Why the High School Student Movement Received So Much AttentionBlame opaque decision-making and heavy-handed enforcement
After 162 hours of occupying the plaza in front of the Ministry of Education (MOE) in Taipei and months of protests, the student groups opposing the changes to curriculum guidelines announced on Aug. 6 that they would end the protest and retreat from MOE. Even though the students’ demands that the MOE halt the new curriculum and that the minister step down were not met, the MOE has promised that high schools will have the right to choose between the old and new curriculums. The activists stated that they would return to their campuses and monitor the textbook selections from there. The protesters declared that the government could not stop them from seeking human rights, liberty, democracy and identity.
Why did this movement attract so many students and such wide media coverage? Questions about the legitimacy of the so-called “black-box” curriculum guideline changes are at the center of the protests. The high school curriculum for textbooks is drafted by academics on each subject and used as content guidelines for textbook publishers and college entrance exams. In November 2013, the MOE established a non-official “review committee” for “correcting typos and contents” and “complying with the constitution.”
Originally, the Committee was only supposed to “review the nouns used in textbooks.” However, committee member Chu Yun-peng (朱雲鵬) proposed an extempore motion to adjust the history textbook guidelines directly during the first meeting. In total, 60 percent of the contents were revised, even though the MOE called the changes “fine-tuning.”
According to critics, the new guidelines have been “de-Taiwanized” and modified to be more China-centric. For instance, the “Chinese takeover of Taiwan” after World War II was reworded as the “Restoration of Taiwan.” Meanwhile, in the curriculum for citizenship and moral textbooks, the “White Terror” imposed by Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and the 228 Massacre by the Nationalist (KMT) government have been deleted.
Meanwhile, the members of the committee, voice records, and meeting minutes have all remained classified, arousing wide criticism. Due to the opaque decision process, the Taiwan Association for Human Rights filed a lawsuit against the MOE in February 2014. The Taipei High Administrative Court concluded that the MOE had violated the “Openness of Government Information Act.” However, the MOE appealed the ruling and, in the meantime, is still enforcing the new curriculum guidelines on schedule. This is what infuriated the high school students. The curriculum protests are similar to the Sunflower Movement in that the triggers were both an opaque decision-making process and heavy-handed enforcement.
The background of the committee members is also controversial. Even though the MOE has never officially disclosed the member list, media have been able to draw a picture of the committee members. The convener was Wang Hsiao-po (王曉波), the deputy chairman of the Alliance for the Unification of China and a famous academic promoting Taiwan’s integration with China. Other members are also known as pro-unification or China-friendly. For example, Chang Ya-chung (張亞中) is the president of the Chinese Integration Association and a renowned politics professor advocating unification. None of the committee members has a specialty in Taiwanese history.
Due to the radical adjustments and the contentious background of the committee members, the public is also concerned that the changes are purely political. Lending credence to this view, one committee member, Wu Kun-tsai (吳昆財), claimed that textbooks should serve politics and promote the spirit of the nation. He also proposed that China and Taiwan co-write history textbooks.
Critics also associated the new curriculum guidelines with the appeal of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office in 2012 on the Taiwanese government to revise the textbook guidelines created during the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) administration and return to a China-centric curriculum.
Ineffective communication and an inadequate response by the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration also gave rise to the widespread student protests. More than 200 high schools formed student committees to fight against the new curriculum. Minister of Education Wu Se-hwa (吳思華), tried to communicate with the students. However, after being repeatedly confronted, Wu cancelled the majority of meetings. Frustrated with the MOE’s response, the student activists escalated the protest and even stormed Wu’s office on July 23. The MOE adopted a hardline approach by insisting on filing lawsuits against the protesters.
Then spokesperson of the student movement Lin Kuan-hua (林冠華) committed suicide on July 31 — ostensibly to attract media attention and stop the curriculum from being implemented on Aug. 1 — triggering even more confrontation between the students and the government.
The KMT’s politicization of the issue also contributed to sharpening the confrontation. The KMT’s presidential candidate, deputy legislative speaker Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), has consistently lagged behind Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in the polls. In response, the KMT has sought to take advantage of the protests to attack the opposition. KMT legislators accused the DPP of mobilizing the students and even portrayed Tsai as the leader of gangsters, training students like the Islamic State. Hung compared Tsai with Mao Zedong (毛澤東), who mobilized the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. The committee convener, Wang Hsiao-po, also acknowledged that the adjustments have a political intention: formulating nationalism to enhance the cohesion of KMT supporters and motivate them to vote.
KMT legislators have also refused to hold an extra legislative session to resolve the dispute, even though Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) said the curriculum should be halted due to legal issues.
The impact of the protests on the presidential campaigns is noteworthy. Tsai, for instance, has already promised that she would resolve the curriculum issue next year if elected. Meanwhile, the chairman of the People First Party (PFP), James Soong (宋楚瑜), announced her was entering the presidential race on the day that the students were retreating from the MOE. He criticized the Ma administration’s “unreasonable stance on the curriculum,” at the cost of a human life.
Soong’s statement seemed to be in line with public opinion: 72 percent of respondents in a poll said the Ma administration should withdraw the new curriculum guidelines.
The KMT could soon see its position on the new guidelines run into difficulties, as next year’s presidential and legislative elections promise to change the face of politics in Taiwan. A poll taken after Soong’s speech also showed him leading Hung by 7 percent, but still lagging behind Tsai by 12 percent. If this trend continues and Soong outperforms Hung on Jan. 16 by grabbing votes that would normally have gone to the KMT, the individuals in the current administration who support the new curriculum could find themselves isolated indeed.
Ricky Yeh is an alumnus of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and National Taiwan University. He formerly worked as an Economic Analyst at the Japan Center For International Finance in Washington D.C. and is currently employed as a business strategy consultant in New York City.