KMT Struggles to Avoid Losing Face Amid Taiwan Student Uproar

Michael Turton , August 5, 2015 9:07am

The big confrontation occurred Monday afternoon. TT reported:

Talks between Minister of Education Wu Se-hwa (吳思華) and students over the curriculum controversy fell apart yesterday, with students storming out of a Ministry of Education (MOE)-sponsored forum in tears.

“What in the world are these talks supposed to be?” Northern Taiwan Anti-Curriculum Changes Alliance convener Chu Chen (朱震) said. “What I see is a failure of education and a policy that has gradually moved away from the masses.

The KMT had been split on whether to hold special legislative session on curriculum guidelines, but then voted unanimously not to hold a special session. Chairman Chu, always positioning himself as a moderate, said he’d have to respect the will of the KMT. Note that Hung is on the side that doesn’t want a session, and affirms control of executive over education. One can only imagine what her educational changes are going to look like. Solidarity wrote of the “unanimous vote“:

Do the math. KMT legislators do not actually unanimously support this bold decision. The KMT caucus has 64 members (usually 65 but Chi Kuo-tung 紀國棟 was expelled for criticizing the party and his replacement hasn’t arrived yet). One of these 64 has openly called for abolishing the new curriculum. Another, the speaker, used political capital to try to get this session called. The party chairman himself wants such a session to be held, but with other bills included. The 15+ sitting legislators who absented themselves from this meeting (a quarter of the caucus) did so intentionally, having seen what was coming. I’d bet they are Wang, the representatives in swing districts, and the rest of Wang Jin-pyng’s 王金平 Taiwanese faction. Anyway, this goes to show that Ma and his acolyte Hung are running this party now.

Solidarity pointed out on Twitter that the KMT legislators leading the “no special session” push are from deep Blue districts. His excellent piece at Ketagalan, which summarized the protester-Minister Wu dialogue, observed:

From the beginning, this felt like the Taiwanese reincarnation of the dialogue between the Umbrella Movement students and the pro-Beijing government of Hong Kong. The fundamental problem with both discussions was that the government negotiators had no authority to compromise, and they couldn’t admit it. For Chinese nationalists like President Ma, this round of textbook revisions is a matter of long-term political life and death, as they believe the Taiwan-centered history taught since President Lee’s time is the root cause of the strong opposition the current generation of youth have against them. They feel they can’t afford to give in. In a way, the Sunflowers had it easier: They just had to block something that hadn’t happened yet, but these high schoolers need an actual reversal, and one that would lose the KMT face and quite possibly the votes of their strongest supporters.

That’s basically it. The function of the Ministers, as Solidarity observed, is to hand down Party decisions. Recall that the KMT regards the government as both an extension of itself, and subordinate to itself. Since the Party is always right, the rules are for governing others. Hence the Minister’s repeated bizarre claim that the process is not important since the outcome is acceptable (to the Party). For people raised on democratic ideas of rule of law and democratic process, like these students, such claims are incredible.

Indeed, the KMT news organ carried the KMT Chairman Eric Chu’s assertion that the Executive was a higher power than the Legislature:

In response, KMT Chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫) stated yesterday that the power to adjust textbook guidelines belonged to the executive branch rather than legislative branch, so any extraordinary Legislative session should not solely deal with the textbook revisions, adding that bread and butter bills should also be discussed. KMT Presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-Chu (洪秀柱) pointed out that she supported the KMT caucus’s decision. The Presidential Office and the Cabinet reiterated the support for Minister Wu’s decision, adding that the bottomline was that the legislative power should not be higher than executive power.

The KMT Chairman pronounces, then everyone follows suit. The Word actually came down from Ma, but it is interesting that the leader who pronounces is not the Executive, but a Party head, who has nothing to with the balance of powers in the government.

Brian Hoie of New Bloom, who was with the students in the Occupation, wrote a summary of Day Five:

During the press conference students did not press that one of their demands had been for Wu to resign but Wu, for his part, stressed that textbook revisions were legal even if perhaps flawed. Wu has become an object of popularly mockery on the Internet since the meeting, however, because of a piece of footage from the meeting in which rolled his eyes in response to being questioned by a teacher, then attempting to quickly mask this through quickly smiling. We might also note that Wu was unwilling to reveal the names of those who were in the textbook revision committee. Nevertheless, the meeting ultimately came to nothing.

