by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: vintagejhan/WikiCommons/CC
AFTER MUCH back and forth, the decision by the Ministry of Education to block Kuan Chung-ming from being named president of National Taiwan University (NTU) has at least settled the matter that Kuan will not be the next president of NTU. But one does not expect controversy regarding Kuan’s blocked appointment to end anytime soon.
Namely, the matter has long since become one that the KMT and members of the pan-Blue camp have latched onto as a way to claim that the DPP is politically persecuting political dissidence and that university autonomy is under siege. The DPP has probably not helped matters for itself by allowing the matter to drag on for so long without offering clear resolution and the scandal has already claimed the career of Minister of Education Pan Wen-chung, who resigned due to the lack of resolution regarding the scandal.
Kuan, a politically conservative pan-Blue academic and professor in the department of finance at NTU, previously served under the Ma administration from 2013 to 2015 as the last minister of the Council for Economic Planning and Development and the first minister of its replacement, the National Development Council. In his position as such, Kuan was a strong advocate of the CSSTA trade agreement that sparked the 2014 Sunflower Movement student occupation of the Legislative Yuan. Kuan resigned his position as a way of taking responsibility after the KMT’s defeats in nine-in-one elections. Kuan was originally slated to take office on February 1st, but as controversy has dragged on for over three months, he did not do so.
It was a series of three controversy which led Kuan’s appointment being blocked by the Ministry of Education after he had been chosen as university president by an NTU search committee. First, Kuan was accused of plagiarism regarding a paper on the ECFA trade agreement that was the CSSTA’s predecessor, with claims that Kuan had plagiarised the work of a student in a conference in a paper co-authored with National Chi Nan University professor Chen Chien-liang, the paper reportedly having the same argument and methodology as Kuan’s student’s paper.
Kuan’s paper was titled “An Empirical Study of the Effect of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement on Exports” and his student Chang Wei-Ling’s paper was a MA thesis entitled “The Impact of ECFA Early Harvest on Taiwan’s Export to China: Analysis by Difference-In-Differences Model.” This would be a particularly embarrassing accusation for NTU, seeing as NTU’s last president, Yang Pan-chyr, resigned following similar accusations that Yang had falsified data on 17 research papers in internationally recognized journals, something that led Yang to resign despite the fact that NTU claimed that he had been cleared of wrongdoing by a committee investigation.
But this plagiarism controversy would soon be overshadowed by two other controversies regarding potential conflicts of interest and possibly illegal activity by Kuan as a former government minister. Namely, Kuan had served on the board of Taiwan Mobile at the same time Richard Tsai, a member of the NTU presidential selection committee, was on the board of Taiwan Mobile. This led to accusations that Kuan and Tsai had undisclosed conflicts of interest regarding Kuan’s appointment.
However, it would become a further issue when discovered that Kuan was listed as teaching at Chinese universities including Xiamen University, Xian Jiaotong University, and Huazhong University of Science and Technology less than a year after stepping down as government minister. Government ministers who handle classified information are not allowed to leave the country without permission three years after the end of their terms and Kuan is accused of possibly teaching in China since 2005.
Again, as Kuan was a high-ranking member of the Ma administration, whose pro-unification moves provoked the Sunflower Movement, claims that Kuan had taught in Chinese universities shortly after leaving office are particularly sensitive matter. Kuan and his defenders claim that Chinese universities simply listed Kuan’s name in their academic departments in order to make their department staffing seem more impressive than it actually is—it is far from unheard of as a practice for Chinese or Taiwanese universities to list as department members individuals who may have only given a visiting lecture in order to bolster their prestige in that way. Kuan claims that this was the case regarding claims that he was teaching in China.
Perhaps hoping to avoid controversy, the Ministry of Education under newly named Minister of Education Wu Maw-kuen, then, seems to have primarily justified Kuan’s removal on the basis of his conflict of interest as part of Taiwan Mobile’s board, although it had previously formed a committee to investigate whether Kuan had worked in China. Minister of Education Wu Maw-Kuen has claimed in public that the selection process for NTU university president was closer to being a “selection” rather than an “election,” as it should have been, but that there would not be any interference in university autonomy from the Ministry of Education.
Either way, the matter could have probably been cleared up much more quickly if the Tsai administration had made public records of whether Kuan had left Taiwan for China from the National Immigration Agency but despite continued controversies facing Kuan, the Tsai administration allowed the question of whether it would genuinely remove Kuan to drag on for some months. This indecision eventually led Minister of Education Pan Wen-chung to resign at a point before Kuan’s removal was declared, even though the controversy was regarding whether Kuan should be removed or not, but the decision was reportedly made by an inter-ministerial committee.
