by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Ma Ying-jeou/Facebook

THE PAST MONTH saw a nine-day visit by a delegation of 31 students from five Chinese universities, along with six teachers, at the invitation of the Ma Ying-jeou Foundation. The students arrived on the 15th and left on the 23rd.

Former president Ma Ying-jeou and his foundation have emphasized that the intent of arranging for the visit was to encourage cross-strait peace. Taiwan saw an explosion in the number of Chinese students studying in Taiwan under the Ma administration, going from around 800 students in 2008 to 42,000 in 2016, when Ma stepped down. Nevertheless, in 2020, the Chinese government announced a ban on students seeking to study in Taiwan for college. As a result, close to four years later, the last Chinese college students will soon graduate.

Either way, this is not the first time that Ma has sought to use students as political props in recent memory. During his trip to China earlier this year in March, as the first former head of state to visit China in over seventy years, Ma brought a group of Taiwanese students along with him.

Ma Ying-jeou (center) and the student delegation. Photo credit: Ma Ying-jeou/Facebook

Ma framed this, too, as for the sake of peace. In particular, in comments, Ma drew an analogy between the situation facing Taiwan and China and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, suggesting that France and Germany were at peace one hundred years later to suggest that Taiwan and China could be similar around 70 years after the Chinese Civil War. Of course, Ma’s metaphor conveniently ignores that 70 years after the Franco-Prussian War was around the time of World War II, as well as that Prussian is not the same entity as contemporary Germany–the Franco-Prussian War took place before the unification of Germany.

The stops on the visit included major Taiwanese universities such as National Taiwan University, National Cheng Chi University, humanistic Buddhist organization Tzu Chi’s headquarters in Hualien, Giant Bicycle, as well as tourist sites such as Taipei 101, Dadaocheng, Pingxi, Taroko Gorge, Jiufen, and the National Palace Museum.

Yet it is evident that much of the sites were chosen for political signaling, seeing as the first stop that the Chinese students visited was semiconductor manufacturing giant TSMC. It is thought that western powers are incentivized to defend Taiwan because of their reliance on Taiwanese semiconductor manufacturing, with Taiwan producing more than 65% of global supply and 90% of advanced semiconductors. Chinese students interviewed afterward the TSMC visit stated that they were more looking forward to eating Taiwanese food as part of their trip.

Members of the pan-Blue camp, including Ma Ying-jeou Foundation director Hsu Xiaochen, have alleged that the Tsai administration was reluctant to approve the trip and that it sought to politically attack the students, but that it eventually did so because of the upcoming election and the need to downplay the deterioration in cross-strait relations during its presidency.

The students came from five universities including Peking University, Tsinghua University, Hunan University, and other top institutions. Hunan University was likely chosen because of Ma’s heritage from Hunan. Hao Ping, the party secretary and former vice president of Peking University, was among those present as part of the delegation. Originally, plans were to invite 50 Chinese students to participate in the trip.

There have been a number of criticisms of the trip. For example, the Ma Ying-jeou Foundation has been criticized for only granting interviews to pro-China media outlets, as well as changing the itinerary for the student delegation on short notice so as to avoid the media.

Likewise, there has been some discussion of how Chinese students responded in a “robot-like” manner to exchanges, answering in officialese when asked questions pertaining to political events. Some Taiwanese students that participated in the exchanges were critical online of how they were carried.

Though there was controversy about the visit as a result, overall, there was less discussion of the student visit compared to Ma’s own visit to China. For his part, Ma stated that the visit was the best birthday gift possible for his 73rd birthday.

Photo credit: Ma Ying-jeou/Facebook

Ma has continued with efforts to frame the Tsai administration as responsible for the downturn in cross-strait relations then. Nevertheless, considering that Ma’s own presidential administration was opposed by a student movement–in which there were Chinese student participants–one notes that Chinese students were probably monitored by minders during the visit and vetted beforehand.

To this extent, it is not as though Chinese students would be allowed to freely visit sites in Taiwan, or learn about Taiwan’s political history beyond what was permitted by their minders. Indeed, the experience of studying in Taiwan had the effect of causing some Chinese students to become participants in Taiwanese social movements, and the CCP has been aware of this phenomenon for some time, as a result of which it has conducted monitoring of Chinese students. Certainly, the effect is very different than cross-strait exchanges aimed at establishing ties between Taiwanese and Chinese students that occur behind closed doors and on a confidential basis, so as to allow for genuine, uncensored exchanges to occur.

A number of ironies abound, then. Regardless, the Ma Ying-jeou Foundation has stated that it intends to push for the formation of a “cross-strait university principal forum” going forward, for university principals on both sides of the Taiwan Straits. If so, this would be an attempt to influence how schools frame cross-strait issues at the administrative level.

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