Taiwan targets ethnic Chinese students in ASEAN countries

2018/09/06 17:21:19 fontsize-small fontsize-default fontsize-big
Premier Lai Ching-te (賴清德, second row, second left) / CNA file photo

Premier Lai Ching-te (賴清德, second row, second left) / CNA file photo

By Joseph Yeh, CNA staff reporter

On a hot summer day, more than 100 school principals from Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries gathered in a conference room in downtown Taipei to attend the first ever ASEAN Chinese language school principals' meeting held from Aug. 20-22.

Organized by Taiwan's Overseas Community Affairs Council (OCAC), the agency in charge of liaising with ethnic Chinese communities abroad, the three-day-event featured 108 school principals or top managers from seven ASEAN countries -- Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Cambodia.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, Premier Lai Ching-te (賴清德) noted that the meeting seeks to give participants a more in-depth understanding of efforts being made by Taiwan's government as part of the cultural and educational exchange side of its New Southbound Policy targeting 10 ASEAN countries, India, Bagladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Australia and New Zealand.

Premier Lai Ching-te (賴清德) / CNA file photo

Lai said the New Southbound Policy, initiated after President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) assumed office in May 2016, has had success in strengthening the links between Taiwan and ASEAN countries.

Tourism and trade exchanges aside, Lai said the number of students from ASEAN countries studying in Taiwan in 2017 increased by 10 percent compared with a year ago.

The number has seen a significant hike as a result of government incentives, including more scholarships targeting ASEAN students, he added.

According to the Ministry of Education's (MOE) latest statistics, more than 117,970 foreign students attended Taiwan's universities and colleges in 2017, about 9 percent of the university and college students in the country. Of those, 35,460 students came from ASEAN countries, approximately 30 percent of the total.

With 25,290 or 21.4 percent of the total, overseas ethnic Chinese students, mainly from Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia and other ASEAN countries, were another major source of international students to Taiwan in 2017, the MOE data shows.

From a long-term perspective, a majority of foreign students who choose to study in Taiwan tend to be ethically Chinese or have some connection to Taiwan and many of those come from ASEAN countries.

Another reason ASEAN countries are a major source of international students in Taiwan is that the OCAC has long forged close ties with overseas Chinese language schools in the region.

Decades of Hard Work by OCAC

At the beginning of 2018, a total of 2,318 overseas Chinese language schools were working closely with Taiwan's government, with 73.7 percent located in Asia, according to OCAC.

Despite its limited budget the council has for decades donated teaching materials and trained Chinese language instructors to privately funded schools that teach Chinese language and culture to ethnic Chinese students.

Speaking to reporters on the sideline of the ASEAN Chinese language school principals' meeting, Wang Shao-chang (王紹章), head of Sacred Heart Middle School in Mea-ai, Northern Thailand, said Taiwan's high quality education environment is extremely attractive to his students.

Wang, who is also president of the Chiang Rai area Chinese language teachers' association, said another reason is that most third generation ethnic Chinese in Northern Thailand are decedents of Republic of China military personnel who ended up there at the end of World War II.

Lashio Holy Light Chinese Language School deputy principal Lee Ming-chang (李明昌) from Myanmar said around 20 to 25 percent of his high school graduates will choose to pursue further studies overseas, and for most of them, Taiwan is their No. 1 choice.

However, the decades-long educational exchanges between Taiwan and Chinese language schools in ASEAN have faced a new challenge in recent years.

China's Confucius Institute, a non-profit public educational organization affiliated with its education ministry, has become a staunch competitor in the promotion of Chinese language and culture, supporting local Chinese teaching in Southeast Asian countries and around the globe.

Nevertheless, Taiwan still has an edge after helping Chinese schools in ASEAN countries for decades and with its use of traditional Chinese characters, a writing system some believe better reflects the essence of Chinese culture, unlike the simplified characters used in China.

"Traditional Chinese characters preserve the beauty of Chinese culture, which is why all our 68 Chinese language schools in Myanmar use Taiwan's teaching materials instead of China's," Wang said.

Calls to Ease Work Permit Conditions

Wang and Lee both called on the Taiwan government to provide more scholarships and visa privileges to students who plan to study in Taiwan.

The government could also do more to allow those students to stay and work in Taiwan after finishing their studies, which is not easy right now.

In 2014, the Ministry of Labor amended regulations governing work permits for foreign professionals to allow foreign graduates of Taiwanese universities to obtain work permits more easily. Previously, only an employer willing to pay an average monthly salary of NT$37,619 (about US$1,220) could sponsor a foreign graduate for a work permit.

Under the new rules, the rigid minimum salary requirement has been replaced with a more flexible points system that awards points based on compensation, language ability and experience living abroad.

If the foreign graduate scores 70 points, the employer can sponsor the student for a work permit for professional employment (specialized and technical work).

This represents a tentative first move away from the minimum salary requirements that discouraged Taiwanese employers from hiring foreign professionals.

The DPP administration, plans to take this a step further.

Premier Lai announced at the Aug. 20 opening ceremony that Taiwan's National Development Council (NDC) has drafted a new economic immigration act that targets three categories of foreign talent - including ethnic Chinese students.

Under the new rules, they and their families will be eligible to apply for permanent residency and naturalization after seven years in the country.

The draft act has been published on the council's public online policy platform, and people can express their opinion on it until Oct. 5. It then has to be approved by the Executive Yuan and submitted to the Legislature for review.

"Hopefully when it officially hits the road, the new bill will help our country retain these talented individuals, and when they ultimately return to their home countries, they can contribute to their economies using the skills and experience learned in Taiwan," Lai noted.

When that day comes, the dream of Yang Hsiao-chieh (楊曉潔) from Myanmar, could finally realized.

A sophomore currently studying electronics at the Kaohsiung-based Chung Shan Industrial & Commercial School, Wang told reporters that after graduating from high school she plans to continue her studies at university in Taiwan before one day returning home.

"I want to raise money to fund a private school in Myanmar, to help the children in my home country," she said.


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