Why you should care
In the ideological war over Taiwan’s autonomy, winning hearts and minds could give China a big boost.
Since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has maintained that the island of Taiwan, aka the Republic of China, is a rebel province that will one day be politically reunited with the mainland. It opposes any international efforts to recognize Taiwan as an independent state. Over the past three decades, the PRC has used its growing economic might to whittle down the number of countries that maintain official diplomatic ties with Taiwan to just 17 — with El Salvador, in August of last year, the latest to switch allegiance to the PRC. The U.S. has never officially acknowledged Taiwan as an independent entity.
This approach has been incredibly successful, even as Taiwanese politicians and activists — including President Tsai Ing-Wen — have attempted to maintain autonomy. But Beijing has hit on a new strategy: Change the hearts and minds of Taiwan’s younger generation. In a coordinated campaign that involves scholarships, superior universities and the promise of lucrative career opportunities at the end of their studies, China is persuading Taiwan’s prospective university students to study at mainland universities in unprecedented numbers.
Until 2011, China maintained a strict cap on the number of Taiwanese students who could apply to mainland universities, with only those registering in the top 12 percent of Taiwan’s General Scholastic Ability Test permitted to apply. In 2011, this was increased to the top 25 percent. Then, in 2017, this was relaxed even further, with anyone in the top half of the results table free to apply.
Over the past 12 months, universities in China have reported a fivefold annual increase in the number of applications by Taiwanese students.
In 2018, this included top schools such as Sun Yat-sen University with 600 Taiwanese students and Xiamen University with 200 students from the island. They’re part of more than 200 Chinese individual universities that have lowered their requirements for Taiwanese students to enroll greater numbers from the island. Before the latest rule change, the Taipei Times in 2017 put the number of Taiwanese students studying in mainland China at more than 12,000. Experts expect that number to have risen dramatically — Chinese authorities haven’t released national enrolment numbers yet.
While China offers scholarships to students from multiple countries, the outreach to Taiwanese students is unique. Students from the island can apply for all scholarships on par with mainland China students as part of an “equal status” policy. That’s apart from generous special scholarships for students from Taiwan, sponsored by China’s Ministry of Finance. Depending on the school and scholarship, many Taiwanese pay less than $875 per year for tuition and accommodation. Some get a completely free ride. Meanwhile, tuition in Taiwan costs $2,000 a year, or as much as $3,600 for private schools.
The move to relax restrictions on Taiwanese students is part of a wider initiative, announced by Beijing in February 2018. A total of 31 incentives, including tax breaks and subsidized fees for those who relocate, were launched to lure Taiwanese companies, skilled workers and professionals across the strait. The measures also seek to encourage the growing number of Taiwanese who graduate from mainland universities to seek employment there rather than returning home. This is bolstered by the relatively high unemployment rate for university graduates in Taiwan, which in 2018 stood at 5 percent compared to 3.6 percent across the workforce.
To make matters worse for the island, the sudden exodus of homegrown potential has coincided with a crackdown on students moving the other way. In 2017, Beijing cut the number of mainland students permitted to study at private universities in Taiwan by more than half — from 2,136 in 2016 to 1,000 in 2017. While state-run schools are exempt from the restrictions, the overall number of Chinese students in Taiwan has fallen dramatically after half a decade of steady growth. According to Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, the 41,975 Chinese students enrolled in short-term and degree programs on the island in 2016 fell to 29,603 in 2018.
The most pressing concern is a talent deficit. Oxford Economic’s Global Talent 2021 report, which predicts the gap between supply and demand in workforce talent, claimed Taiwan faces the worst deficit of the 46 economies included in the study.
The longer-term consequences to cross-strait relations may be of even greater concern. There is an argument that China is welcoming Taiwanese students with open arms in an attempt to develop cultural and physical ties to the mainland and make the next generation more sympathetic to the PRC’s reasoning. “It is quite plausible for a country to try to influence bilateral relations by investing in attracting international students,” says Ane Bislev, a China expert and associate professor in the department of culture and global studies at Aalborg University. But translating cultural understanding into a behavioral outcome is far from a given, she says, particularly “in the case of China and Taiwan [where] the differences are of course not cultural, but political.”
Taiwanese academics are growing increasingly anxious. But it will be difficult for Taiwan to reverse the trend organically. Ranked 22 in the QS Asia University Rankings 2019, Taipei-based National Taiwan University is the island’s highest-ranked school. Five Chinese schools sit higher in the rankings, including three in the top 10. In the top 200, 20 are Taiwan-based and 46 located on the mainland, with those in Hong Kong listed separately.
The potential consequences may not be as sudden or overt as China’s efforts to starve Taiwan of diplomatic allies, but the figures are startling. With a coordinated campaign drawing Taiwanese talent to the mainland, they will only increase.