Recently I spoke with my college professor of East Asian history. He studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University in the early 1970s and has returned to Taiwan every few years since then. He remembered a Taiwan where US graduate students had to enter a special locked room to read literature and China news items that were off limits to most people in Taiwan. At the same time, he experienced a Taiwan that was largely pro-US and that respected religious freedom and free enterprise.
Over the course of years, Taiwan changed, evolved and democratized. Taiwan became a leading force for democracy in Asia and an example of peaceful democratic transformation for other countries. In watching Taiwan change and evolve, US Asia specialists like my former professor developed an appreciation for what Taiwan has accomplished in building the first democracy in the Chinese-speaking world and establishing a vibrant civil society and a system that respects political, religious and economic freedom. For them Taiwan has provided a valuable and living counter to Beijing’s claims that Chinese-based cultures are ill suited to democracy, religious freedom or a free press.
My history professor’s experience of Taiwan is not unusual; it is typical among China and Asia specialists of his generation. So too is an enduring respect for Taiwan, an appreciation for what Taiwan has accomplished and an inclination to keep Taiwan and Taiwan’s concerns in mind when forming US policy toward Asia.
Unfortunately for US-Taiwan relations and Taiwan, the generation of Americans with meaningful Taiwan experience is fast passing from the scene. Since the 1990s US students interested in Mandarin and regional affairs have chosen overwhelmingly to study in China.
Study in China is certainly important in developing the next generation of US Asia experts. Unlike Americans before the 1980s, US students today are fortunate now to be able to spend time in China as teachers, language students, researchers and so forth. And about 15,000 US students each year choose to take advantage of this openness and do study in China.
According to the most recent US State Department figures available, the number of Americans studying in China grew 30 percent annually from 2001 to 2007.
Not only are US students focusing their attention on China, but China itself has been very aggressive and innovative in attracting foreign students and US authorities have also been proactive in promoting exchange programs.
In November 2009, US President Barack Obama announced the “100,000 Strong” initiative, designed to increase dramatically the number of US students studying in China. According to the State Department’s Web site: “The Chinese government strongly supports the initiative and has already committed 10,000 ‘Bridge Scholarships’ for American students to study in China. This initiative seeks to prepare the next generation of American experts on China who will be charged with managing the growing political, economic and cultural ties between the United States and China.”
This is not simply an issue of concern to academics or people who value international education. It is having and will continue to have real ramifications for Taiwan and US-Taiwan relations.
The overwhelming focus on China and consequent lack of interest in studying in Taiwan means that the next generation of US Asia experts will lack meaningful exposure to Taiwan and first-hand knowledge of Taiwan’s pluralist democracy, vibrant civil society and religious freedoms.