China likely to rebuff Taiwanese president’s call for students

Lai Ching-te uses inauguration speech to ask for return of mainland students to island universities but installation accompanied by rising cross-Strait tensions

May 24, 2024
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Source: iStock/Александр Семенов

Beijing is unlikely to allow its citizens to resume enrolling at Taiwanese universities, according to academics, as the inauguration of a new president causes cross-Strait relations to deteriorate further. 

In his inaugural speech on 20 May, Lai Ching-te, the new president of Taiwan, emphasised the island’s independence from China and urged the superpower to choose “exchange over containment”. 

“This can start from the resumption of tourism on a reciprocal basis, and enrolment of degree students in Taiwanese institutions,” he said. “Let us together pursue peace and mutual prosperity.”

Chinese leaders have reacted sourly to the president’s speech, vowing to “fight separatist activities” and launching military drills around Taiwan. 

Given the tensions, the chances of Beijing allowing its citizens to return to Taiwan’s universities seem low, according to academics. China banned students from enrolling in the island’s universities in 2020, overtly as a response to the pandemic, but the policy has continued since. 

According to Yu Hua Chen, assistant professor in China studies at Akita International University, the decision was taken to “economically pressure” Taiwan’s universities and prevent Chinese youth being exposed to Taiwanese influence.

“Beijing knows universities in Taiwan desperately need more students in the era of a low birth rate,” he said. “This group of people may become a potential source of instability in Chinese society when they return to China. Since these two factors will remain in the years to come, China is unlikely to alter its position on the Taiwan-China student exchange issue.”

However, as another Taiwanese academic said, many of the island’s universities are keen to see Chinese students return, with the ban adding to sustainability pressures on Taiwan’s universities.

“This sense of urgency has been intensified by the declining student population due to the low birth rate in Taiwan, which has led to the closure of schools,” said the academic, speaking anonymously. “This urgency was evident at the end of last year, even during the sensitive election period, when many presidents of both public and private universities in Taiwan attended forums in mainland China in an attempt to rebuild communication channels with the Chinese higher education sector.”

In July 2023, representatives from top Chinese universities also visited Taiwan, seen as a possible sign of warming academic relations. 

Now, however, Beijing’s dislike of Taiwan’s new leader, and Mr Lai’s unyielding anti-China stance, make the resumption of academic exchanges look unlikely. 

“Accepting Lai’s proposal may be perceived as a sign of weakness on Beijing’s part,” said Wen Ti Sung, a political scientist at Australian National University.  

“Chances are Beijing will wait for other Taiwanese opposition figures to publicly make similar proposals before accepting,” he predicted. “That way, the credit will go to the Beijing-friendlier forces in Taiwan politics, rather than to Taiwan’s President Lai.”

In the meantime, Taiwan’s institutions will continue to struggle, the anonymous academic said. 

“Without these students, Taiwanese higher education will inevitably have to face the impact of the low birth rate alone,” he said. “It is anticipated that the closure of Taiwanese universities will occur one after another, and the next four years might mark the true arrival of a dark period for Taiwanese higher education.”

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