In Taiwan, protests over history textbooks are about the future

High-school student-led protests about a revision to history textbooks that serves China's policies are really about youthful unease over closer ties to the mainland - and the rule of the KMT.

Pichi Chuang/Reuters
Protesters watch the live broadcast of the meeting between Taiwan's Education Minister Wu Se-hwa and student representatives during a protest in front of the Ministry of Education in Taipei, Taiwan, August 3, 2015. Hundreds of Taiwan students stormed the ministry of education compound on last Friday, after one committed suicide earlier in the week, intensifying anti-China protests over textbooks they say are aimed at promoting Beijing's 'one China' policy. The Chinese characters on the ground reads, 'Taiwan go!'.

Emotional protests in Taiwan over new history textbooks that students claim will “brainwash” them with “China-centric” views are actually more about the future than the past, analysts say.

For two weeks hundreds of Taiwanese citizens led by high school students have repeatedly taken to the streets and twice tried to storm the ministry of education to oppose a textbook revision they say is an ideological argument for Beijing’s “one-China” policy that seeks reunification.

The protests are the largest in Taiwan in more than a year and reflect a growing shift on the island from cultural identification with China to a more Taiwanese identity. They also reflect a new activism by younger generations first seen in Taiwan's "Sunflower movement" in 2014 and more recently in Hong Kong's "Occupy Central" movement that challenged Beijing's rules on elections.

“We are Taiwan. China is China,” Liu Tzuhao, 18-years old, told Reuters as she stood at a makeshift memorial to a student in Taipei who committed suicide over the controversy.

Protesters object to curriculum changes they say were carried out without consultation and by a committee that did not operate in a transparent manner and whose interpretations of history they say skew towards China’s historic claims on the island.

The changes involve new wordings that to an outsider may seem small but in the intricate and sensitive definitions in East Asia signify large conceptual shifts. One includes Taiwan being “recovered by China” from Japan after World War II instead of being “given to China.”

On Monday negotiations between students and education minister Wu See-hwa broke up as Mr. Wu refused to retract the new books, which go on sale next week. Today the China-friendly ruling- KMT party led by President Ma Ying-jeou said it would not prosecute 32 students who were arrested trying to forcibly enter the education ministry.

Underneath the protest is a furious little struggle over identity between the older KMT, which under President Ma has sought greater convergence with China, and the newer Taiwan-first “green” forces of opposition that are more suspicious of Beijing.

Taiwan’s 2014 student-led “Sunflower movement” appears to have marked a terrific shift in opinion about how to treat with China. Indeed, the textbook revisions started two years ago, a time when Ma’s KMT and Beijing were in increasing accord.

Yet in the spring of 2014 the Sunflower movement was launched when students occupied government buildings for 24 days to protest a series of trade agreements with China engineered and mostly signed off on outside public purview.

The Taiwanese public was shocked and the Sunflower movement then fed a huge political upset last fall when the KMT was kicked out of many city and regional governments.

Radio Free Asia writes this week as background on Taiwan:

Democratic Taiwan has been governed separately from the mainland since the defeated Kuomintang army and government retreated there after being routed by Mao Zedong's communist forces on the mainland, and the government regards itself as the last bastion of the Republic of China created by the 1911 revolution that toppled the Qing Dynasty.

But Beijing still regards the island as a renegade province awaiting reunification, and has said it won't rule out the use of military force should the island ever seek formal independence as Taiwan.

One Sunflower protester, June Lin, speaking by phone from Washington where she now works as an intern at a Taiwan lobby group, says that Sunflower activists aided the high school students in Taipei.

She argues that it is as much the textbook's portrayal of the KMT as China that worries students. "The concerns of the students about the content of the textbook is not just that it repeats one-China ideology, but that it also makes it seem that in 1949, the Kuomintang forces coming to China were the cleanest and best in the world. The revision justifies everything the KMT did and makes them seem blameless.”

The youth protests have a similar flavor to the ones protests that froze nearby Hong Kong last fall, when the “Occupy Central” protest swept downtown streets and challenged Beijing over rulings about how free and fair Hong Kong elections can be.

China itself, under new leader Xi Jinping, is entering a more authoritarian phase with more strictures on civil society and freedom of expression.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.