A generation ago, it was unthinkable. But today, Chinese students from the mainland can be found in the university lecture halls of their erstwhile capitalist enemy, Taiwan.
When the sun goes down, the university cafeterias fill up with students. Many of them are still cramming for the last exams of the semester. Stacks of books are piled up on the tables. Others are luckier and have already finished, spending their time instead talking about vacation plans. Some of the students will soon have to bid farewell to their friends and campus life at this private university near Taiwan's capital, Taipei.
Among the other students crowding the cafeteria, there are two who don't really stand out. They are, nonetheless, something special here. They come from the People's Republic of China. They call themselves Huang and Liu; they do not want to reveal their real names as they had been instructed by the Chinese government not to speak with the media in Taiwan. Huang and Liu have just completed an exchange semester at the university.
Where life is different
Liu said she was interested immediately when she learned about the possibility to study in Taiwan. "I really wanted to spend some time in a place where life is different and Taiwan was a good choice," she said.
Two countries, two systems, separated by the Taiwan Strait
In a few days Liu and Huang will be getting on a plane to go back home - perhaps forever. Citizens of the People's Republic cannot freely travel to Taiwan to work or study. There are plenty of hurdles and restrictions on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Liu was one of the lucky ones. She could learn for herself how life in Taiwan was different from mainland China. "From the outside, a lot of things look the same - the culture, the language, the writing. But there are differences in the system and the way people think," Liu explained.
High standard of living
In Taiwan, things are more relaxed than in China, according to Huang. The Taiwanese student, to her, also seemed to be less diligent. "Life here seems slower and cozier. That the students aren't as diligent, I don't mean that in a negative way. That has to do with the standard of living. This society has already reached a high level and that influences the students," she noted.
The political tensions between China and Taiwan also play a role, of course, but more in the background. The two young women said they had decided not to cross any "red lines" in discussions with the Taiwanese. A lot of the time it was no problem anyway, they said, because the other students weren't interested in discussing issues like unification or independence. "Many students in Taiwan don't care about politics," Liu observed.
For a long time now, Chinese students have been allowed into Taiwan for several months at a time, but then in 2008, the island nation's Kuomintang party opened the doors even further. Since last year, mainland Chinese can now matriculate for regular courses of study and earn their degrees in Taiwan. The reason given by the government for this change was that young people should get to know each other better and overcome prejudices.
Many Taiwanese, however, remain skeptical. Some criticize that Taiwan's universities have become too dependent on the tuition fees from Chinese students. Because there are too many schools, they are glad for every applicant, they argue. Others fear that Chinese students could take jobs away from the Taiwanese, or they worry that the reunification of the two sides is being promoted indirectly.
No student stampede
To counter the criticism, Taiwan's government has instituted a number of hurdles and limited the number of Chinese applicants to 2,000. But the rush to sign up turned out to not be as large as expected. Less than half the 2,000 spots were filled in the first year, and that was because of the restrictions, according to Taiwan's President Ma Ying-Jeou, who has already announced plans to loosen them.
This move will surely set off another dispute, which the exchange students will be able to follow on site, as it were. Another difference Liu has noticed is that local media in Taiwan are more open about debating controversial issues than in China. "Taiwan is a multi-party system and minority opinions are heard. We have that, too, on the mainland, but the official line in the media is much louder," she said.
Liu says that she now understands the Taiwanese position better. "In Taiwan, things are more chaotic, but objections can be voiced. Those are the two sides of the coin. The Taiwanese are proud of the fact that in their society tolerance plays such an important role."
Huang pointed out that she was not allowed to open a Facebook account until she arrived in Taiwan. However, she will have to give it up once she leaves because the site is blocked in China. But, she thinks some people go overboard with the pride. "Many Taiwanese go out of their way to talk about freedom, freedom, freedom - just to get my goat. They act as if Taiwan was paradise on Earth. I just don't know what to say."
In seminars the two mainland students have also been confronted with topics that are taboo in China. One professor explained that he talked about China's one-party system and the tradition of authoritarian regimes. The two young women got very involved in the discussion.
But what perhaps stood out even more to them was that Taiwanese society was frequently more courteous and friendlier than in China.
"Just one small example," recalls Huang. "At the supermarket I dropped a carton of eggs on the floor. It was very embarrassing, but one of the other customers offered to help me right away. The relationships between people are stronger here; more attention is paid to the feelings of others."
These are the impressions the Taiwanese government is hoping for when it invites more and more Chinese into the country, whether as tourists or students, although the students will go home with the deeper impression, says Liu.
"Many tourists come over from the mainland to Taiwan, but what they learn is limited. They know about music and TV shows from Taiwan. But exchange students can learn more about life here and that will certainly bring change. But how much there will be is hard to say."
Author: Klaus Bardenhagen /gb
Editor: Sarah Berning