Many high school students in Taiwan will have a more colorful answer than usual to the question “What did you do during your summer vacation?” when they return to the classroom in the fall.
A good number have spent the holidays protesting against new history textbook guidelines rather than having fun, and last week some were even arrested.
The protests, which began in June 2015, take issue with the Ministry of Education's new curriculum that recounts the history of Taiwan through a united-China perspective (from ancient China to Republic of China) instead of from a Taiwanese perspective.
For example, the original guidelines emphasize who Taiwanese are (including the history of its aboriginal peoples and migrants) and how Taiwan interacts with the world, but the new guidelines focus on how Taiwan interacts with China under the assumption that Taiwan is always part of China. Because none of the members in the supervision team for the revisions of the guidelines specialized in history and the major player in the supervision team (Prof. Hsiao-Po Wang) is a close friend of President Ma Ying-Jeou, critics say the revisions are just a political move by the ruling Kuomintang party, meant to build support for reunification with the People's Republic of China.
The guidelines will go into effect in August. Ahead of the change, 30 high school students entered the office building of the Ministry of Education on July 23 to protest and were arrested by police. Three reporters who followed these students were also arrested. All of them were charged with forcible entry into the building.
The Juvenile Law Garden released 11 students who are minors and demanded their parents accompany them home. Nineteen adult students made bail, while three reporters refused to pay. Later, they were released without paying bail, but the charge have not been dropped.
In response to the arrests, student activist group the Northern Area Student Alliance against New Textbook Guideline proclaimed on Facebook that the July 23 action was just the beginning:
Since last May, the ministry has not dealt with students’ requests, has avoided attending public forums, all while insisting that they go ahead with the new guidelines. […] Our goal is [to force them] into withdrawing the new guidelines. We demand the release of the students, we don't want to listen to a hypocritical apology and want justice to be upheld.
One of the three arrested reporters is from independent news site coolloud.org. The news organization urged the government to respect freedom of the press and release the reporters.
Yesterday (7/23), Cooulloud reporter Shiau-Hai Sung went to the Ministry of Education to report on the actions of high school students protesting against the new textbook guidelines. He was lucky to enter the building of the Ministry of Education with the students and witnessed the students’ action and how the police arrested the students. […] Taipei City Police Department said that the Ministry of Education sued [all the people entering the building], so they need to clarify whether these three reporters forcibly entered the building like other high school students.
Coolloud expresses serious disagreement with the police's forcible restriction of the reporters’ work at the scene.
The Ministry of Education announced the new textbook guidelines on January 17, 2014, and claimed that the adjustments were minor. But closer reviews revealed the changes were much more in-depth than advertised.
Moreover, the ministry was accused of violating procedural justice as the textbook revision committee members were asked to cast their vote in a box and the votes were only counted by the committee secretary after the meeting was dismissed. Even after controversy arose, the ministry refused to release the meeting minutes or the voting results to the public.
To defend citizens’ right to access public information, the Taiwan Association for Human Rights sued the ministry for their black-boxed procedures, and the Taipei High Court ruled that it should put the committee minutes and voting details under public examination.
The ministry insists that despite the procedural errors, there is nothing wrong with the new guidelines. However, the fact that none of the members in the supervision team for the new textbook guidelines are specialized in history provoked a public statement signed by more than 100 history researchers and teachers expressing their opposition to what they call unprofessional edits and additions.
Moreover, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has stated that the its party's mayors will not follow the ministry's new textbook guidelines in their cities and counties.
Despite these opposing voices, the ministry insists moving forward with the new guidelines as scheduled without changes. Therefore, these high school students will end up spending their summer vacation protesting outside the ministry or even inside jail.
History professor Yi-Fen Hua explained in a blog post why the new textbook guidelines are doomed to fail:
In the past, the person in power could push a specific ideology as well as their vision of who the enemy is and who we are through history education in schools. […] The younger generation no longer recognizes ‘nation’, ’history’, and ’world’ through the instruction of ideology. They see the world on their own through personal contact, close observation and the overwhelming amount of information on the Internet. While the younger generation must have a free, open and multicultural perspective to face the austere challenges of globalization in the 21st century, the ‘big Chinese nationalism ideology’ in the new history textbook guidelines from Kuomintang don't help.