INTERVIEW: The Inside Story on How Spain Bowed to China's Threats on Academic Freedom

INTERVIEW: The Inside Story on How Spain Bowed to China's Threats on Academic Freedom
Credit: Nick Aspinwall
Why you need to know

The China-forced cancellation of a Taiwan cultural event at Spain's University of Salamanca raises concerns over the terms of China's engagement with international universities.

Listen
powered by Cyberon

Spain’s University of Salamanca found itself on the receiving end of Chinese anger last October when its Taiwan Studies program, one of Europe’s few, was forced to cancel the public portion of its inaugural “Taiwan Cultural Days” program.

The events were canceled due to the Chinese embassy’s insistence that the occasion violated Spain’s adherence to the “one China” policy, under which the ROC and PRC are seen as part of a single entity. Per this policy, Madrid has effectively endorsed Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China.

This came as a blow to Shiany Perez-Cheng (鄭夏霓), a lecturer in Taiwan Studies at the University of Salamanca who had spent months planning the event. After watching what she saw as similar incidences of Chinese meddling in academic freedom around the world – and witnessing a summer in which Chinese efforts to suppress Taiwan’s global participation reached a fever pitch – she decided to go public with the email sent by China’s embassy to the university.

The story caught fire in Taiwan, where scholars recently released a manifesto calling for the Taiwanese government to save Taiwan Studies programs overseas. The Salamanca incident represents a direct attack on such a program, but Perez-Cheng says this is not just a Taiwan problem – it represents a larger strategy of Chinese incursions on international academic freedom.

The News Lens spoke to Perez-Cheng, currently based in Taipei as a visiting scholar at National Taiwan University (NTU), about her decision to go public, China’s international messaging strategies, and the future of Chinese participation in the world of academia. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The News Lens: How do you feel about the public reaction to your revelation?

Shiany Perez-Cheng: I was not surprised by the media coverage in Taiwan. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) made a statement. I was surprised to be called by international media in London and Washington, D.C. who had covered previous incidents [of Chinese meddling in academia]. I didn’t think the case would receive international attention.

From what some [Taiwanese] relatives told me, some of the media portrayed me as some kind of Joan of Arc. At some restaurants here, the managers know me. I went to one restaurant last week and the manager said jiayou!

But the popularity is a bit scary. I want to serve as an instrument, a vehicle, to open the conversation on China's influence in the West, in general and specifically in Spain. I don’t want [this narrative] to get lost in my persona.

TNL: Taiwan’s Foreign Minister, Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), also mentioned your case [in remarks to the Global Taiwan Institute annual symposium on Sept. 12]. Were you expecting this?

SPC: I didn’t expect to be specifically addressed by Minister Wu. I thought that, when MoFA sent out its statement, that was going to be it.

I published the emails right around the time El Salvador switched its recognition from Taiwan to China [on August 25; El Salvador cut ties on Aug. 21]. I think it caught the news cycle.

For much of the summer – the East Asian Youth Games cancellation, for instance – it set a narrative for Taiwan to issue a stronger stance on what is going on.

TNL: What motivated you to go public when you did?

SPC: I spoke with other professors and learned about other cases, started searching for news on other incidents. Salamanca wasn’t the first one. In 2017, there was one at the University of California at San Diego [for inviting the Dalai Lama to be its commencement speaker], the University of Durham in the United Kingdom [for inviting Anastasia Lin, a government critic and former Miss World contestant, to speak at a debate], the University of Newcastle in Australia, the University of Sydney. There were quite a few universities attacked by Chinese embassies.

Anastasia_Lin_speaks_at_the_National_Pre
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Anastasia Lin, a critic of the Chinese government whose presence at a 2017 University of Durham debate event was sharply protested by China’s embassy to the UK.

The West has opened this conversation about China’s influence operations and China’s meddling and coercing Western universities. But this conversation has not been opened in Spain yet. This was a motive for me going public – Australia and New Zealand are having this conversation, but the conversation is not happening in Spain.

In the University of Durham case, the university reviewed its statutes and defended the debate team’s rights. I’m worried that in Spain, this serves as a precedent and universities will start self-censoring.

TNL: Were you surprised when you first learned the event had been canceled?

SPC: I wasn’t surprised. These cultural activities… in the context of a master’s program on East Asian studies, Japan has also held a culture week. Korea, China. It was the first time a Taiwan-focused event was held.