Minister Wu’s eye-rolling quickly went viral; he said he was exercising his eyes because they were tired (h/t Solidarity). View the gif here.

The KMT attacks on the students basically involve claiming that they are DPP tools. When your ideology says you are the Party of Right, all opposition can only stem from a conspiracy of Satan, AKA the DPP. Frozen Garlic, the cynical political scientist at Academia Sinica, rebuts:

[This] charge can be dismissed relatively straightforwardly. After all, almost all accounts of Taiwan’s current student movement (except for those coming from the KMT) indicate that the students are acting on their own initiative. This has been true of all the recent protest movements, from the Wild Strawberries to the Dapu protests to the Sunflower movement. In all cases, the youth have been thoroughly disappointed by the tepid DPP opposition and have sought to take matters into their own hands. The DPP has generally voiced support more in an effort to avoid appearing totally out of touch with activists’ concerns than in an effort to guide them in any particular direction. The notion that the DPP is the guiding hand behind the students is simply at odds with almost all accounts of the factual events.

Dai Lin, whose suicide riveted the nation and inspired the young activists, is portrayed in KMT propaganda as troubled and depressed, and his suicide is explained as having nothing to do with the protests. If you can stomach it, see this CNN iReport on the Student Protests, with KMT-slanted reporting. It’s vile.

These protesting students have grown up entirely within the curriculum changes since the post Lee Teng-hui era. Liu and Hung (2002) describe the changes of that era:

In the 1993 Social Studies syllabus, the historical content was outlined in a concentric pattern: Taiwan-China-world. The scope of ‘the native place’ (xiangtu) was confined to county, town, and city. Taiwan itself was no longer defined as a mere ‘local community’. The affiliated islands, Kinmen and Matsu, were also included in the textbooks. The coverage of Taiwanese history was expanded to a whole book. Chinese identity and Taiwanese identity coexisted in the curriculum, and the distinction between the two was made clearer than it had previously been. For example, the title ‘the Chinese living environment’ was replaced by ‘the living environment in Mainland China’, thus distinguishing political China from geographical China—or ‘mainland China’ from Taiwan.

In addition, as already mentioned, the rise of Taiwanese identity has led to the establishment of two new subjects. One is ‘Native Place Teaching Activities’ for Grade 3, and the other is ‘Understanding Taiwan’ (Renshi Taiwan) for junior high level, both subjects focusing on the history, geography, and society of Taiwan. The goals of ‘Understanding Taiwan—Society’ are defined as ‘reinforcing the understanding of the social environment of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu’, ‘cultivating the sentiment of love for the community and the nation,’ and ‘developing a consciousness of the ‘living community’ (sheng ming gong tong ti).’3 The goals of ‘Understanding Taiwan—History’ include ‘understanding the history of the ancestors of each of the ethnic groups in Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu’, although the teaching materials studiously avoid references to past conflicts between Han settlers and aboriginal tribes, instead painting a highly misleading picture of harmonious and peaceful co-existence. In the appendix to the syllabus, the significance of this new subject is emphasized: this is the first time that Taiwanese history has ever been taught as a formal subject at junior high school level.

Note that the rise of the Taiwanese identity was already in place prior to the new curriculum. As an acquaintance observed, when he returned to Taiwan in 1991 there were already bookstores dedicated to Taiwanese history and culture. When I was studying Chinese that same year in Taipei, I purchased the old Shifan University texts, which still used phrases like “communist bandits” and “retake the mainland”. But I bought them off the junk pile for 10 NT each; new texts more locally centered were already taking their place.

