TAIPEI, Taiwan—Beijing’s efforts to infiltrate and gain influence over the democratic island of Taiwan are now targeting local student leaders at top colleges and universities.
Hsu Rui-fu, president of the graduate student association at National Taiwan University (NTU), one of Taiwan’s best universities, recently spoke to local daily The Liberty Times and broadcaster Formosa Television, about his experience while taking part in a cross-strait youth-learning tour in 2018.
The seven-day tour was advertised as an all-expenses-paid cultural exchange for Taiwanese and mainland Chinese students to understand each other better. The tour was hosted by the Personal Exchanges and Cooperation Across the Taiwan Straits in Fujian Province Association, an organization run by the provincial government located right across the strip of water from Taiwan.
China claims Taiwan as a renegade province, despite the latter being a de facto independent country with a democratically-elected government and a separate constitution, military, and currency.
Beijing has continually attempted to influence public opinion in Taiwan, often with “soft power” and propaganda tactics aimed to persuade Taiwanese citizens to embrace the idea of unification with the mainland.
According to Hsu, many of the Taiwanese participants were student leaders from other top schools, such as National Tsinghua Hua University (NTHU), National Cheng Kung University (NCKU), and National Chengchi University (NCCU).
The mainland Chinese students also came from prestigious schools such as Peking University and the Renmin University of China.
Hsu said the tour took the participants to Beijing, northwestern China’s Shaanxi Province, and the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.
What troubled Hsu was the running theme throughout all the lectures and seminars that the students attended, which he described as “agreeing with [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping.” More specifically, Hsu said the seminars were titled, “Xi Jinping Talks About Governing the Country,” “Xi Jinping’s New Era of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” and “The Strategic Framework of One Belt, One Road.”
Hsu added that the person who gave a lecture on “One Belt, One Road” was Zhao Lei, a professor at the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Party School, an institution for training young cadres.
The One Belt, One Road initiative is the Chinese regime’s flagship foreign policy project for building geopolitical influence via investments across Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America.
Hsu said that after each lecture, all participants were required to share and present what they had learned.
Hsu explained that he decided to take part in the China tour because he wanted to learn about China’s politics and economy, and how Chinese people think.
“I think some of the content [in these lectures and seminars] made sense. But most of the content was more along the lines of talking about the [Chinese Communist] Party’s values, and values being promoted by Xi Jinping. I find this content harder to accept,” he said in a May 27 interview with Formosa Television.
As the tour continued, the mainland Chinese students began to keep their distance from Hsu, believing him to be a “Taiwan separatist” due to the opinions he shared, he added.
The Chinese regime refers to those who voice support for Taiwanese identity, or those who advocate for the island to formally declare independence, as part of “Taiwan’s separatist forces.”
Information about a similar cross-strait tour in 2017 can still be found on the website of Taiwan’s National Tsinghua Hua University (NTHU). A “talent exchange” center run by the Fujian government issued the invitation, specifically seeking 10 to 12 participants who are “outstanding student leaders” from top Taiwanese schools such as NTU, NTHU, and NCKU, to join a tour from Aug. 8 to Sept. 2, 2017. The invitation stated that the tour was free of charge.
According to the tour itinerary, the students were to travel to Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. On the second day in Beijing, students would attend two seminars, titled “The Concepts Behind Governing a Powerful Country’s Rise” and “The Development Program for the 13th Five-Year Plan,” referring to Beijing’s economic plan for the years 2016 to 2020.
Beijing has an ulterior motive in recruiting Taiwanese college student leaders to participate in its tours, according to Tseng Chien-yuan, assistant professor at the Department of Public Administration at Taiwan’s Chung Hua University.
In an interview with the Liberty Times, Tseng said that the Chinese regime seeks to influence these students because of the high possibility of these academically excelling youth to become Taiwanese politicians. If they do become politicians, Beijing hopes that they can become China’s “agents” in Taiwan, to sway public opinion and influence local government policies to become more favorable toward Beijing.
Hsu isn’t the only student who has publicly spoken about their experiences while on Beijing-sponsored tours. Chen Gu-hsiung, president of NCKU’s student union, told the Liberty Times that he took part in a similar tour to China last summer.
Chen said he paid a little over 10,000 New Taiwan Dollars (about $317) to take part in a 10-day tour, which took him to Macau, Beijing, and Inner Mongolia.
In Beijing, Chen said he was taken to visit the Taiwan affairs office, the United Front Work Department, and political agencies under Beijing’s municipal government. The United Front Work Department is a Party agency that carries out operations around the world to fulfill Beijing’s agenda.
In Macau, Chen said the group attended a presentation about the greatness of the “One Country, Two Systems” model.
Currently, the model is used in both Macau and Hong Kong, after the two former European colonies were returned to Chinese sovereignty in the late 1990s. The model was purportedly to preserve the cities’ autonomy and freedoms while under mainland Chinese rule. However, both cities have seen Beijing’s encroaching influence in recent years.
In a January speech, Xi suggested the model as a way to bring Taiwan under the control of Beijing. However, Xi’s proposal angered many in Taiwan, which eventually led to a street protest attended by about 3,000 locals in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, in early April.