At the Japan event, an official from the Japanese embassy in Spain visited. There was a minor incident during the Q&A when a Chinese scholar started to discuss, very aggressively, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands conflict. The scholar just started telling the Japanese envoy, “They are Chinese, they are Chinese, they are Chinese.” This kind of friction is not new.

I was surprised by the tone of the email. But I was not surprised by the email. If it happened with a Japanese official from the embassy, it was going to happen with Taiwan.

TNL: What surprised you about the tone of the email?

SPC: There were not direct and open threats, but the embassy reminded the university that China promotes Salamanca on its Ministry of Education website, China sends university students to Salamanca to do research and exchange programs. For me, as I interpreted it, it’s a threat – but literally, it wasn’t a threat.

I was surprised by the tone of the email. But I was not surprised by the email. If it happened with a Japanese official from the embassy, it was going to happen with Taiwan.

The thing is that this email was sent to the university president, and the president contacted the government. The instructions on how to react to this email came from Madrid.

That’s what makes this whole incident more worrying – we are seeing that, if this is Madrid’s attitude, when universities face these kinds of issues, the Spanish government is not protecting its academic institutions.

TNL: Did you see any additional correspondence between the embassy, the university, and the government?

SPC: No. When [the university] contacted the Taiwan Studies lecturers about this, the decision was already made. The dean spoke with the president, the president called Madrid, it was decided.

It happened pretty much the same day. That afternoon, by about 1 p.m., the decision was already made.

I don’t know what Madrid told the university. There was no follow-up. I felt it was kind of like, “OK, this happened, let’s forget about it, let’s not talk about it.”

jct-dean-blog
Credit: Shiany Perez-Cheng
The University of Salamanca announced the events were canceled ‘due to circumstances not related to the School of Social Sciences.’ Perez-Cheng says she has not received any further explanation.

TNL: How does the case reflect on China’s behavior as of late towards Taiwan’s international identity?

SPC: I think it fits more of the narrative of Chinese attacks on international universities than the current narrative [on China’s limitation of Taiwan’s international space].

The narrative in Spain is that issues that arise regarding Taiwan are Taiwan’s fault. I don't think that’s the big issue here. This is not about Taiwan.

TNL: Your case certainly exhibits a method of suppressing Taiwan’s global space which China may be willing to replicate in other ways.

SPC: China’s propaganda apparatus adapts its message for each country. In the email, you see the Catalonia issue is mentioned. China is trying a scare tactic by equating Taiwan with Catalonia, which are two completely separate issues.

I get that people in Spain get confused on this issue, because China’s narrative goes pretty much unchecked in Spain, because they’re pretty good at it. But for me, it’s pretty simple: China is trying to equate the Taiwan problem with Catalonia, when it’s Spain and Taiwan that are pretty much the same.

9uahitxz8h9eby6urxuyehlanz5rlp
Photo Credit:AP/ 達志影像
Read More: Catalonia and Taiwan? Not the Same

They’re both third wave democracies which went through democratic transition – Spain in the 1970s and Taiwan in the late 1980s. Both had top-down democratic transitions, done within the same authoritarian political party. There were peaceful transitions in both cases.

Also, in Spain right now, the debate is transitional justice – the same as here in Taiwan. In Spain, the government has approved a decree to get [late dictator Francisco] Franco’s body out of the Valley of the Fallen – the symbology of that monument is pretty much the same as that of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. They’re both countries that have been through authoritarian regimes and made a peaceful transition to democracy.

China is trying to equate the Taiwan problem with Catalonia, when it’s Spain and Taiwan that are pretty much the same.

Democratic transition is an ongoing process for every country. The solution, in Taiwan and Spain, is, apart from more democracy, better democracy. Allowing China to suppress our democratic values, our respect for civil liberties, is going backwards. It's reversing these democratic forces that, for generations, it’s been so costly to get to.

TNL: But China wouldn’t be alone in equating Taiwan with Catalonia – could it be argued they both fall under a loose umbrella as unrecognized states seeking recognition?

SPC: I cannot speak for Scotland, Quebec, Kosovo, Palestine. But from a very basic standpoint: China has 2,000 missiles pointed at Taiwan. Spain does not conduct war games in Catalonia’s surrounding waters. There’s no common basis for a comparison.

I’m asked sometimes if Taiwan should follow Catalonia’s steps and vote for independence. I say: first of all, the referendum was not legal. If you hold a referendum in Taiwan, you have to amend the Referendum Act as right now, it’s impossible to have a referendum on Taiwan’s status quo or its constitution.

When people ask me, I tell them no, Catalonia is not the example for Taiwan. If you keep insisting on equating Catalonia with Taiwan, you are playing right into Chinese propaganda.

jo8163r86giy5kd6lv079r0dqlcznu
Photo Credit: Mutxamel@Wiki GFDL
A map showing the position of Catalonia in northeastern Spain (top right, red).

TNL: How does this affect the domestic Spanish attitude towards the Taiwan question?

SPC: Spain is extraditing Taiwanese detainees to China. It’s the first Western country and the first EU country that is doing so.

I read the decision of a tribunal [of the Spanish National Court, Spain’s highest court]. Part of its decision states something along the lines of ‘Taiwan cannot declare unilateral independence.’ That is exactly the same wording Spain is using for Catalonia.

So you see that the Catalonia issue is permeating the Taiwan issue and how Taiwan gets portrayed in Spanish media. The highest court in Spain is adopting language used for Catalonia to address Taiwan.

TNL: You have spoken before about how you see Spain as especially close to China compared to other EU countries. What leads you to say this?

SPC: Since the aftermath of Tiananmen, Spain has adopted the strategy of: ‘All of the West is taking a step back [from China]. It’s our opportunity to jump in.’ This is a narrative China apologists in Spain are proud of.

Even the whole 'Chinese Taipei' mess – it was negotiated by the former president of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch, the same one who lobbied for Beijing to have the 2008 Olympic Games. When Kaohsiung applied to host [the 2002 Asian Games], it was Samaranch who opposed them.

In Spain, “One China” means that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China.

TNL: What is the best strategy for academia to engage with China and make the relationship less adversarial?

SPC: We have to think creatively. China is also [engaging in] xenophobia and racism and has opened the debate over whether Chinese students abroad are spies. We have to be very careful to open this debate in a responsible way.

Calling Chinese foreign students spies is a dangerous narrative. Some of these students are victims.

We have to say, it’s not the West being against Chinese people, culture, or philosophy. This is China’s Communist Party authoritarian regime we are talking about.

It’s important to share our views, even if we don’t agree on those views.

TNL: Well, we’re used to a culture of democracy and debate in our home countries [the US and Spain] and here in Taiwan. Chinese students may not be.

SPC: Among the Chinese students I have met, I don’t think they are all entrenched in this kind of [nondemocratic] thinking.

I have students from China who register for the course I lectured [at Salamanca] about Taiwan. They are interested, they say they didn’t know much about these issues. I like to have the opportunity to communicate with them. I think we have to engage on a people-to-people level.

Calling Chinese foreign students spies is a dangerous narrative. Some of these students are victims. Some of the students who are forced to attend rallies, waving the Chinese flag… they don’t want to.

TNL: There are rumblings that the University of Salamanca is thinking of opening a Confucius Institute. Can they coexist with international universities and their principles of academic integrity?

SPC: I have seen documentation of other agreements between Confucius Institutes and Spanish universities. The language doesn’t read as anything suspicious, but it’s vague enough that it can be open to interpretation.

I know there have been talks at Salamanca, but I don’t know their status. Japan also has an institute in Salamanca. It’s not embedded in the university – it has ties with the university and it’s very close to the Japan imperial family. [Japan’s now-Emperor Akhito visited Salamanca for its inauguration in 1985.]

I don’t know how [Japan] will feel about having a Confucius Institute on their doorstep.

Old_Library_in_University_of_Salamanca_0
Credit: Antoine Taveneaux / CC BY 3.0
The old library at Spain's University of Salamanca.

TNL: Are you worried about facing repercussions at Salamanca when you return?

SPC: I’m glad you asked. Actually, I attended a workshop in June, here in Taipei, on combating disinformation in East Asia. When I was registering, they issued a badge in my name, one you can hang from your neck. They had two colors: a white one and a black one. They told me the black one is for those who don’t want to be photographed by the media, because they are afraid of repercussions back home.

People from all over Southeast Asia came – people from Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, and Hong Kong-based journalists. The fact that I was able to pick the white badge made me realize that, compared to these other activists and attendants, I’m privileged. I don’t know if I’m going to face repercussions, but for sure, not those repercussions those activists have to face back home.

If these people are literally risking their lives, how could I not go public with this? How could I not?

Read Next: INTERVIEW: Fighting for Taiwanese Identity and Human Rights in Norway

Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more like it in your news feed, please be sure to like our Facebook page below.

Looking for More?
More『Voices』Articles More『Politics』Articles More『Nick Aspinwall 』Articles
Loader