Former Taiwan President: Student Exchanges Could Be Key to Peace With China

Former President of Taiwan Ma Ying-jeou, in conversation with Jerome A. Cohen, discusses how student exchanges between Germany and France helped deflate a century of hostility between the two sides, and how Taiwan and mainland China should learn from their example. (4 min., 48 sec.)

Former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou says that to ensure sustainable peace across the Taiwan Strait, there should be more student exchanges between Taiwan and mainland China.

Speaking in New York on Wednesday in a conversation with his former Harvard Law School advisor Jerome Cohen, hosted by Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations, Ma touched on Taiwan’s democratic development, economic ties with mainland China, and the question of independence.

On the topic of student exchanges, he noted how leaders in Germany and France, after the devastation of World War II, decided to send thousands of youth to study in one another’s countries, which ultimately helped deflate a century of hostility. Ma added that this is why he “opened the doors” to mainland students during his presidency.

“We should let the young people of the two sides get to know each other — as soon and as many as possible,” he said. “When I went to campuses during my presidency, I was so encouraged by students from the mainland and Taiwan studying together, debating together, playing together, and having many interesting encounters. We found that they found each other very different from the impression they had before.”

There is some doubt as to whether more student interactions would indeed bring mainland China and Taiwan closer. Even as engagement through such exchanges and tourism has rapidly grown between the two sides in recent years, fewer and fewer Taiwanese are saying they identify as Chinese. Then in early 2016, Ma’s Kuomintang Party (KMT), which traditionally favors closer ties with China, was handed a landslide defeat in the presidential and parliamentary elections by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has traditionally favored Taiwan independence. “Sometimes familiarity breeds contempt,” Cohen said in an interview with Asia Blog last year. "Just because you have more people from another place visit you doesn’t mean they’re going to love you. They may find more reason to vindicate their prejudice against you.”

Ma suggested, though, that Taiwan’s democracy may be having an endearing influence on young mainlanders. He recalled during his re-election campaign of 2012 being “astonished” by how widespread it was discussed on mainland China’s internet. He mentioned an apparent exchange that was widely re-shared on social media between a mainland and a Taiwanese student: “The Taiwanese student said, ‘Our election system is very efficient — our voters cast a vote in the morning and they know the result in the evening.’ The mainland student said, ‘We also have a chance to vote in the morning, but we know the result the day before.’”

“I think this is an interesting sense of humor by the mainland student,” Ma joked. “[Taiwanese and mainland students] get along well — it's very interesting.”

On the question of Taiwanese independence, Ma recalled once being asked by a reporter why the island doesn’t formally declare. “Have you ever heard of a country declaring independence twice?" he replied. “We were an independent country back in 1912 — how can I declare independence again?”

He added that formally declaring independence at this point wouldn’t succeed. “As long as you don't go separatist, but you maintain autonomy, maintain the status quo, and keep unification as a potential option, I think that is probably the best way for Taiwan to survive,” he said. “The mainland and Taiwan have a lot of differences that take time to resolve, or at least to manage. … [But] there's no reason for the mainland to attack Taiwan just because we can't solve or manage all the problems we have.”

In the above video clip, Ma discusses the importance of student exchanges. Watch the complete program in the video below. 

Former President of Taiwan Ma Ying-jeou discusses Taiwan's democratic development, as well as relations between the United States, Taiwan, and Mainland China. Jerome A. Cohen, professor of law at New York University, moderates the discussion. (1 hr., 17 min.)

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.