Cross-strait Student Exchanges
Who Gets What from the 'China Experience'?
A rising number of Taiwanese university students are visiting China for summer internship and exchange programs, sounding out career prospects, and discovering themselves in the process. But what's in it for China?
Who Gets What from the 'China Experience'?By Hsin-Ho Lu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 483 )
Is soybean pudding, a popular Chinese dessert, supposed to be eaten with a dash of white sugar or topped with hot chilly sauce? This seemingly simple question triggers a heated discussion between Taiwanese and Chinese university students as they sit around a restaurant table in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province.
The clash over culinary preferences is taking place on the sidelines of a cross-strait field camp organized by Sichuan University's Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan Affairs Office during the summer break in August. Twenty-three students from universities in Taiwan – National Taiwan University, National Chiao Tung University, National Cheng Kung University and National Taiwan Normal University – and 22 students from Sichuan University participated in the eight-day exchange program.
Similar cross-strait student exchanges are organized by universities across China.
The Taiwan affairs offices of virtually all of China's major universities now regularly invite Taiwanese students to join in summer camps. The students only need to pay for their flight tickets; the remaining costs for accommodation, food, and local travel are covered by the host university. Many Taiwanese students attend a camp in China every summer break –sometimes even more than one – since it is a cheap way to travel that offers plenty of interesting activities and opportunities.
At Sichuan University alone, more than 250 Taiwanese students have participated in exchanges over the past 12 years.
Chang Feng-ming, a student at the Graduate Institute of Electrical Engineering at National Taiwan University, had a good time at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou during the summer last year. So he decided to go to Sichuan this time. "It's all about having fun and getting to know a lot of different people," he enthuses.
"It's cheap, so I think of it as a leisure trip," another student chips in.
Exploring China through the Yushan Program
While the summer camp participants in Sichuan enjoy the province's fiery cuisine and strong liquors, chat about the latest episode of the popular Taiwanese comedy talk show "Here Comes Kangxi" or lament about the difficulties of getting into graduate school, another batch of students squeezes themselves into an overcrowded Beijing subway to get to their internship workplaces.
The 30 interns from Taiwanese universities were recruited under the Yushan Program, which is run by the China Association for Science and Technology (CAST). China runs similar schemes for students from Hong Kong and Macao, known as the Redbud Program and the Green Lotus Program.
Over the past six years, CAST has sent 1,500 students from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao to work in Chinese companies in China to help them "thoroughly understand the technological, economic, cultural and social life of the motherland."
Internships are offered at more than 30 institutions and enterprises from the financial, broadcasting, legal and construction sectors, including China Central Television (CCTV), the Bank of China, the investment bank Hollyhigh, China State Construction, and the telecom firm D. Phone.
As Su Kuan-hao, a graduate of National Taiwan University's Department of Business Administration, sees it, the Yushan Program is a good opportunity to "check things out" for Taiwanese students who are considering working in China in the future.
"From the very beginning I had made up my mind that I need to understand the local living conditions," reveals Su. After doing an internship in his sophomore year at the Chinese factory of E-Lead Electronic, a Taiwan-based maker of communication electronics, Su began to toy with the idea of starting his career in China. "After all, the lion's share of Taiwanese-owned factories are based in China."
Each Side with Its Own Agenda
So what's behind China's largesse?
"This isn't a secret conspiracy, it's an open one," says Chang Teng-chi, assistant professor at the Department of Political Science of National Taiwan University. The program only selects the best students from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao for these internships. Twenty years down the road, they will be opinion-leaders and elite members of their respective societies, influencing decisions in the world of business, economics and politics.
While the format is different for the exchanges under CAST's Yushan Program and the university summer camps, they both have very similar objectives: attracting and influencing the coming generation of social elites with a "China experience."
Both schemes were not initiated by the universities and enterprises themselves, but are the brainchild of top party officials.
While CAST, for instance, calls itself a non-governmental organization, it answers directly to the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The Chinese students who are allowed to join the cross-strait summer camps are all handpicked and are often "outstanding youth" with CCP membership.
Engineering student Chang remembers that his Chinese peers often declared, "We are all one family." He recalls how the Taiwanese students usually couldn't help but smile with embarrassment or just met these emotional appeals with silence. They did not think they were "being influenced."
"Actually, the Chinese students only need to chat with us for one day to know that we are truly different from them," remarks Chang.
But the Taiwanese students do, of course, also have their own calculations. Aside from getting to know friends with a different background and paving the road for a career in China, quite a number of students also regard their China stint as an opportunity for self-discovery.
Every year during the winter and summer breaks, hundreds of students from Taiwan's best universities opt for a "China experience" in cross-strait exchange camps and internship programs. On both sides the participants have their reasons for joining, and both have something to gain.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz