Taiwanese Educators in China:
‘Why Are We Cultivating Talent for China, Not Taiwan?’
“In China, rather than seeking truth, academia serves the party and the state,” says one Taiwanese academician with experience across the strait. Realizing that he was not a good fit, he returned to Taiwan after just one semester of teaching, yet since returning to Taiwan, he has still been unable to find a suitable position.
‘Why Are We Cultivating Talent for China, Not Taiwan?’By Amber Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 645 )
In early 2015, after teaching in China for one semester, Yin Chien-chi (not his real name) came to the realization that his notions of achieving the simple dream of being a scholar in China were a little too naive.
Yin, 39, completed his doctorate degree at a prominent national university in Taiwan in 2011. All he ever wanted was to be a scholar. An expert in cross-strait political-economic research that frequently saw him doing field work in China for months at a time, making many friends and acquaintances along the way, he figured that if he was unable to find a teaching position in Taiwan, he would pursue a career across the strait in China.
In 2014, he passed up a contract offer of a position at a private university in southern China for a pre-tax annual salary of 260,000 Renminbi, opting instead for a top provincial-level Project 985 university. Expecting an annual salary of 150,000 to 160,000 RMB, he was forced to settle for a mere 6,000 RMB per month after taxes, or 72,000 RMB a year.
However, the low salary was not Yin’s main reason for packing up and returning home. Never harboring more ambition than to settle into a stable career, he never anticipated that China would be far more complicated than he had ever imagined.
Yin was subjected to police checks of his residence permit and Taiwan compatriot identification on several occasions. And while on the phone with friends in Taiwan’s political sphere, he had the feeling that his conversations were being tapped.
As the only Taiwanese faculty member in cross-strait studies at his school, his name always came up whenever the institution’s Taiwan research center held interscholastic exchanges or entertained officials from the Taiwan Affairs Office, as people were eager to learn from him about the latest developments in Taiwan and probe him for insider information on certain friends in political circles. In fact, PRC state security agents even approached him to ask him to gather intelligence on Taiwan.
Under such an atmosphere, the simple life of an academic seemed like worlds away to Professor Yin. For Taiwanese faculty in the social sciences, particularly with regard to anything touching upon politics, academia in China is fraught with far too many landmines to be avoided, even completely separate from personal political beliefs. Fear of involving others only added to the weight on Yin’s shoulders.
The incident that made the biggest impression on Yin took place early in his stay at the university, when a senior Chinese professor came to his young counterpart from Taiwan with a stack of documents, and excitedly shared the rules of engagement of academia in China with him. He related that frequent required reports to the party, as well as reviews by the responsible party secretary, are the real “academic points” being counted there. And those who accumulate enough of these points are given a practically inexhaustible amount of research resources.
In China, politics penetrate every level, so that scholars molded by the system believe that working for the interests of the party is a matter of course, and something to be proud of. For many young Taiwanese educators born in the 1970s, whose sensitivity to power relationships was honed in Taiwan’s post-martial law era, this poses a massive shock to their value systems.
Compared with students who provoke teachers with statements that “Taiwan isn’t a country,” or being surveilled and scrutinized, Yin’s deepest realization was that, rather than seeking truth, academia in China serves the party and the state.
Tow the Line if You Want to Study or Work
Li Ya-ming (pseudonym), who taught at a prominent elite university’s institute of political science, is another example of a scholar who is unable to acclimate to this pervasive culture.
Beginning in the first half of last year (2017), the party secretary of Li’s institution changed what was once a monthly faculty meeting for making administrative announcements into a full-blown “party class” for the study of Marxism-Leninism, once open only to Communist Party members. Li, who earned his Ph.D in China, observes that campuses were not as political in the past. But now, even as someone that leans toward a pro-unification stance on cross-strait relations, he is hard pressed to acclimate. “What position does not matter. What matters is whether you give me the freedom to decide,” he says.
Among the Taiwanese faculty in China we interviewed, CommonWealth found that Taiwanese faculty members in the information technology, business, and cultural fields fared better in their careers due to the less political nature of their academic specialties, as well as relatively stronger market needs. On the other hand, scholars in the social sciences face the most obstacles, especially academics in fields such as political science or those touching on more sensitive ideological matters, e.g. cross-strait issues. In such cases, they are either forced to change fields, or must learn how to accommodate the party’s academic logic.
Politics enter into the cross-strait game, and in China one must “do as the Romans do.” But regardless of their stance on unification versus independence, most Taiwanese faculty members who came of age in the context of Taiwanese localization have a distinct Taiwanese consciousness. Academic training in the social sciences has heightened the sensitivity of young Ph.D.’s in related fields towards power and politics.
Wu Hsiao-yun (not her real name) recalls that, shortly after coming to China to pursue a doctorate degree, she had to copy the school handbook by hand. When she came to a section that included the phrase “I will follow the leadership of the Party,” as someone who identified with the Republic of China and the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party), she chose to skip that section and sacrifice her score. But finding herself continuing to have difficulty finding work two years after returning to Taiwan, she feels forced to return to China to seek opportunities there.
“Now I would probably just go ahead and fill it in. It’s a practical issue after having endured difficulty. The more tough times you’ve been through, the more you learn to compromise. If you want to study or work, you have to play by their rules,” she laments, shedding a tear of frustration.
For Yin Chien-chi, accommodating such usages as writing “the Taiwan region” (versus just “Taiwan”) as practiced across the strait was not the most difficult part; rather, it was the academic logic. In Taiwan, research proposals or theses normally seek to identify theoretical gaps, whereas in China, the proposal must be oriented to start from a position of affirmation and praise for the party, and it is the objective of both theory and research to prove the party’s correctness.
Academic undertakings designed to serve the party and state similarly turned Li Ya-ming off. “As a scholar, my academic position is based on analysis using theory and evidence, not by starting out from a particular conclusion. But in China, there is only one position. And although I try my best to sidestep it, it can be unavoidable,” he relates.
Li found that, as a Taiwanese scholar, his greatest value was “to lend my endorsement to their answers, which is their hallmark.” This lack of freedom of thought and speech creates invisible stress, which people tolerate to varying degrees. This tends to be more difficult for those in the social sciences to manage than for their counterparts in the sciences and humanities.
The Academic Logic of the Party and Connections
Academia in Taiwan has its own “connection nexus” to contend with, yet what Yin Chien-chi could not deal with was its intensity and magnitude across China’s top academic institutions.
Yin observed that Chinese scholars, after years of being underpaid, had become accustomed to fighting for grant money. For instance, many faculty members worked hard at wining and dining well-placed people in provincial government planning offices to help increase their chances of securing outside resources. He found that the school frequently advised him to take on some projects unrelated to his field of scholarship, indicating that they wanted him to do more Taiwan-related research. However, his past expertise had always been in regional development in China, an area that posed a competitive relationship with local Chinese colleagues. He relates that one business management faculty member from Taiwan ended up applying to work on research programs farther afield from his area of expertise, concentrating on Taiwanese women’s issues.
“Here, academic professionals are like factory workers, always working to make products. Even if something is not your particular area of expertise, as long as you follow standard operating procedure (SOP), you can produce an article according to the template, and from there secure the next proposal,” he says.
Reflecting on his passion for research and the clash with “seeking alignment with reality, not facts,” Yin became certain that China was not the right platform for him. Accordingly, after he finished teaching the next semester, he came straight back to Taiwan without first securing a job here.
“Why should I help China, and not Taiwan, develop talent?” Yin asked himself on more than one occasion. Prevented by various insurmountable restrictions from realizing his aspirations of helping more Chinese students to objectively get to know Taiwan, he lost the drive that motivated him to teach in China. Throughout, he was beset by a nagging feeling. “In the end, it seems like all the research I did, all those proposals I made, were meant to let China better understand how to deal with Taiwan.”
