Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Pro-democracy hero? No thank you (中文 link at bottom)

Administrators at NCKU in central Taiwan are betraying the democratic principles and foundations that are necessary for a well-rounded education 

When, late last year, Tainan’s National Cheng Kung University (NCKU) invited students to help decide the name of a square at the campus through a vote, the supposedly apolitical and “brainwashed” youth came up with a delightful surprise: Deng Nylon (鄭南榕, or Deng Nan-jung), the editor in chief of Freedom Era Weekly whose self-immolation on April 7, 1989, played a seminal role in the nation’s democratization.

With their choice of an icon of democracy (coincidentally, Deng also went to NCKU), the students were making it clear that, unlike what contemporary critics of Taiwanese youth often claim, they know their history and cherish the sacrifices that people before them made to ensure a better future for all Taiwanese.

A total of 971 students voted for 南榕廣場 (“Nan-jung Square,” or “South Banyan Square”), out of a total of approximately 3,000, putting it squarely at the top of the list. The choice of such a national hero for the name of the square must have been heartwarming to NCKU administrators who, we assume, are keen to cultivate strong values among their students. Er, no. The very next day, the school’s secretariat decided that the name was improper. It was too ... political, and politics should say out of campus.

Retrocession is out
Unsurprisingly, the decision didn’t go down too well with the students, who organized a series of protests in late December and early this month. Among other actions, protesters removed the characters 「光復」(“Kuang-Fu”) from the NCKU Kuang-Fu Campus plaque, arguing that “Retrocession” — the term used by the KMT to describe the “return” of Taiwan to Chinese rule after World War II — is itself filled with political undertones.

Unhappy with what the students proposed in the poll, administrative committee members decided on Jan. 8 that they would instead propose a list of alternative names, which completely defeats the initial purpose of encouraging students to come up with their own, and is reminiscent more of Beijing’s pre-selection of the candidates for elections in Hong Kong than the truly democratic mechanisms one would expect to see at work in Taiwan. Among the names proposed by the administrators were 「吳京」(“Wu Jing”) and「丁肇中」(“Samuel Ting”), a former president of the university (and Minister of Education for the KMT in the 1990s) and a Nobel prize-wining American physicist of Chinese descent who once studied at NCKU, respectively.

At another meeting held on Jan. 15 to discuss the matter, 70 committee members supported the decision to drop Deng outright, while 21 opposed it. So Nylon Deng is out, at least when it comes to the international democracy at work among the school administrators. It gets worse. During the meeting, NCKU history professor Wang Wen-hsia (王文霞) raised doubts about Deng’s contributions to freedom of expression and even likened his self-immolation to the act of a suicide bomber or terrorist. (Deng’s office where he committed the ultimate sacrifice is located on Freedom Lane in Taipei. I encourage readers to visit it and to judge for themselves whether Deng falls in the same category as an al-Qaeda operative or Hamas suicide bomber.)

The idea that politics have no place on campus is bogus. Universities must serve as incubators for political ideas and future leaders. Only in authoritarian countries does the notion that politics should be barred from schools have any validity. And last time we checked, Taiwan was not part of the latter group. With their handling of the affair, NCKU administrators are betraying the very foundations of what constitutes a solid education, and make a travesty of the principles upon which modern Taiwan was founded. 

New! A Chinese-language version of this article is available here.

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