By: Jens Kastner

China has once again dug deep into its bag of tricks in its campaign to rein in Taiwan with the education department of Fujian Province announcing plans to recruit 1,000 Taiwanese academics to teach at its universities within two years. 

Fujian is the mainland province geographically closest to Taiwan and already home to pilot free trade zones where preferential treatment such as free rent and salary subsidies for Taiwanese have led to the creation of sizable Taiwanese expat communities.

The announcement of the Fujian education department’s recruitment plan follows China’s national education ministry decree on July 4 that any Taiwanese high school graduate with a passing grade can apply for enrolment at a mainland university, relaxing the requirement that only Taiwanese high school graduates with top or second-top grades, or those from Taiwanese expat high schools in China with passing grades, could apply for admission.

Although Taiwan’s Ministry of Education was probably right in doubting that change’s initial attractiveness, given that the vast majority of mainland Chinese universities cannot grant diplomas that are recognized in Taiwan, the fact that wages have been growing nearly 10-times faster in China’s first-tier cities than in Taiwan will undoubtedly increase the attractiveness of mainland degrees greatly in the longer term.

In view of Fujian now targeting Taiwanese academics, Taiwan’s education sector is stunned, with the president of National Taiwan University, Kuo Tei-wei, forecasting that the island’s higher education system would collapse if more academics leave.

Indeed, Taiwanese professors’ pensions are only about half of their salaries and sometimes even lower than those of teachers at elementary and junior-high schools.

Taiwan’s unemployment rate is the highest for those with university degrees, at 4.7 percent, compared to 3.7 percent for the overall workforce, which makes another strong case for Taiwanese talent leaving for much greener pastures across the Strait.

“If all young talent in every country had the same great opportunity like Taiwanese talent, most of them would make the same decision: Go to China,” said Liu Chun-nan, a Kaohsiung-based expert for human resource recruitment, in an interview with Asia Sentinel.

“Chinese is our first language, and the Chinese government grants us almost the same working conditions as it does to local talent, meaning we are free to move and work for any private organization in China or set up our own company,” he added.

Liu went on to explain that while Chinese companies with great business growth potential such as Alibaba need talent urgently and are thus willing to pay good salaries and sponsor four round-trip flight tickets back to Taiwan each year, Taiwanese companies that can offer attractive packages are scarce, to his mind including only a very few global high-tech players such as semiconductor-maker TSMC.

That Beijing is mapping out new policies to provide Taiwan residents with “national treatment” in order to help them integrate into the mainland society was first revealed by Chinese media in February, following an annual meeting of central and local officials in charge of Taiwan-related affairs.

More policies will be adopted to help Taiwan residents study, work, start a business and live in the mainland, as well as to support Taiwanese companies, according to a statement issued after the meeting.

Beijing’s state-run tabloid Global Times cited Liu Xiangping, head of the Institute of Taiwan Studies at Nanjing University, as explaining that “the new policy will help deepen Taiwan residents’ understanding of the one-China policy, laying out a basis for the reunification of the country, as well as crack down on Taiwan-independent forces.”

That has come amid a diplomatic ice age between Beijing and Taipei that began after the anti-unification Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in May 2016 replaced the China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) as Taiwan’s ruling party.

As to whether the Taiwanese academic talent risk being brainwashed in China and change the political equation upon return to the island, Professor Steve Tsang, the director of the SOAS University of London’s China Institute, said that he hasn’t seen much evidence of China instilling its propaganda in the Taiwanese expats’ heads.

Rather, Tsang sees the Taiwanese exercising self-restraint or self-censorship for material gains, but it is still unclear how it would affect politics in concrete terms.

“Taiwan does not, as yet, have postal voting, so those working in China have to fly home to Taiwan to vote, and, off the top of my head, the voting rate among expatriate Taiwanese is significantly lower than resident Taiwanese voters,” Tsang said. “And I don’t see a logical basis to say those Taiwanese working on the Mainland exercising restraints on politically sensitive matters are particularly motivated to pay the costs and commit the time to fly home to vote against the DPP in order to curry favor with the Mainland regime, particularly since the Mainland government cannot know how they actually vote in Taiwanese elections anyway,” he added.

Rick Fisher, senior fellow, International Assessment and Strategy Center, examined Fujian’s new recruitment drive from another angle.

It will be a massive burden for Taiwan’s security services to keep up with this flow of academics from Taiwan to China, he said.

“But it could be an incredible espionage bonanza for both sides depending on the resources expended defending against or exploiting these individuals,” Fisher said.

Jens Kastner (kenslastner@googlemail.com) is a Taiwan-based journalist and longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel