Promoting Taiwan Studies is about spending money strategically: My user’s experiences as a senior abroad professor in Taiwan Studies

Written by Yi-Ling Chen.

Image credit: Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Seattle by ZhengZhou/ Wikimedia Commons, license: CC BY-SA 3.0.

The dialogue about if Taiwan studies can be a part of Sinology (Perkuhn and Chien v.s. Wang and Achen) is interesting. Both groups mention the problems of job markets and the sustainability of the institutions. Thirty years ago, the choice of Taiwan research could be academic suicide. Nowadays, the situation is improving only slightly because of the persistent challenges of job opportunities and attractiveness for students and audiences. As Taiwan Studies is a part of soft power, strategic thinking is necessary for the funding agencies to ensure success.

Each side of the debate defines Taiwan studies differently. Perkuhn and Chien discuss the Taiwan studies programs that were widely established in Taiwan and the institutes established abroad. Wang and Achen are about recent efforts to promote Taiwan studies internationally and have a wider definition, including all research related to Taiwan. Domestic programs have different problems from those abroad. This article deals with the latter. I taught in Taiwan’s universities for ten years, including in a department of Taiwan culture, and relocated to the University of Wyoming (UW) 12 years ago, teaching international studies and geography.

In the panel on the sustainability of Taiwan studies at the 2022 SOAS summer school, the Taipei Office representative said it was all about funding. Yes, money is crucial, but how to spend money more strategically is also important. Taiwan studies are not only about academic research but also about educating people to have an appropriate understanding of Taiwan. Cognition is crucial for people’s judgments. From my teaching experiences in the US, the students who accept what they have learned from their teachers, especially from China, tend to keep quiet on the issues in Taiwan or even many things related to China. Silence is a strong attitude. It is about doing nothing, not even making a voice. After they are trained in this manner, it is extremely hard to reverse their views. This training has far-reaching effects and will impact the future of Taiwan.

As a user applying for different Taiwan government funding, I constantly doubt whether the goal of promoting Taiwan studies is pursued. I have never directly received these funds after trying in the US. There are three aspects of the funding problems. Then I suggest comparative studies to expand the attention on Taiwan. The conclusion will restate the recommendations.

(1) Resources available for Taiwanese researchers abroad:

A lot of funding excludes Taiwanese nationals, especially senior researchers, who have experience in research and a strong commitment to Taiwan studies. Hence, the Ministry of Science and Technology has funding for young post-doc and scholars abroad. Moreover, Taiwan fellowships offer to Taiwanese scholars once they have foreign citizenship. The post-doc fellows at the Taiwan Foundation of Democracy are not for Taiwan citizens. Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation was questioned about its standing on Taiwan studies. The processes of application need more investigation on their fairness and openness. The Research Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (RIHSS) is only for scholars working in Taiwan. RIHSS and many of Taiwan’s universities even charge fees for researchers abroad to be visiting scholars. The discriminatory practices, especially against senior Taiwanese scholars abroad, seem to contradict the goal of promoting Taiwanese studies.

(2) Resources available for universities abroad:

The resources are mostly about mandarin learning. The Taiwan Huayu BEST Program (優華語計畫) can bring mandarin language teachers to universities abroad from Taiwan universities. The problem is that the existing Chinese teachers in US universities would consider this a threat. Hanyu enrichment scholarship serves primarily as a diplomatic tool, so there is a quota for each world region. The website of the Hanyu enrichment scholarship is very confusing and not user-friendly.

The MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) is a frequent practice for the exchange between universities. As for the exchange students, usually, more Taiwanese students want to come to American universities but not vice versa. Compared to the more generous scholarships from South Korea, Japan, and China, Taiwan has not provided fellowships for foreign exchange students. The program will be halted if the exchange is not on an equal number on both sides.

American universities are more interested in university-wide collaborations that can intensify research capacity. But Taiwan’s universities are more interested in student exchange rather than the exchange of teachers or establishing research collaboration. For example, UW has a long-term exchange program with Shanghai University. Each summer, UW sent two faculties to teach three weeks of intensive courses and Shanghai University sent two faculties to UW for a semester. This program is not expensive but enhances interest in China. But Taiwan universities prefer inviting famous scholars or individual research networks.

(3) Taiwan Studies Project and research clusters:

Recently, the Taiwan Studies Projects initiated by the Ministry of Education provided substantial funding for top-ranked world universities. Unfortunately, the funding did not create more tenure-tracked faculty positions. The temporary post-doc positions are very short-sighted with problematic workloads, including teaching, research, and organizing events. It is not ideal for cultivating post-doctoral scholars. To be sure, tenure-track positions can encourage more future scholars because of a decent job market. Indeed, these positions can be under existing disciplines, such as history, political science, etc., with a Taiwan research focus. The formal positions can ensure Taiwan Studies’ sustainability and continue training more students. Taiwan’s government should push harder for better deals.

Being in North America, the regional division of educational tasks among Taiwan’s foreign agencies is also very problematic. UW belongs to the administrative territories of the Taipei office in Seattle and the Education Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in San Francisco. The regional division lacks the sight to construct research clusters. For example, UW is about two hours to Denver, one and half hours to the University of Colorado at Boulder, and 50 minutes to Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Still, UW is not in Denver’s administrative area of Taiwan’s foreign affairs. Therefore, if the funding for Taiwan studies from Taiwan’s different institutes is given to the major universities, such as the University of Washington, Seattle, UCLA, and Harvard University, it is important to request these universities build regional networks to maximize the resources. The territorial division of foreign affairs should be more flexible based on the principle of developing clusters.

A substantial proportion of top-ranked US university graduates work for big corporations. A lot of government officials are not coming from those top universities. The American education system is less centralized than in Taiwan. State universities are responsible for the higher education of their state residents. If funding for Taiwan studies considers maximizing its impact, it should not spend most of the money on a few top universities. The distribution logic should be different in Taiwan because the US education system is less hierarchical. Many outstanding American students choose state universities because they are not from rich families and are influential after graduation in local and national politics. More fellowships should be available to those potential students.

Finally, comparative studies can be a good strategy to attract more audiences to Taiwan studies and widen the scope of research. The keynote talk by Prof. Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao at the 4th World Congress of Taiwan Studies explained the pioneering jobs of the previous generation of researchers. They used the empirical research of Taiwan to reconsider western theories. However, contrasting the western theories and experiences can also fall into the trap of dichotomizing and essentializing Taiwan. Comparative studies can be a better research strategy to keep the relational aspects by checking transnational actors, regulations, and markets.

In conclusion, funding is crucial to developing Taiwan Studies. The funding agencies should keep the vision of making Taiwan studies sustainable, so strategic thinking is needed. My suggestions are: (1) On research resources: changing the existing limitation of qualification on Taiwan nationals abroad; (2) On resources to universities abroad: encouraging MOU of universities on the exchange of professors and research collaboration; more fellowships for foreign exchange students; more user-friendly websites and advertisements; (3) On Taiwan Studies Projects: creating tenure-track Taiwan Studies positions; building research clusters that are not based on the convenience of administration; (4) Making Taiwan studies more important by comparing other countries.

Yi-Ling Chen is an Associate Professor at the School of Politics, Public Affairs, and International Studies, University of Wyoming, USA. Her research compares housing, gender, and urban development among cities in East Asia, West Europe, and the USA. She and LSE geography professor, Hyun-Bang Shin, edited the book Neoliberal Urbanism, Contested Cities and Housing in Asia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

This article was published as part of a special issue on “Reflections on Taiwan Studies”.

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