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Tensions up, Exchanges down: The decline of educational partnerships and Cross-Strait relations

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

International Affairs Analyst

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

For the People’s Republic of China (hereafter referred to as “China”), the potential of education diplomacy has been of paramount importance for peacekeeping in its relations with both the United States (U.S.) and the Republic of China (also referred to as “Taiwan”). Student exchanges to China entered a new dynamic at the beginning of the twenty-first century as an ever-growing number of American students, and simultaneously Mainlander Chinese and Taiwanese students, were eager to experience each other’s education while learning and experiencing new cultures.

As growing geopolitical instability demands greater responsibility for maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait, building common ground through education is a much-needed policy. However, the number of U.S. and Taiwanese students experiencing Modern China is in decline, potentially undermining any possibility of forging the mutual understanding needed for future diplomatic relations and foreign policy crafting.

U.S.-China worsening relationship in the field of Higher Education

To explain the current state of affairs in the Taiwan Strait, one should first look at the declining U.S.-China education partnership, as the decrease in China-Taiwan student exchanges is intrinsically related to the former.

Due to the Covid-19 outbreak and the return of Great Powers politics as shaped by the U.S.-China confrontation, the number of American students in China dropped to 2,481 in 2020 compared to 15,000 in 2011, according to State Department figures. Similarly, the Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. student visas issued to Chinese nationals plunged by more than 50% in the first half of 2022. The surge in U.S. students travelling to China was part of President Obama’s “100,000 Strong Educational Exchanges Initiatives” launched in November 2009 in order to ‘increase dramatically the number and diversify the composition of American students studying in China’. A decade ago, China’s Higher Education seemed like a flourishing opportunity for American College students.

What has happened since? In 2022, Harvard University, decided to relocate its Chinese language summer program to Taiwan, partly due “to the lack of friendliness from the host institution” stated The Harvard Crimson, Harvard College largest student paper. Even more preoccupying, on the American side, is the termination of the Fulbright program to China.

China’s Nationalist Government was the first country to sign a Fulbright agreement in 1947, and the program was later restored by the Communist Government after the normalisation of relations between China and the U.S. in 1979. Aiming at producing peace by helping U.S. citizens to know another culture (as stated by Senator J. William Fulbright in his 1948 speech on “The Role of Education in Foreign Affairs”), the program was terminated by an executive order under the Trump presidency in July 2020 — an order extended twice by President Biden.

Since its foundation, the Fulbright program to China has sponsored no less than 200 U.S. students and approximately 100 Chinese students per year, with program costs shared between China and the U.S. In an effort to restore Fulbright exchanges to China and Hong Kong, a panel of Democratic representatives introduced the Restoring Fulbright Exchanges bill on March 29, 2023, which has thus far failed to make it into law. And whereas Fulbright’s China program includes among its alumni some notable figures, such as former President Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board member Kevin Nealer and U.S. Peace Corps officers, the program definitely faces an uphill battle towards restoration amid growing tensions.

Hostility on the rise as cultural dialogue fades away in the Strait

Under the Presidency of Democratic Progressive Party leader Chen Shui-bian (2000-2008), the Kuomintang, Taiwan’s Nationalist Party, got closer politically with China’s Communist Party under the lead of Ma Ying-jeou. In 2005, Mainland authorities thusly decided to standardise the tuition rate of Taiwanese students to match up the fees of Mainland students, making China’s universities an appealing option for Taiwanese students. Joint programs were also established across the Strait, such between Tsinghua (in Beijing) and National Tsing Hua University (in Hsinchu).

Subsequently, after the victory of the Kuomintang in the presidential elections of 2011, the number of Mainland Chinese studying in Taiwanese universities showed a steady increase as Cross-Strait cooperation was once again warming up. The number of Mainland Chinese students in Taiwan increased more than threefold between 2011 and 2015, as the number of enrolled students went up by 766% in the same period.

While Ma Ying-jeou’s Cross-Strait doctrine was to promote “no reunification, no independence, and no war” (不統, 不獨, 不武), Ma opened Taiwan to Mainland investments, Chinese tourists and eased restrictions on previous food bans, and Higher Education was one of the main tools used by Ma Ying-jeou’s Administration to foster greater cooperation with Mainland China. However, this was not a successful policy, and in the 2016 Taiwanese presidential election the Kuomintang crumpled as the Democratic Progressive Party won the elections by a large margin.

Since 2016, the number of Mainland students studying in Taiwan has steadily diminished as tensions rise between the Chinese Communist Party and the Democratic Progressive Party. The disappearance of Chinese students eager to experience living in Taiwan was also worsened by the pandemic and, importantly, by China’s decision to ban Mainland students from enrolling in new degree programs in Taiwan universities.

