Sunday, August 02, 2015

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Taiwan's textbook controversy, and a suicide that opened Pandora's box

8/02/2015 Taiwan Explorer
One of the most talked about events in Taiwan these days was the storming of Taiwan's Education Ministry by Taiwanese students, who objected to a new textbook revision, that would make the history more China-centric. Here's what happened on July 23rd, from The Diplomat (my summary):

Dozens of Taiwanese students briefly occupied the Ministry of Education (further MOE) in Taipei last night to protest a series of “minor” adjustments to school textbooks which activists and academics claim are Sino-centric and whitewash the authoritarian period in Taiwan’s history. Scaling ladders, the activists slipped by police and stormed the ministry building late on Thursday evening. According to the police, 18 activists subsequently barricaded themselves inside Minister of Education Wu Se-hwa’s office, using furniture to block the door. By about 1 a.m., police had succeeded in expelling the students, some of whom had their hands tied behind their backs with plastic restraints. In total, 33 persons were arrested, including 24 students—11 of them under the age of 18. Three journalists were also arrested and taken away.

The textbook controversy is not new, it's just that it has reached its peak on that day, and it seemed for a brief moment that the Sunflower Movement got a new boost. The arrests caused more protests in the following days, and nationwide discussions, but then the story took a tragic turn. Taipei Times reported (my summary):

A student who had campaigned against the Ministry of Education’s controversial adjustments to high-school curriculum guidelines was found dead yesterday in an apparent suicide at his family’s residence in New Taipei City. Kuan-hua Lin (林冠華), a member of the Northern Taiwan Anti-Curriculum Changes Alliance, was found dead by emergency workers who were summoned by his mother after her son failed to respond to calls outside his bedroom, the New Taipei City Fire Department said. After police arrived and broke down the door, they saw Lin lying in bed with a pan of charcoal lighted on a nearby desk, in an apparent suicide. Yesterday was his 20th birthday. Lin had been a prominent activist within the Northern Taiwan Anti-Curriculum Changes Alliance, he periodically served as one of the group’s spokespeople. He was among the students who were arrested on Thursday night last week for breaking into the ministry’s compound to protest changes to the curriculum guidelines.

Initially part of the media made it look like his suicide is only related to the textbook revisions by MOE, such as in the same article in the Taipei Times:

His mother, according to the Chinese-language Apple Daily, said that Lin had been “depressed” since being released on bail last week for entering the ministry building. “I very much regret that I was not able to stop this,” she said in a statement, denying that her son had been pressured or threatened by ministry officials.

I immediately felt something's not right here. As much as I believe he had strong ideals, I would not imagine he would've ended his life only because he was not able to prevent this textbook revision, I was sure it must have been more complex than that. I suspected it had to do something with his family as well. Solidarity.tw did an excellent job of providing English subtitles of an excerpt from a popular Taiwanese talkshow called "新聞挖挖哇", where Lin participated a few days after his arrest and a few days before his suicide. This will immediately highlight several issues that go beyond the textbook controversy, and that's what made me write about this issue more deeply, because the death touched me as a parent.

See the whole show (without English subtitles).

In case you're unable to watch the video, here's what it was said in text form. In the video Lin describes the events after his arrest. He describes how one of his teachers as well as the principal of his high school came to his home to put pressure on his parents (he was a student of the New Taipei Municipal Juang Jing Vocational High School, 新北市私立莊敬高級工業家事職業學校). This is what the principal told him when he paid him a visit:

“Are you truly clear about what you are thinking? Do you truly understand what you are doing now? Have you planned out your future? Have you thought clearly about how you’ll find a job? You could have a criminal record!”

I doubt that the high school really cared about his future, it seems to be more about caring about their school's reputation (loss of face), or perhaps they got an order from somewhere higher (this is just speculation on my part) that they should put pressure on him to make him stop fighting against the MOE. Lin then further says:

So when my principal and teacher left the room, my mother took them downstairs. Downstairs they spoke for about 15 minutes. As soon as she came back, she put her hands on her hips. She scolded me right away. My father believes my breaking in MOE could’ve been because I could not control my emotions. He just said to me very frankly: “If you have a disease, you should take medicine!” My mom said: “Who do you think you are? What qualifications do you have to stand up? You’re nobody.”

