Professor's Apology to Chinese Student Sparks Debate on Taiwan's Academic Freedom

Professor's Apology to Chinese Student Sparks Debate on Taiwan's Academic Freedom
Photo Credit: CNA
What you need to know

A Chinese student in Taiwan demanded his professor make an apology based on Covid-19 comments during a lecture.

A recent university incident sparked controversy over the appropriate use of the “Republic of China.”

Dr. William Chao, a biotech assistant professor at Chun Yuan Christian University, suggested in one of his lectures that the 2019 novel coronavirus originated in Wuhan. A Chinese student in Chao’s class believed the comments were discriminatory and wrote to the university administration, demanding Dr. Chao to make a public apology.

The university demanded that Chao’s apology not mention the “Republic of China.” Chao, unhappy with the request, held a press conference on May 11 with Democratic Progress Party legislator Ho Chih-wei to raise public attention to the matter.

What happened?

Chao, a Ph.D. graduate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is one of four certified toxicologists in Taiwan. During his biochemistry lecture on March 13, Dr. Chao cited Covid-19 as an example to explain nucleic acids and used the term “Wuhan virus.”

One of the Chinese students then wrote a letter to the university principal, demanding to have Dr. Chao apologize in front of all his students.

Chao complied with the request and offered an apology in his subsequent lecture, but the students laughed as soon as he mentioned the incident.

“As a professor in the Republic of China, Taiwan, I would not discriminate against anyone, especially in this classroom,” Chao said. “If my speech caused any discomfort, I offer my apology here.”

He also explained that he would share personal experiences in addition to professional knowledge, which could cause misunderstanding in the classroom due to different cultural backgrounds.

The apology failed to meet the university’s expectations and Chao was asked to apologize for the second time.

In a voice recording revealed at the press conference, the university principal asked, “Why did you have to emphasize [the Republic of China] in the classroom when there’s a Chinese student present?” He added that the ROC statement would ask all Chinese students to “get out.”

The university then asked Chao to apologize again, otherwise the case would be referred to the Ethics Education Association.

What was Chun Yuan Christian University’s response?

The university issued a press statement after Chao’s press conference on May 11, insisting that Chun Yuan is an ROC university, but it has the responsibility to ensure students’ rights regardless of their origins. The university also reserves the right to take legal action against Chao’s alleged instigation.

The school also released parts of the video recordings of Chao’s lecture on March 13, pointing out that he had made inappropriate comments irrelevant to the course materials.

In a clip where Chao was questioning the Covid-19 death counts in China, he said, “How is that possible? Right, I’m talking about you,” and gestured at the camera referencing Chinese students who were attending the lectures remotely.

How did Dr. Chao apologize the second time around?

During his second apology, Chao said his previous attitude may not have been sincere enough. He mentioned that the school wanted to avoid “cross-strait oppositions” and asked him to refrain from using the term “Republic of China.”

He also admitted that Covid-19’s origination has yet to be confirmed and that he was too hasty in making a conclusion.

What was the government’s reaction?

At the May 11 press conference, DPP legislator Ho said freedom and democracy are being suppressed in higher education. Ho insisted that Taiwan is a democratic country and a tolerant society that respects human rights and the rule of law, in contrast to China.

“The university’s demand to silence its own country’s name is not only unreasonable but also meaningless, because this is a fact,” Ho said.

Pan Wen-chung, Taiwan’s education minister, also responded to the case on his Facebook, reiterating that he is the “Minister of Education in the Republic of China.”

“Taiwan must defend academic freedom. While academic exchange is necessary, we must not tolerate any act of diminishing our national character,” Pan wrote.

According to the Ministry of Education statistics, Chun Yuan Christian University has 281 Chinese students, 1.7 percent of the overall student population.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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