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Classroom Incident Deepens Tensions Between China, Taiwan

FILE - Honor guards lower a Taiwanese flag at Liberty Square, in Taipei, Taiwan, April 1, 2020.
FILE - Honor guards lower a Taiwanese flag at Liberty Square, in Taipei, Taiwan, April 1, 2020.

Independence-minded Taiwan residents and politicians are in an uproar after officials at a university forced a professor to apologize to his class for saying he is from the ROC (Republic of China), using Taiwan’s official name.

It was the second apology demanded of the professor, who earlier had been required to apologize to a Chinese student for remarks he made about the outbreak of COVID-19 on the mainland.

The seemingly minor classroom tiff has fueled deep-rooted hostility between citizens of Taiwan and China, according to Yen Chien-fa, vice president of Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.

Deepening resentment

It has also exacerbated tensions between those in Taiwan who favor closer relations with China and those who favor independence for the island, while drawing attention to the growing reliance of Taiwan universities on tuition fees from well-heeled mainland Chinese students.

“In face of a declining birthrate in Taiwan, some schools may have to turn to mainland students [for tuition incomes], which allows these [Chinese] students to ride the high horse,” Yen told VOA. “But I think the clash will only worsen private-sector relations across the Strait and deepen resentment against each other.”

Yen said it remains to be seen if Taiwan-China relations will be affected. Gai Xiaokang, a student from China’s Jiangsu province, set off the dispute when he complained to officials at Chung Yuan Christian University in Taoyuan about a pre-recorded lecture delivered by Chao Ming-wei, an associate professor of biotechnology.

'Attacked and discriminated'

In the lecture, recorded in March, Chao had commented on a Chinese milk powder scandal that hospitalized more than 50,000 babies in 2008, and had questioned China’s reported death toll from what he called the “Wuhan pneumonia.”

Chao – a recognized expert on toxicology with a Ph.D. from Rutgers University in the United States – turned to the camera at one point during his lecture and teased, “I was referring to you all from across the Strait.”

In his complaint, Gai described the remarks as “racist” and said he felt he was “being attacked and discriminated” against.

The university sided with the mainland student and asked Chao to publicly apologize.

But matters only worsened when Chao delivered his first apology in early April, telling the class that as “a professor from the ROC,” he only looks at science and facts — regardless of politics, religion, nationality or race.

A video recording shows he also said he would never discriminate against any student, especially in Taiwan’s inclusive and democratic society.

'Smart, but unwise'

Gai took offense at the mention of “ROC,” given that mainland officials maintain there is only one China, with its capital in Beijing.

The new complaint prompted two university officials to reprimand Chao, calling him “smart, but unwise.” “Do you want all mainland students to get out?” one official yelled in an audio recording that has become public, and Chao was directed to extend yet another apology.

Chao told a press conference this week that, while he accepts criticism from students, he was disappointed with the university’s response. He said the school has failed to respect academic freedom, speech freedom, students’ right to education and teachers’ right to work. He also defended having said the coronavirus came from the Chinese city of Wuhan and having expressed doubts about the death tolls released by Chinese authorities.

Divided reaction

Taiwan politicians and netizens quickly drew up sides in the dispute.

Mark Ho, a legislator with the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party, accused the university of “having trampled on Taiwan’s dignity and Chao’s personal integrity” by criticizing his use of the name Republic of China.

“Also, it’s really devastating [to] Taiwan’s democracy, too. I believe that Professor Chao, he is not the first one to be treated like this. I hope he’s going to be the last one,” Ho told VOA. He said the university’s demand for two apologies was “beyond ridiculous and out of proportion.”

But members of the pro-China Kuomintang (KMT) party disagreed. Local media cited KMT legislator Chen Yu-jen as saying that Chao used speech freedom and national identity to hide some of his “inappropriate” remarks.

On Facebook, some netizens questioned why Chao had to be “so sarcastic about mainland students” and said his behavior was “a shame.” Others agreed that Chao’s remarks were “mostly fact-based” and demanded an apology from the student and the university.

Some of Chao’s class also posted comments, accusing Gai of being the bigger bully. Students said Gai was touchy whenever they made negative comments about China.

Denying any wrongdoing, the university said it reserves the right to legal recourse against Chao.

Taiwan’s education ministry has said it will launch an investigation into the controversy. The ministry said no university teacher in Taiwan needs to apologize for stating in class that they are from the ROC, and Taiwan should not be demeaned during academic exchanges.