Here you can see how cold the parents were to the boy. Instead of listening to him, and trying to understand why he is doing the things he is doing, they immediately succumbed to external influence in their judgement. This is what some people call "traditional Taiwanese parents", and sadly such reaction is very common. These kind of parents constantly push their kids to achieve top scores in schools at all costs, they drill them to obey authority (parents, teachers, officials), follow rules without questioning, and "control their emotions". It is quite telling that the father thought his son was sick, and should take medicine. To be fair, part of that fear of authority is the consequence of nearly half a century long martial law period, where people who spoke out against the authoritarian KMT regime landed in a prison on Green Island

Here's another part of the dialogue Lin mentioned, it's between his mother and him:

“If Jianguo High School Students break in, next year they’ll still get into the NTU Law Department. What’ve you got?”

I told her, isn’t this elitism? Why can only people with good grades speak up about unfairness and injustice? So, we vocational school students, or we students with worse grades, should just be good boys and girls and keep quiet? This standard is quite strange.”

This part shows how smart the boy was, and highlights a big generational rift between him and his traditional parents. In Taiwan's educational system prestige is often more important than the actual knowledge. This causes that you have a huge percentage of highly educated people on paper, who are often unable to think independently, because the system rewards those who learn by heart, pass the tests, and enter the right schools, not those who think for themselves and creatively.

In the same video the TV host Cheng Hung-yi (鄭弘儀) says something to the boy's father, that the father should've told to the boy:

“Father, I say this son you’ve raised is your pride and joy, because he has great courage and insight. He’s extremely brave. And he knows what he is doing. He isn’t someone going to prostitutes, taking drugs, smoking, going out to fight and cause trouble, he’s not that kind of young person. He really has ideals about what he wants to do for Taiwan. You should be very proud. He says he feels, he believes, that education should not be about politics. It has to be just the facts of history. Then it’ll be OK. That’s all this is about. As for running into the MOE, this is a radical method, that’s true. But I want to ask you. If Huang Hsing and Sun Yat-sen, at that time, took guns and killed people, and they’re called revolutionaries and heroes, your son entering because he wants to change education policy, not change, not change, actually he just wants to continue the original education policy. What’s wrong with that? What I want to say is what he’s doing today, in the future it will be one of the most important badges of his lifetime, because when he’s this young, a teenager, to be carrying this load, and having this consciousness, shows that he is amazing. Why? Because in the past, throughout this process of struggle for Taiwan’s democracy and human rights, these young people, for example, the Wild Lilies, the Wild Strawberries, and now the Sunflowers, these people have already become Taiwan’s important figures. Why? Because when they were young, they wanted to uphold their ideals and change Taiwan. Your son is doing that kind of thing right now, so don’t heap blame on him. You should encourage him.”

I wonder, if this statement escalated the emotions inside the family, as it may have lead to the father's loss of face. Nevertheless, what Cheng said was spot on, and commendable. Of course it's difficult to judge what were all the circumstances that lead the young boy to take his life, it was probably a mix of many factors, and perhaps only the parents know the answer to that. Yesterday the mother issued an emotional statement on Facebook, which was also translated into English by Solidarity.tw. It gives us a little bit more insight into the family, and it shows my assumptions were right, and the mother is now very sorry about many things. I cannot imagine how devastated she must be now. Here are some of the most important parts of her statement:

"Kuan-hua was a special child. In sixth grade he was at the top of his class. After his second year of junior high school, he often told me that what he was studying had no meaning. After taking the exam he’d forget it all, and he wouldn’t be able to use it. 'Studying it just for the test was a waste of time', he said."

"I couldn’t help him and couldn’t force him to learn. He completely followed his heart. He rushed and stormed into things. He had to realize his mission. He demanded perfection. It was impossible for me to convince or to discipline him in the traditional ways. And our home is actually very traditional. So we were constantly in conflict. He never satisfied our demands to study obediently and get good grades. When class was boring, he didn’t force himself."

Here you can see that it was all about studying and grades, and the traditional expectations.

I think that being unable to meet traditional demands was the source of his frustration and internal conflict, that he thought he wasn’t good enough and wasn’t trying hard enough and he felt like he was doing wrong by us. He often said he was really smart, that his IQ was 142, but as parents, we misunderstood and believed he was smart but wasn’t using it in the right places.

Very telling, nothing more to add here. And finally:

"Kuan-hua, forgive your mother. I misunderstood you. I made you feel pressure. I made a treasure out to be a fool. Now I finally understand how steadfast and active you were for your ideals.

The one who’s sick is this society. It’s the adults. It’s the parents who were brainwashed, like me. You were a little prince who always had pure thoughts. You completed your mission. You made public opinion boil over all right. You’ve made us brainwashed adults rethink things."