Scholars Release Manifesto Calling for Govt Action to Save Taiwan Studies

Scholars Release Manifesto Calling for Govt Action to Save Taiwan Studies
Credit: David Green
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The manifesto aims to end decades of short-term funding for the teaching of Taiwan Studies overseas.

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Scholars on Friday put forward a manifesto calling for Taiwan’s government to help arrest the potentially terminal decline of Taiwan Studies overseas.

The manifesto aims to end decades of short-term, fragmented and ineffective funding for the field by creating a new body, the Taiwan Foundation, to offer financial support to international universities willing to promote the academic study of Taiwan.

Speaking at the the Third World Congress of Taiwan Studies (WCTS), Gunter Schubert of the European Research Center on Contemporary Taiwan, of the Department of Chinese Studies at Germany’s University of Tübingen, said: “We have to think about how to strategize the Taiwan Studies case and incentivize Western universities to put money into faculty positions.”

The call comes at what the “Manifesto for the Further Development and Entrenchment of Taiwan Studies within Global Academia” calls a “critical juncture” for the field, which is increasingly having to compete for breathing space amid the vigorous rise of China Studies worldwide.

“Genuine faculty positions for Taiwan scholars outside Taiwan are almost non-existent,” the manifesto said, adding that the absence of such positions leaves young Taiwan scholars without tenured positions from which to recruit the next generation of students.

The manifesto, signed by many of the world’s leading Taiwan academics, was presented at WCTS, a government-sponsored event which brought together more than 100 Taiwan scholars for a three-day series of presentations at Academia Sinica in Taipei.

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Credit Wiki Commons
Academia Sinica, Taiwan's national academy, which is hosting the Third World Congress of Taiwan Studies.

In his address, Schubert called attention to the runway success of the Korea Foundation in promoting the field of Korean studies – illustrated by its role in the creation of some 140 professorships worldwide – as a model Taiwan should follow.

That model involves establishing chairs in Korean Studies that are career positions not directly linked to any particular department, so that the bodies charged with approving candidates are sourced from a wide range of disciplines. This structure, along with the implementation of term-based funding limits, ensures that approved candidates maintain a program that is first and foremost devoted to Korean Studies, rather than falling victim to the vagaries of the agendas of departments that view the field as an adjunct to their own discipline.

Schubert said such a model starkly contrasts with the current funding infrastructure in Taiwan, which is spread across multiple bureaucracies and is “counterproductive and ineffective in co-financing faculty positions.”

This premise was echoed by Dominic Meng-Hsuan Yang, Assistant Professor at the University of Missouri’s Department of History.

“Taiwan’s government is unreliable and interested only in providing short-term funding,” he said, adding that there is a sense of “deep frustration” in North America at repeated instances of funding being pulled from Taiwan studies programs as a result of changes in personnel or government.

Yang suggested that private donors drawn from North America’s Taiwanese communities should be tapped for funding, pointing to the success of the Taiwan Studies program at The Jackson School of International Studies at The University of Washington, which he said was established with the aid of substantial financial backing from a single donor.

Schubert, who has successfully arranged Ministry of Education funding for a six-year Assistant Professor position at the University of Tübingen, said that reliance on such private endowments is not without risk: “You are not within the university system per se, you have no institutional agency. The most important thing is to get university money,” he said.

Speaking on the sidelines of the conference, Schubert told The News Lens that the Taiwan Foundation should be a public-private partnership, as is the case with the Korea Foundation, that has access and control of government money.

“This has to be initiated from the top, otherwise you have all the government departments defending their turf,” he said.

In his presentation, Schubert also suggested that only by “intellectually engaging a rising China” and posing Taiwan studies as a complement to China studies, arguing that the disciplines are interdependent and synergistic, can academics make an effective argument for Taiwan studies.

“China is and always will be the big elephant that you cannot do away with when arguing for faculty positions for Taiwan scholars,” he said.

Fears over the decline or demise of Taiwan studies as a discipline are nothing new, having been highlighted in a 2009 speech by Prof. Murray Rubinstein of Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute entitled “Is Taiwan Studies Dead?”

Yet the manifesto’s release, which coincided with the publication of the second edition of the International Journal of Taiwan Studies, comes at a time of heightened Chinese pressure on Taiwan that has been intensifying since the inauguration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文)’s Democratic Progressive Party government in 2016.

The Communist Party government in Beijing views Tsai’s refusal to accept the so-called “1992 consensus,” and with it the notion that there is only one China, as an indication that her administration favors independence – the decalration of which China is legally bound to respond to with the use of military force.

Such pressure has extended to academia, most recently when Taiwan academic Shiany Perez-Cheng accused Beijing of bullying the University of Salamanca into dropping an event aimed at celebrating Taiwan’s culture last October. Perez-Chiang cited emails in which the Chinese embassy in Spain implicitly threatened to downgrade the university’s relations with China should it go ahead with hosting the event.

In questions responding to Schubert’s presentation, human rights activist and academic Linda Arrigo suggested a change in wording from “manifesto” to “statement” to avoid attracting a similar backlash from the Chinese authorities.

Arrigo told The News Lens that careful consideration would also have to be given to the structure of any funding for a Taiwan Foundation. “Taiwan Studies being squeezed from the outside is one thing, but it would be worst if China is able to influence things from the inside,” she said, referencing the potential for a government more sympathetic to Beijing to have control of the purse strings in future.

Arrigo also said that China is exerting increased control of Taiwan’s academic narrative via its support for scholars of the field through its own institutions, notably the Graduate Institute for Taiwan Studies at Xiamen University.

Concerns over the extent to which Taiwan studies should rely on China studies for its raison d’être speak to an academic debate that has been ongoing since the birth of Taiwan studies itself as an almost accidental bifurcation of China scholarship in the 1950s, when many academics found themselves unable to gain access to mainland China and thus turned their attention to Taiwan.

As it stands, few graduate students have the option of framing themselves exclusively as Taiwan scholars. Lev Nachman, a graduate student in Political Science at the University of California Irvine, who is studying the evolution of the 'Third Force' political parties in Hong Kong and Taiwan, told The News Lens that he frames himself as a student of democracy rather than of Taiwan’s politics per se.

“What Gunter said [about the relationship with China studies] is absolutely true, but it can be very difficult — with some topics the direct comparison isn’t there – my field for example,” Nachman said. “I got my master's in China, but often China scholars do not take Taiwan scholarship seriously. You have to also consider the China side – they might argue there are more pressing issues, which makes gaining funding, scholarship and attention much more difficult.”

Read More: Nurturing ‘Seedlings’, the Story of Alternative Education in Taiwan

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