Inter-generational Division in Taiwanese Academia
However, Taiwan also failed to offer a good environment for Yin. Setting aside his commitment to being a scholar for the time being, six months after returning to Taiwan, he joined a think tank as an associate researcher. However, he found himself in a completely unrelated field, as the experience he had accumulated over the years was not useful in Taiwan.
Young scholars like Yin who desire to contribute to Taiwan ultimately face an overabundance of competitors, which drives them away.
“The vicious cycle in higher education in Taiwan is that we’re considering the number of teachers based on a low birth rate and an aging population. But shouldn’t we really be considering what we need to do to make Taiwan more competitive?”
For instance, some schools merge together, each having multiple administrative and human resource departments, leading Yin to think, ‘Why not hire more assistant professors to create more opportunities for young doctorate holders?
Many disheartened Taiwanese professors say that, sure, people rely on connections to get research grants in China. Yet in Taiwan, prominent scholars still get many research projects, which they then farm out to others. This turns young Ph.D.’s into underground academic worker bees, the irony being that these itinerant out-of-work Ph.D.’s need these resources to build themselves up.
Unable to find teaching positions, let alone research grants, they are forced out. “Taiwan should look into the mirror and assess its own academic ecosystem, which is left vulnerable for China to exploit,” says one young Taiwanese scholar whose disappointment has turned to bitterness.
China’s Policies an Opportunity for Reform
One university president, who spoke under the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic, describes a yawning gap between the haves and have nots in Taiwanese higher education. Taiwan naturally needs seasoned, reputable scholars, and it is the scarcity of resources that has caused the current conundrum. He believes that the most pressing issue at present is to readjust the number of institutions of higher learning in Taiwan, and that the government must boldly address the issues of private school closures and mergers.
“Many people worry that the closure of private schools will reduce the number of available teaching positions, which will in turn exacerbate the itinerant Ph.D. problem. However, what is really needed is to redistribute the types and number of schools to raise the economic scope. A reassessment of resources would be used to increase expenditures on human resources so as to maintain a better student-to-teacher ratio,” he adds. (Additional reading: Is Higher Education Collapsing? Latest Indicators Expose Universities in Danger).
The university president cites figures from American universities, like Princeton’s 1:10 teacher to student ratio and the University of California system’s ratio of 1:20. In Taiwan, the teacher-student ratio at private universities is 1:25-30, and 1:20-25 at public universities. For two to three million people to have a university capable of competing at a world-class level, he believes that Taiwan really only needs five to eight top universities.
He believes that the budgetary allocation of the Ministry of Education’s Deep Cultivation Program is intended to help schools develop their own niches, while concentrating the burden of developing world-class institutions on Taiwan’s Big Four universities of National Taiwan University, National Tsing Hua University, National Chiao Tung University, and National Cheng Kung University. He believes that, although this is the right direction, the utilization of resources and financial considerations should be nimbler and more imaginative.
“Human resources are fluid in nature, and China’s policy toward Taiwan is one component of a broader international human resources rivalry. Distinctiveness is relative to other countries, and China thinks of itself as a “new land” for Taiwanese people with similar linguistic and ethnic backgrounds. However, additional objective positive and negative factors, like China’s lack of democracy and freedom, also exist. So the jury is still out,” says the university president.
Can China’s 31-point policy extending the same treatment to Taiwanese people, students, educators, and companies - in effect a form of psychological warfare - push Taiwan’s higher education community to turn threats into an opportunity by undertaking efforts at reform? Simply raising the stakes in different areas is not enough, and the government needs a comprehensive strategy to truly readjust and carry out structural reform so that talent can be placed in the most suitable positions.
“Taiwan is our country, and most Taiwanese educators (in China) are still unwilling to give up on Taiwan. The flow of talent is normal, but Taiwan should be a place that we can return to whenever we want to,” says Yin Chien-chi.