According to recent reports, Chinese authorities may have decided to bar Chinese nationals from enrolling in universities in Taiwan until President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) “revises” her cross-strait policies to better align them with Beijing’s. Although the move has yet to be confirmed, if true this would be further evidence that Beijing intends to “punish” the 23 million of Taiwan for the choices they make by democratic means. However, rather than punish Taiwan, Beijing’s retaliation could end up hurting young Chinese even more.

Rumors of a possible reversal of a policy implemented under the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration emerged on Monday when the Chinese-language Apple Daily reported it had received a tip via a student based in China. According to the story, the Chinese student had been informed by his school in Jilin Province to “be prepared not to go to Taiwan this semester.”

“Due to changing circumstances across the [Taiwan] Strait, the Taiwan Affairs Office has issued an order for schools to stop processing all applications for study in Taiwan … pending further notification by the office,” the article wrote.

The article also cited a Taiwanese businessman based in China operating a platform for educational information exchanges saying that education authorities across China had been ordered to suspend contact with the counterparts in Taiwan. The new rule reportedly is to apply for the duration of the Tsai administration.

Back in Taiwan, the Ministry of Education says it has yet to be informed of such a decision. Education authorities are currently trying to determine whether the new policy, if indeed true, was a uniform decision or whether the final authorization for allowing Chinese students to Taiwan can be given by local authorities.

According to government figures, approximately 40,000 Chinese nationals study in Taiwan annually, of whom about 7,000 are pursuing a diploma in a Taiwanese university; the rest are in Taiwan as exchange students or are enrolled in professional training programs.

While stopping the flow of Chinese students to Taiwan could cause some pain for educational institutions — private universities are particularly vulnerable — the move could have unintended consequences. For one thing, retaliatory measures, including the likely possibility that China could also limit tourism to Taiwan, will only further alienate the Taiwanese and widen the gap between the two societies. Moreover, although the economic impact of such a policy could harm local schools, a precipitous drop in the number of Chinese students could compel the MOE to be more proactive in recruiting qualified foreign students in other countries, or simply to streamline the system by closing some schools here — there are too many of them anyway.

Ultimately, the greatest losers if such a myopic policy were adopted by Beijing would be young Chinese students. If Beijing retaliates by targeting education, it would prove that the cross-strait educational exchanges that have flourished in recent years were little more than a means to an end, with Chinese students being used as pawns in a political strategy that sought to both reward “good behavior” by Taiwan as well as create financial dependence. This would prove that all along Beijing did not have the best interests of its young people at heart, and that it will have no compunction in closing off alternatives for its youth if doing so serves its political aims. Given the cultural and linguistic similarities between the two societies, Taiwan may be a logical choice for many young Chinese seeking to obtain a good education. Now that door may have been closed.

By erecting walls around young Chinese, Beijing would also deny the future leaders of China the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the idiosyncrasies of Taiwanese society and to better understand why the island-nation has such a distinct identity, one that is incompatible with the current system in China.

If the denial of Chinese students has indeed become a weapon used by Beijing to punish behavior it finds unpalatable, then there is a very real chance that at some point, Beijing could also resort to similar means in other areas, including Hong Kong, which has experienced considerable enrolment by Chinese nationals (a drop in the number of applications to Hong Kong universities by Chinese since 2015 has prompted speculation that politics may also be behind the phenomenon), and other countries in the West, where reliance on Chinese students has also increased markedly over the years.

Taiwan and Hong Kong both offer free, stable, recognizable and proximate environments for young Chinese to pursue an education; because of their distinct experiences, both can also equip young Chinese with the means to improve their nation after they return home. Making them off-limits to Chinese students because the Chinese Communist Party cannot countenance the existence of political alternatives in what it considers its peripheries will only contribute to insulation and misunderstanding.