Very probably, the Tsai administration is in itself highly sensitive to the charge of politically persecuting the KMT, which led to indecision. But in general, the Tsai administration demonstrates the continual pattern of allowing issues to drag on for long periods of time when they could be quickly resolved and angering both sides of the issue through this. One observes this, for example, regarding it’s continued flip-flopping regarding planned changes to the Labor Standards Act, angering both organized labor and business groups, as well as its reversal on its past support of gay marriage in a manner angering of both LGBTQ groups and homophobic anti-gay groups through its now unclear stance.
It is not surprising that defenders of Kuan have included members of the KMT and many of his political allies dating from his time in the Ma administration, including former Minister of Culture Lung Ying-tai, KMT caucus secretary-general Lee Yen-hsiu, and KMT legislators Apollo Chen and Ko Chih-en. It is alleged by such individuals that the Tsai administration is violating principles of university autonomy dating back to the authoritarian period, when educational institutions asserted university autonomy as a means to defend academic freedom during the period of KMT one party rule, although such claims may be ironic when coming from contemporary KMT politicians.
For its part, NTU has expressed disappointment in the decision by the Ministry of Education. Several other candidates for university president have stated that they do not wish to be considered again, due to fears of becoming embroiled in political controversy.
In the meantime, KMT defenders of Kuan have notably taken to targeting newly appointed Minister of Education Wu Maw-kuen in retribution for the fact that Wu is perceived as blocking Kuan. Wu, formerly the president of National Dong Hwa University (NDHU), minister of the National Science Council under the DPP Chen administration, and a past Nobel Peace Prize nominee for Physics in 1987, took office earlier this month. Contrastingly to Kuan, Wu was perceived as a supporter of the 2014 Sunflower Movement, expressing support for students alongside other university presidents and attempting to intercede on behalf of student occupiers in meeting with President Ma Ying-Jeou.
Wu has also made public comments perceived supporting Taiwanese independence in the past, such as claiming that Taiwan and China have a “country to country” relationship in response to comments by Ma that Taiwan and China have a relationship which was not “international” in nature in line with the pan-Blue view that Taiwan and mainland China are part of the same nation.
Notably, KMT accusations against Wu are more or less the same accusations made against Kuan. Wu is accused of working in China as a consultant at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a state-funded institution, for research on high-temperature superconductors, as alleged by KMT Taipei City councilor candidate Yu Shu-huei, posting a group picture supporting his claim on social media and claiming that information on the Internet showed that Wu was part of a consultation group. KMT Culture and Communications Committee deputy director-general Hung Meng-kai has accused Wu of serving as an advisor on the similarly state-funded China Center of Advanced Science and Technology World Laboratory while president of NDHU, claiming that information on this post online has mysteriously disappeared in the last month. Wu is also accused of working for Western Superconductivity Technologies Company, which is thought to be China-funded.
Wu is further accused of failing to give up his American citizenship while head of the National Science Council, a requirement for ministers holding dual citizenship. Wu is also accused of founding a US company using patented technology belonging to NDHU, Spiranthes Biotech LLC, which Wu was a co-founder of in 2015, and otherwise accused of improperly obtaining over 176 million NTD from NDHU. KMT accusations against Wu have specifically cited that the accusations against Wu are in parallel to those facing Kuan, as well as called on him to clarify his stance regarding Taiwanese independence and whether it would affect his work.
Wu, for his part, has defended himself by claiming that he was merely invited to China for several lectures but that Chinese institutions and companies took to listing him on their websites as a consultant or advisor on that basis, as a means to attract more investors. Wu also claims that the patented technology rights for Spiranthes Biotech LLC were not transferred to him, but that he was one of the four researchers that invented the technology under question, and that he invested in the company as a way of supporting a student of his, who was another one of the co-inventors. Wu has further stated that he gave up his US citizenship in 2002.
Whether there is truth to these accusations or not is unknown—after all, corruption at high-ranking levels of government and academic is far from unheard of in Taiwan, and corruption is a deep-rooted problem in both the pan-Blue and pan-Green camps alike. Yet it
is self-evident how the KMT would benefit from attacking Wu and smearing him to make it look as if he is no different from Kuan and Kuan’s removal and Wu’s appointment is an example of DPP hypocrisy. One also notes that KMT members who have attacked Wu the most fervently have been those who were most defensive of Kuan.
Perhaps controversy regarding NTU presidential and Ministry of Education appointments ultimately returns to a political dust-up between the KMT and DPP then. It remains to be seen which way the public will lean, in terms of whether it sides with the KMT’s view of Kuan’s removal and Wu’s appointment or the DPP’s. But either way, there probably will be damage to Taiwan’s academic prestige as a result of such controversies.