During the regime of Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Republic of China from 1928 to his death in 1975, national history in school textbooks dealt with the glories of China’s past; Taiwan was merely a temporary refuge for Chiang’s Chinese Nationalists after being deposed by Mao’s Communists and driven off the mainland. Mao, by the way, died just a year after his archrival Chiang.
In 1997, the Lee administration introduced a ‘supplementary’ three-volume text named ‘Getting to know Taiwan’ that presented a revised view of the nation’s history, geography, and society. Many hailed it as a watershed moment, but Chiang’s Kuomintang (KMT) party viewed it as an apostasy partly due to the inclusions of previously never mentioned events such as the February 1947 massacre of Taiwanese intellectuals by KMT soldiers, the ensuing period of White Terror, and the idea that the Japanese colonial period brought economic and social benefits to Taiwan. Taiwan was portrayed as separate from China, a society of multi-ethnic Han people and a homeland of non-Han aboriginal tribes.
This ‘Taiwanisation’ of history continued under Chen Shui-bian, the first president from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. Lee’s ‘supplementary’ lessons were integrated into official textbooks. In 2007, adding insult to injury, the histories of China and Taiwan were published in separate volumes.
In 2014, under the KMT’s Ma, who visited Saint Lucia during the days of the Anthony administration, textbooks were again ‘fine-tuned’, a process that critics saw as a China-centric revision of Taiwan’s history. Negative content on the KMT’s early days in Taiwan was diluted; positive aspects of a half century of Japanese colonial rule disappeared; Taiwan’s role during early Chinese dynasties was highlighted, bolstering, some believe, China’s claim of sovereignty over the island.
The Taipei Times, an English-language newspaper generally sympathetic to the opposition DPP party, was highly critical of Ma’s ‘fine-tuning’. Several city and county governments announced plans to boycott Ma’s revised curriculum. Protests spread to other policies, such as the lack of transparency of the Ma administration’s handling of the Cross Strait Services Trade Agreement.
The minister of education, Wu Se-hwa, an engineer by training and a former professor of business management, with whom I had dinner during his visit to Saint Lucia when Tom was ambassador, was bombarded by coordinated nationwide protests against the revisions to textbooks implemented by a secret panel handpicked by President Ma that, opponents said, devalued Taiwan’s national identity.
Students briefly occupied Wu’s office; thirty-three were arrested including three journalists. One of the arrested, a spokesperson for the Northern Taiwan Anti-Curriculum Changes Alliance, committed suicide a week later, becoming a martyr for the movement. Students threw quilted blankets over the razor wire that topped the riot barricades and stormed into the ministry courtyard. Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, a political independent, ordered the police to stand down and no further arrests were made.
Ma’s opponents fully expected his education reforms to have a pro-unification slant toward China. The situation was aggravated by Mainland China’s Taiwan Affairs Office expressing its delight with Ma’s textbook revisions and declaring, “If written from the perspective of Taiwan independence, history textbooks will mislead our Taiwan compatriots.”
It is ironic that authorities in Mainland China found fit to criticize the Taiwanese students’ use of their democratic rights. It was, after all, the Mainland Chinese authorities that ordered the military to mow down student protesters in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians, and putting into question the legitimacy of the regime of China’s Communist Party.
Education reform in any country is not easily achieved. How, for example, will parents, students and pupils ever be able to release the stranglehold that the Ministry of Education has on expensive textbooks and other sources of information in this country? Through the ballot box? I doubt it. Despite several changes in government in the past forty years or so, our children still get to use books and learning materials dictated by just a few people determined by the ministry. You see, ministers come and ministers go, but the Ministry remains – and therein lies the problem. In this age of almost universal access to information via the Internet, it is ridiculous that the Ministry continues to stipulate which books produced by which publishers have to be bought for megabucks by parents struggling to make ends meet.