it is a worrying sign that an English-language Google search for “’Trans-Pacific Partnership’ AND ‘black box’” turns up 62,000 hits. Moreover, the nation’s young social activists are highly concerned about social justice and have demonstrated for laid-off laborers in the past, such as in Miaoli, as blue-collar Taiwanese workers arguably bore the brunt of the nation’s 1990s economic liberalization. Therefore, while Taiwanese youth strongly want their country to diversify its economy and support the idea of free trade agreements with non-Chinese countries, and DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen is firmly pro-TPP, I foresee some opposition to ratification if the TPP is considered too painful of a deal for lower- and middle-income Taiwanese. If Taiwan is allowed to participate in negotiations rather than offered the conditions on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, activists may also question the transparency of those talks, and much louder than their American counterparts have. Finally, these protests encourage Americans to take greater interest in the history curricula of their own school systems, which may be under just as much special-interest pressure as in Taiwan. I encourage readers to give their area schools’ history books a look and offer feedback. And Americans involved in or studying student activism would benefit from reaching out to these Taiwanese youths for exchange.  

Additional Reading

Ricky Yeh provides a concise timeline of the revision and protests through this week on Thinking Taiwan, and Brian Hioe (丘琦欣) wrote day-by-day updates of the ministry occupation at New Bloom. Here is my take on the minister’s meeting with the students. The changes had been on the social activism radar for years beforehand; Ketty Chen described the issues in depth in an excellent University of Nottingham China Policy Institute Blog piece, “Party-State Reemerges Through Education in Taiwan,” dated February 23, 2014.

Solidarity.tw is the owner and author of the eponymous Tumblr blog solidaritytw.tumblr.com, where he translates Taiwan's news media and provides sharp commentary about Taiwan's current affairs. He is a US citizen based in Taipei.

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