Chris Hughes tabulated some of the changes that took place as the Chen Administration assumed power in 2000 (link):

The appointment of Professor Tu Cheng-sheng (Du Zhengsheng), an LSE alumnus as head of the National Palace Museum in May 2000, has been even more controversial. Tu had in fact been singled out as one of the chief architects of ‘de-sinification’ well before the Chen administration came to power because he had been influential in steering a re-orientation of the school curriculum and teaching materials to learning more about Taiwan and less about China in the late 1990s.6 Having stewardship over the museum that was once used by the KMT as a kind of cultural umbilical chord linking Taiwan to China’s grand tradition, Tu incurred the wrath of many critics when he proceeded to label the Chinese artefacts as ‘Chinese’ and established a gallery devoted to Taiwanese culture.

The reorientation of education that Tu had begun under Lee Teng-hui also continued under the Chen administration. Already in March 2001 the Ministry of Education had produced a policy on ‘Nativisation of Education’ (bentu hua jiaoyu), according to which junior and middle school pupils have to select to learn a ‘native language’ (xiangtu yuyan) from Hokkien, Hakka and an aboriginal language. The controversial Know Taiwan (renshi Taiwan) textbooks became teaching material for history, geography and social studies from the academic year beginning in August. A Native Education committee (bentu jiaoyu weiyuan hui) began to revise the Know Taiwan curriculum in 2002 and the following year published a draft outline for a new high school history curriculum in which Chinese history since the mid-Ming Dynasty became part of ‘World History’. An increasing emphasis on native culture can also be seen in the way that the Ministry of Education has actively promoted and funded the establishment of departments of Taiwan Literature in national universities since 2000. When Tu Cheng-sheng was appointed Minister of Education at the start of Chen’s second term in May 2004, accusations of ‘de-sinification’ reached a new height of intensity.

The “Getting to know Taiwan” of the Lee era was removed from the curriculum under the Chen Administration, which instead spread Taiwan across the entire curriculum (link). Hughes also notes that the Chen Shui-bian Administration put a halt to the military indoctrination of young males in KMT ideology, an important source of KMT control. Taiwanese history was added to the civil service exam, and the government made great efforts to push Taiwan Studies at home and abroad. Chen’s changes drew protests from Beijing.

Another change in the educational system is that there are now new outlets and new ways for people to enter college, getting around the old testing system. The function of the old testing system was powerfully authoritarian. By creating intense competition for coveted places, it prevented the students from building bridges to each other (and if they did, the Party maintained political officers in the schools to monitor the students’ political beliefs). The massive homework loads reduce time for young people to learn and act on politics, while the parents reinforced the System’s control by forcing the kids to do the home and shoving them in cram schools seven days a week. All of this is slowly changing…

The Chen Administration made subtle but powerful changes in Taiwanese life that have shaped the way these students rooted their identity in Taiwan. It vastly expanded cultural programs and also focused on the environment in its sloganeering, fostering a sense of shared place and culture. It also engaged in “Branding Taiwan” (link):

Believing that culture is economically beneficial, the CCA joined forces with the Industrial Development Bureau (Ministry of Economic Affairs) to encourage the development of creative industries, funding modern designs to present Taiwanese culture. In a speech about future CCA policy, then chairwoman Tchen Yu-chiou openly asserted that “using branding techniques to build and introduce an image of contemporary Taiwan to the world, cultural and creative industries will be the most important force.

Don’t laugh; people identify with brands, sometimes very strongly. The branding created an awareness of Taiwan as distinct that made a foothold in minds abroad, which was also reflected back to Taiwan as validation by outsiders, a virtuous cycle of Taiwan identity building.

DPP policy thus was a multifront attack on the monolithic, faux, totalizing, authoritarian version of Chinese culture offered by the KMT and CCP. It was highly successful.

The new leisure culture, made possible by shrinking the work/school week from 6 days to 5, has also helped grow Taiwaneseness. “Being Taiwanese” for the 45 and under generation now includes the physical actions of climbing Jade Mountain, swimming Sun Moon Lake, and biking around the island. This involves inscribing oneself physically on the terrain while immersed in it: grounding local identity in a relationship to the land. Many of these kids will go on to do all these things.

They are the most active, socially aware, and involved generation in Taiwan, ever. I bless them every day.

Michael Turton

A long time expat in Taiwan.