When hundreds of normally apathetic high school and college students storm the Ministry of Education (MoE), something is very wrong.
These students risked themselves physically at the hands of the police. There are emotional risks as well, including pressure from school authorities threatening their futures, and the approbation of their families—both of which happened to popular student group spokesperson Dai Lin (林冠華), who committed suicide after describing the challenges he faced in detail during a television interview. While other factors may or may not have contributed to Lin’s suicide, the fact is hundreds are willingly facing these challenges, and thousands have protested in support. And the issue that set this in motion—newly implemented history curriculum guidelines—is something most students around the world would rather not get out of bed for.
In most countries, if a government found itself faced with hundreds of students risking themselves in this way, it would probably defuse the situation by reaching out to history professors, teacher’s groups and possibly parent groups to come up with a consensus curriculum. Not in Taiwan.
KMT presidential nominee Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) recently made a statement that neatly encapsulates the attitude of the system that created the curriculum guidelines. She said that the student protesters “bu dongshi” (不懂事), a patronizing and dismissive phrase in Chinese, that roughly translated means “they don’t get it, they’re just kids” (the “just kids” is clearly implied). This should be surprising coming from someone who made her name in education and education policy, but isn’t.
The protesters not only “get it,” they’re extremely knowledgeable on what this is all about: identity, and how it is shaped. While shaping one’s identity is an ongoing process, it is most keenly felt and deeply explored in the late teens and early twenties. The age of discovery, of who one is and who one wants to be, is the most powerful thing in our lives. The current generation is more free to examine for themselves different gender and sexual identities than past generations, and they face an even deeper and more complex range of options—and knowledge of the importance of the issue.
This is also a generation that has deeply democratic roots and a more open, self-organizing social network mindset. This has been deeply internalized in their identity and it informs their expectations of themselves and how they expect to operate in the world around them. They expect things to be open, transparent and participatory.
To the international press—when it is reported on at all—the curriculum protest is generally presented in fairly simple way. The Sunflower Movement exposed (or created, depending on the report) widespread “unease” with increasing ties to China and the students are opposed to this new, more pro-China curriculum.
Alarm would be a better word than “unease” for the student’s feelings. The new textbooks are written to educate them to self-identify with an openly hostile nation bent on annexing their homeland, and shot warning missiles off Taiwan’s coast during the island’s first free presidential election.
The element the international press is largely missing is that it isn’t the pro-China curriculum itself that is the main issue per se (though it is certainly an issue), the main issue is the ability to choose one’s own identity within an open, consensual society. It is the repeated use of the term “black box” that gives this away.
The KMT mainlander elites (who came over with the exiled Chinese government in 1949 after losing to the communists), especially of the generation raised by members of the security and political apparatus that ruled and benefited most from the martial law era (President Ma Ying-jeou being a prime example), believe it is incumbent on them to lead the nation. They view themselves as uniquely qualified for this task, and indeed were often educated and taught specifically with this in mind (Ma, again). In their minds, non-mainlander Taiwanese are too provincially minded, and lack an understanding of the greatness of China and the Chinese people, not to mention China’s destiny to rule and return to her rightful place in the world. They were also educated in two very authoritarian, top-down philosophies: Confucianism and Socialism.
To the KMT elites like candidate Hung, it is other people who “bu dongshi” (不懂事). Their own identities are built around the idea that they are there to instruct others on the “correct” way to think and on what is the proper way forward. After all, they saved Taiwan from communism and built an economic miracle all on their own, right? Your identity is what they say it is, your job is to accommodate yourself to it.
This is the crux of the clash. The broader public, and especially the younger generation, have reached a broader consensus that they are Taiwanese only and not Chinese (2/3 of the general public, nearing 90% for the youth). The students expect that something so key to shaping shared identity, such as history books, needs consensus in an open, pluralistic way that examines the various cultures and influences that have built modern Taiwan and offers different viewpoints and respects different traditions within the broader society. To them, if the public had reached the viewpoint expressed in the curriculum revisions made by the KMT (admittedly not a likely outcome) in a broad, consensual and participatory way, there would be no protests. But instead it was concocted in a ‘black box’ and foisted on them.
This conflict had played out very dramatically and vividly. When Minister of Education Wu Se-hua (吳思華) finally met with the student representatives (which included teachers), the minister was openly dismissive and non-conciliatory. The students were openly shocked and confused at being completely stonewalled. Wu wasn’t there to negotiate, he was there to try again to make the case his leader told him to make. Wu rolled his eyes dismissively at the protesters requests. The students stormed out in fury, then cried in helpless frustration.
With the MoE clearly not willing to budge and the arrival of a typhoon, the students have left the protest site to concentrate on the only route left to them, which is to try and convince their own schools to not use the new curriculum—which is allowed. However, if the MoE decides to use the significant leverage they have, the schools may well feel that they have no choice but to go with the new version. This conflict will continue on.
The good news for the students is that this is most likely the last gasp of a dying era. The KMT is set for a disastrous showing in the next election led by presidential candidate Hung, who has been languishing at around an abysmal 20% support in the polls. President Ma has less than a year in office left. The elites have no new generation of leaders to follow: Their children are either now foreign nationals or sympathize with the protesters. The KMT’s local Taiwanese factions are already disaffected, openly in revolt or have quit the party.
Within a year a government will be in power that will put an end to the new curriculum and probably revert to the old one. The question then will be, will the students accept that, or will they then take the lead on demanding a new curriculum? The power of a history curriculum to shape identity is something these protesters understand very well, and have shown an ability to act proactively in shaping their own future. Hung is very mistaken, the kids really do get it.
(Feature photo by Lee Kun Han)