This year, the number of Chinese students in Taiwan hit a new low, as no more than 2,000 students were reading for a degree in Taiwan, whereas approximately 12,000 Taiwanese were studying in China. Experts, according to Yip Wai Yee of the Straits Times, say that declining Cross-Strait student exchanges “only breeds further misunderstanding and bias between people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait”, as international tensions intensify.

On the other hand, Taiwanese students also follow the same trend that appeared in the U.S. as fewer and fewer College students desire to pursue Higher Education in Mainland China. More importantly, perhaps, is the slight increase in the number of U.S. initiatives promoting exchanges with Taiwan and vice-versa, although the number of American students coming to study on the Island remains lower than the number of U.S. students in the Mainland. The total number of Taiwanese students in the U.S. for the 2021/22 academic year was 14 times less (20,400) the total of Chinese students in the U.S. (290,000), according to the Institute of International Education.

For American Higher Education, and its economy, the cultural and economic potential of Chinese student exchanges thus remains crucial, albeit contributory to growing tensions in a post-pandemic world, as Taiwan conversely, does not seem to be an alternative destination in lieu of Mainland China for U.S. students.

The potential of Education diplomacy for Cross-Strait relations remains high

There is, however, a silver lining even in the most desperate situations. As political and military tensions peak in the Taiwan Strait, some leaders are trying to revive the China-Taiwan student exchanges from the 2010s golden era. None of this would be possible, once again, without the involvement of now 73-year-old Ma Ying-jeou, who reappeared on the public stage this summer and invited a group of 37 Mainland students and scholars to Taiwan to increase mutual awareness. Ma had previously visited the Mainland with a group of Taiwanese students as they paid visits to three renowned Mainland universities. Resuming student exchanges between the two sides of the Strait, is one of the most important goals of Ma’s Public Policy Foundation.

In this regard, Ma’s agenda is indirectly supported by the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan straits (ARATS) in Mainland China, and by the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) in Taiwan, which aim to foster and revive youth and cultural exchanges between the two through educational programs. ARATS stated that ‘youth is the future of both sides of the Taiwan Strait’ (青年是海峡两岸的未来) and invited Taiwanese young students in the Mainland to study traditional Chinese consensual eminent figures, such as romantic poet Li Bai. Simultaneously, the SEF organised a cultural program for Mainland students eager to experience Taiwan’s vibrant culture, which emphasises mutual interactions and openness – a likely farewell to the most hawkish individuals on either side of the strait.

One key takeaway on Cross-Strait exchanges is that ‘although the students from mainland China must eventually return home, frequent exchanges with Taiwanese students can quickly resolve “misunderstandings,” and reduce culture shock’, as Taiwanese researchers Ren-Fang Chao and Jih-Rong Yen note. They also argue that “romances between Mainland and Taiwanese students are the quickest way to eliminate cultural shock”. Moreover, an American research associate for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations notes that, contrary to what might be thought, fostering Cross-Strait Exchanges does not boost by any means the likelihood of or desire for reunification: ‘[Taiwanese students are] disinterested in unification and unable to effectively advocate for pro-integration policies even if they were concerned about them, Taisheng (Taiwanese students) are not currently drivers of unification across the Taiwan Strait’.

Stepping up by providing an educational ground to enhance Mainland-Taiwan mutual exchanges, and nurturing people-to-people and youth engagement, could thus lay the groundwork for the return of enhanced diplomatic relations in the Strait. However, there would need to be a willingness from both China and Taiwan to engage with each other. Neither seemed eager to do so.

A New Hope for people-to-people exchanges between the U.S. and China?

If the situation regarding student exchanges, in an ideal world, goes from cool to slightly warmer in the Strait, U.S. to China student exchanges could resume in the near future. Already established elite programs, such as Tsinghua University-MIT MBA, are appealing to a growing number of U.S. College graduates.

Moreover, the Chinese-funded Yenching and Schwarzman graduate China studies programs continuously attract the very best of U.S. students interested in learning about China - American College graduates make up roughly a quarter of Yenching and 41% of Schwarzman scholars. Besides that, professional training programs, such as the U.S. National Committee on U.S.-China relations Professional Fellows Program, sponsored by the State Department, are still operating, despite growing concerns and fears on the potential termination of educational partnerships.

Whilst both the American and Mainland Chinese governments seem to have failed in reestablishing diplomatic dialogue, the need for student exchanges remains as crucial as ever. For instance, this August, George Washington’s Elliott School alumnus David Gitter announced the creation of a new fellowship for students, promoting study of Mandarin Chinese through immersive instruction abroad.

Although the present seems very dreary, the future ahead could be brighter than one might imagine. Not everything is lost in the field of Education diplomacy in the Taiwan Strait, and similarly between the U.S. and China, as the ball is now certainly in the students’ court.


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