Cultivating Support from a Distance: The Transnational Activism of Taiwan Alumni Associations in Southeast Asia

Written by Ratih Kabinawa.

Image credit: School children in Yogyakarta, Indonesia by Intel Free Press/ Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0.

Since Tsai Ing-wen won power in 2016, Taiwan has experienced increased international isolation. Beijing stepped up its offensive policy toward Taiwan by blocking Taipei’s participation in international forums, for example, in the WHA, WHO, and International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). The PRC also exercised its dollar diplomacy to push Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies to switch recognition from Taiwan to China. As a result, during Tsai’s first term (2016-2020), Taiwan lost its major diplomatic allies, leaving the country with only thirteen diplomatic allies. Consequently, the Taiwanese government has looked to overseas communities to enhance its image and visibility, including Taiwan alumni associations. The Tsai administration has given these overseas communities a significant role under Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy (NSP). 

In what ways are Taiwan alumni associations useful in cultivating support for Taiwan’s visibility in Southeast Asia? In a paper for the 19th Annual Conference of the European Association of Taiwan Studies (EATS) 2022, I argued that the Taiwan alumni associations have helped the Taiwanese government promote its visibility via higher education and cultural exchanges, business and investment and public charities. In this article, I will primarily focus on the roles played by these alumni associations in promoting Taiwan’s higher education exchanges and cooperation in their home countries. 

Since 2000, the Taiwanese government has used higher education diplomacy to promote Taiwan’s visibility in the region. This effort has been particularly pertinent during the Tsai administration with the implementation of the talent exchange program under the NSP, which aims to “increase the number of students from ASEAN and South Asia countries by 20 per cent each year”. 

The Tsai government developed various policies to achieve this goal. First, increasing the number of scholarships from the Taiwanese governments and universities for the NSP target countries. Second, expanding subsidies for Taiwanese universities and teachers in developing preparatory courses on language and technical training for students from the NSP target countries. And third, developing public-private partnerships with companies and businesses in Taiwan to sponsor fellowships and scholarships for vocational training and internship for students from the NSP target countries. These efforts have succeeded in making Taiwan attractive to Southeast Asian students. 

While investing in scholarships, fellowships, and subsidies, the Taiwanese government also used overseas communities to help establish and run talent exchange programs. Members of these associations are mostly ethnic Chinese who studied in Taiwan between the 1950s and 1990s. After completing their studies in Taiwan, these graduates established alumni associations in their home countries and Taiwan with support from the Taiwanese government. As graduates of Taiwan’s universities, members of the Taiwan alumni associations have played major roles in promoting educational exchanges with Southeast Asia. In addition, the knowledge, values, and experience that they accrued in Taiwan have been leveraged to channel Taiwan’s interests in the region. 

Most associations were established in the 1970s and have adjusted their cross-border activism to democratisation and national identity formation in Taiwan and their home countries in the 1990s. In Indonesia, for example, the Chinese social movements founded in the post-1998 reform era paved the way for the promotion of the Chinese language, culture, identity, and education. Among these were several Taiwan alumni associations. From three associations in 2000, the number swelled to nineteen. These consisted of one national Indonesia-Taiwan alumni association (Ikatan Citra Alumni Taiwan di Indonesia) with its head office in Jakarta, nine provincial branches across Indonesia, and nine university-based alumni associations in Taiwan.

These alumni associations have regularly supported higher education exchanges between Taiwan and Southeast Asia by organising Taiwan higher education exhibitions in their home countries and managing the recruitment of prospective overseas Chinese students (Qiaosheng) from Southeast Asia. Starting from 2012 – with support from Taiwan alumni associations, local universities in Southeast Asia, and Taiwan Education Centres overseas –  the Taiwanese government has regularly convened Taiwan higher education fairs. 

Taiwanese universities have been eager to join these expos, introducing Taiwan’s higher education system to prospective students from Southeast Asia. Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam have been particularly active hosts for these expos. These countries can host up to three exhibitions in different cities each year. The events offer a valuable opportunity for officials from the Taiwanese government and universities to mingle and promote awareness of Taiwan among local Southeast Asians. 

In addition to promoting Taiwan’s higher education system, the Taiwanese government overseas also regularly invites language teachers from Taiwan to provide professional training for Chinese teachers and introduce Taiwanese culture to some local schools in Southeast Asia. It is the alumni associations that usually facilitate these visits. Alumni associations were also involved in overseeing the recruitment and placement of new Qiaosheng after 2000.

During the authoritarian era, prospective Qiaosheng were nominated by Chinese medium or independent schools overseas to undertake the preparatory and joint college entrance examinations. However, since 1998, the Taiwanese government has designated the alumni associations as sponsoring units for overseas Chinese students who wish to continue their tertiary degrees in Taiwan. The main task of these sponsors is to receive and verify the application form, student identity, and academic credentials of the prospective student and forward the admission and distribution notice. This has streamlined admission procedures for these Qiaosheng and provided diverse channels of enrolment. 

The availability of scholarships and support from the Taiwan alumni associations has brought promising results for Taiwan’s visibility in the region. Many Southeast Asian students have chosen Taiwan to pursue tertiary education. This has been particularly obvious in the case of Malaysian, Vietnamese, and Indonesian students. For the first iteration of the NSP (2016-2020), these countries contributed 62,941, 37,819, and 31,952 students, respectively. Vietnam and Indonesia have doubled their enrolment following the promotion of talent exchange programs in 2016. Once these students graduate, they are expected to support Taiwan’s further engagement in the region, sustaining transnational linkages between Taiwan and Southeast Asia. 

Ratih Kabinawa is a PhD candidate in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Western Australia. Her main research interest is transnational politics and Taiwan’s foreign policy in Southeast Asia. She tweets @RatihKabinawa.

This article is published as part of a special issue on European Association of Taiwan Studies.

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