At 2 p.m. on Monday, several students and teachers met with senior Ministry of Education (MOE) officials to discuss the controversial changes to the history curriculum that went into effect August 1. Thanks to the students’ insistence that the meeting be public, the two and a half-hour discussion was aired live online, albeit the feed and the microphones sometimes cut out due to heavy traffic. My first impression is that while the government “won” by not agreeing to the students’ demands, it was a pyrrhic victory indeed.

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.

These Taiwanese students weren’t yet cynical enough to realize that to the KMT, preserving the its political life is worth breaking hearts over. They seemed to truly believe they could climb the mountain with their ideals, only to realize when they got closer that it was a vertical cliff face.

The students catalogued the revision’s procedural problems; Wu said that if there’s no problem with the books that were ultimately produced, the ministry must set the procedural problems aside and move forward. The students noted the lack of historical expertise and clear political motivations of the revisionists; Wu responded that if there’s no problem with the books that were produced, we can set aside issues of the professional qualifications of committee members and move forward.

As for the content, the MOE characterized issues like balance (i.e. Sinocentrism vs Taiwan-centrism) as subjective in nature and said because the books are free of objective falsehoods it can find no fault with them. It also said it was being more than fair enough by allowing schools and teachers to decide for themselves whether to use old or new textbooks, ignoring the conflict of interest problem (raised by a professor in attendance) that given all the power the MOE has to fund, reward, and punish schools and teachers, anyone who chooses to disobey could pay for it. Wu even told the students they had to learn to accept those with different values from them, causing one to walk out.

A student said if the government knows there were problems with the process it should start over and create a new curriculum transparently. A teacher said that since there have been controversies over textbook revisions every single time, we need systemic reform. A professor asked, if you think a plane may have problems you don’t fly it, so how can we continue using this curriculum instead of suspending it? No response was given.

The minor officials politely stalled. One official mentioned his family is pan-green, but as has been abundantly clear, that many of the students are from pan-blue families and don’t identify as pan-green themselves. Another spoke a long time about abstractions—simply about the concept of a curriculum, it seemed—leading to a collective facepalm and two student walkouts.

Wu said the revision process could only be stopped if a law was broken, and the (entirely Ma-appointed) Control Yuan had found no evidence it had been, he said. In the end the students backed down to asking for a year’s delay of the curriculum—and were still denied through Wu’s refusal to respond—while the ministry made these two new concessions: promising to finally release the names of the committee members within the next 10 days, and saying it would note which material was controversial in appendices (but the books are already printed).

Thanks to curriculum reviser Wang Hsiao-po’s (王曉波) statements to media that the curriculum was written to help the KMT consolidate electoral support, the students had strong evidence that the reasoning the government wasn’t giving them the real reasons for their decision, but every time they tried to delve deeper Wu changed the subject.

After that, and indeed as Wu Se-hwa (吳思華) the person retreated inside the persona of Minister Wu like this again and again, it dawned on me that the real job of a Chinese civil servant is to rationalize and implement the decisions made by the true powers behind the scenes and convince the public of them. This no doubt worked a lot better when most citizens were uneducated and illiterate and information couldn’t go viral. In China, for example, every government official is shadowed by a parallel Communist Party official. Hong Kong’s officials are a front for Beijing’s. And seemingly every official has business interests.

Just so, President Ma’s appointees are by and large just his proxies, and their job is to hold the line. Ma has very smartly kept out of the curriculum debate to keep his unpopularity from hurting his side, instead busying himself with the Diaoyutai spat with Lee Teng-hui (李登輝). Wu’s job is to hold the line for Ma. He achieved that—for today at least—just as the Hong Kong Government won by doing nothing and forcing the exhausted Umbrellas to ultimately eventually give up.

The students have repeatedly demanded Wu step down to take responsibility for the current conflagration. But while the public would interpret his resignation as an admission of defeat by the government, practically speaking losing Wu would change nothing. Because minister appointments don’t require legislative approval, Ma can and will just replace Wu with someone who says and does the same thing.

Media synopses will no doubt focus on the students’ tearful outbursts in the last half hour and afterward as they realized that their efforts to complete the mission of their late friend Dai Lin (林冠華) would fail. “Dai, we failed you,” many exclaimed. “Today is the day Taiwanese education died,” proclaimed one. Another stormed out, then walked back in to embrace and comfort a friend who had collapsed into tears on the sofa across from Wu after describing how much they’d all suffered and how this experience had made him hate education. The scene doubtless left an indelible imprint on all who saw it: note the two screencaps UDN (聯合報), a pan-blue news outlet, has pinned to the front page of its website this evening.

 

 

Some will argue the students threw tantrums because they couldn’t get what they wanted; I disagree. Given the circumstances, I think any of us would have done the same, and I think the society will be very sympathetic to them. They’ll wonder, “Is this what education should be like?” The flipside of the kid gloves with which students are treated here is discomfort with scenes like this where the adults have no answers.

More likely to be forgotten, but much more important than that denouement but was the two hours of dogged, rational, persistent argumentation that preceded it. The students argued very well, albeit their confidence and even insouciance in the face of the senior officials before them. I get the feeling one of them—who even on his way out was giving the officials Wang Jin-pyng’s (王金平) argument that the Legislature now has legal authority over the curricula—will be a legislator himself years down the road. I’m sure some editorialists will express shock at the tone with which the students addressed the officials—wondering where respect for elders has gone—but what the young viewers will remember is how their peers held their own.

The meeting showed this true nature of officialdom to numerous members of the youngest politically active generation, the one that has had the least experience with government officials and so in a sense was the most likely to believe in them. Belief in officials, like belief in Santa Claus, is something one usually loses quietly and in private, but this time it happened in a national broadcast in real time and entered the collective memory. The students argued with their social superiors as equals and never gave in. Gravity brought them down, but their performance will have a ripple effect for years to come.

(Feature photo of Taiwan’s Ministry of Education, by Lee Kun Han)

 

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Solidarity.tw is the owner and author of the eponymous Tumblr blog solidaritytw.tumblr.com, where he translates Taiwan's news media and provides sharp commentary about Taiwan's current affairs.