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Curriculum Crisis in Taiwan Highlights Country's Generational Divides Once More

11/08/2015 15:37 BST | Updated 10/08/2016 10:59 BST

It is just a couple of weeks ago that Taiwan was making news around the world for all the right reasons after both the major political parties, the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) nominated female candidates for next year's Presidential elections.

Taiwan it seemed was a model for the region in modern, gender equality, and forward thinking politics. What a difference a fortnight makes.

Two weeks on, and once again the young people of Taiwan have been forced onto the streets to protest politically-motivated draconian changes being made to the country's education curriculum, which have not only highlighted the deep political divides, but also the deep social divides which the country still faces.

In protests which echo the Sunflower Movement of 2014, which saw student activists occupy Taiwan's Legislative Yuan (the country's Parliament building) for 23 days, the last two weeks has seen the country's Ministry of Education taken over by youngsters, many still in high school, who are outraged at the arbitrary, and hugely misleading changes that have been made to Taiwan's history in the country's new textbooks and academic guidelines.

The Ministry of Education announced changes to the curriculum several months ago. They claim they were made in line with the country's constitutional statutes, which still claim the government in Taiwan is the rightful Government of the whole of China. But these are widely perceived as outdated in today's world, and irrelevant to the very different routes that China and Taiwan have taken in the interim period.

Most Taiwanese people do not consider themselves to be Chinese, and Taiwan itself has a rich and colourful history, which has been the focus of the education curriculum until now. There is no appetite to learn Chinese history, under the guide of the Republic of China (Taiwan's formal name) still being the legitimate rulers of Taiwan.

Why have these changes been made now? The general consensus is that they are party political in nature. The current, and wildly unpopular President of Taiwan is Ma Ying-jeou. He leads the KMT which strongly advocates closer ties, and eventual reunification with China. It was his trade deal, the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, which prompted the Sunflower Movement last year, owing to its perceived pro-China bias.

Many believe teaching the children of Taiwan the 'One China, two areas' doctrine laid out in the Statutes, is in the interests of the KMT both ideologically, and in terms of bringing up a new generation of KMT supporters.

The Curriculum changes have been decided by a Curriculum Review Committee, whose membership, although supposedly independent, was hand-picked by the Ministry of Education. There has been many questions asked about the make-up of the committee and the transparency of the review process raised, but the eventual outcome has seen a Committee packed with KMT-supporting members have their recommendations were waved through with no real scrutiny.

The Committee convener, Wang Hsiao-po, has highlighted the farcical nature of the changes, and the evident committee bias, by stated publicly that Taiwan's capital is Nanjing (a city located in northern China, some 800km from the actual capital Taipei).

Changes to the textbook themselves include claiming Taiwan's highest mountain as Mount Everest, that Taiwanese conscripts to the Japanese Army during World War Two were willing participants, and so to were the so-called 'comfort-women', kidnapped from Taiwan to work in Japanese brothels.

Ludicrous those these, and many more claims are, they are, as of today, officially to be taught in Taiwanese schools.

Protests inside the Ministry of Education peaked last week after the suicide of one of the architects of this current uprising, Dai Lin, supposedly to raise awareness of the issue nationally and globally.

With characteristic tact and decorum, the KMT leapt on this tragedy, to claim he had been manipulated in all of his actions, including taking his own life, by the opposition DPP Party. Politicisation of tragedy is an everyday event in Taiwan, and no-one was especially surprised.

But there has predictably been outrage at the comments, not least by the mother of Dai Lin, who retorted that;

"He was not a kid who could be manipulated by political parties. He was not blind; he was true to his own will."

But what this tragedy perfectly illustrates is the huge social schism that exists in Taiwan between the older and younger generations.

As a country where the majority of people practice the tradition of ancestor worship, respect for your elders is deeply engrained, and in some ways that can be a positive thing, with family units in Taiwan much closer and stronger than in other parts of the world.

But the converse effect it has is that elder generations are hugely dismissive of the views of those younger than them. There is a belief the young people are stupid, incapable of understanding important issues, and should work hard and do what they are told by those with more experience and who therefore know better.

But in an increasingly small world, where the young have a rapidly growing influence, this perception is being increasingly challenged by a young generation intent on making their mark and improving the country the live in and love.

It was this determination that led to the Sunflower Movement, and it is this once again which has seen students taking to the streets to protest a political decision which directly affects them, but which has been forced upon them without their views being given any consideration.

No one has voiced the problem better than Dai Lai's mother again. Herself a KMT Party member, she said;

It is society, adults, parents like me who have been brainwashed like me, that need treatment... If adults could not believe that the younger generation is capable of thinking independently, then they are admitting to their own failure in education.

Tellingly, even now, with the obvious lunacy of the changes being made to the curriculum, polls show that 60% of Taiwanese people disagree with the activists. This is despite polls indicating that most Chinese still oppose the pro-Chinese agenda of the KMT, and are likely to vote them out of office next year. It does not take a great leap of imagination to know why that is. The protesters are young people. They should do as they are told.

The poll, and the attitude taken by authorities here to the legitimate concerns being raised about the changes, highlights the generational discrimination that is still rampant in Taiwanese Society. And until the views of young people in this country are given the credence they deserve, social unrest and out-of-touch politics will continue to be the norm here, to the detriment of both the country and its people.