Students learn about politics and culture up close in Taiwan

Joshua Fawcett Weiner in TaiwanWhen the chance came to visit Taiwan for one week in May to learn about its political, cultural and social life as part of the Young Leaders Delegation Program, York political science master’s degree student Joshua Fawcett Weiner (BA ’11 Spec. Hons.) jumped at the chance.

He was one of four York students who participated in the unusual learning opportunity sponsored by the government of the Republic of China, or Taiwan. As such, he said he was excited to “learn more about Taiwan, as it has a unique political situation and being able to speak with people inside and outside of institutions and learning about how they feel about various issues, including China, is something I would never have had the opportunity to do otherwise.”

The one-week trip was an intensive schedule of briefings by Taiwan and Canadian government representatives, Taiwan political parties, think tanks and scholars, as well as cultural activities.

Joshua Fawcett Weiner in Taiwan

“People were really candid and clear about what they thought,” said Fawcett Weiner.

Close to 50 York students who submitted an abstract for a paper on “Taiwan in Changing Global Political and Economic Order” to compete for the four spots available for the May trip. Each of the students who were accepted – one from Osgoode Hall Law School, another from the Faculty of Education, and two from the Department of Political Science in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies – had to complete the essay before flying to Taipei. Four students each from the University of Toronto and Wilfrid Laurier University also participated in the delegation.

Once in Taiwan, the students honed their presentation and discussion skills by presenting their papers to two audiences at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as one at National Chengchi University. Each presentation was followed by an intensive question and answer session with a knowledgeable local audience.

“It was an amazing professional development opportunity for the students,” said Professor Susan Henders, director of the York Centre for Asian Research (YCAR), who led the delegation to Taiwan. “Not only did they learn a great deal about the international and domestic situation in Taiwan in the The students tour Lungshan Templecontext of wider global developments, but they learned to present and defend an academic paper. The audiences in Taiwan were gracious, but sharp. The exchange of ideas was great.”

The students tour Lungshan Temple

Through the Young Leaders Delegation Program, the government of Taiwan aims to familiarize young people from other countries who are expected to be future decision makers, with the political, socioeconomic and cultural realities of Taiwan. The selection committee at YCAR was looking for students with leadership potential, strong academic records and familiarity with the Asia-Pacific.

A few hours after landing in Taipei, the students were briefed by the Canadian Trade Office and  the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy and visited the financial centre of Taipei, as well as its famous Lungshan Temple. That was just the first day. Over the next several days, they attended seminars on Taiwan’s growing economic ties with the People’s Republic of China, were briefed at the headquarters of the Democratic Progressive Party and the Kuomingtang, or Nationalist Party (Taiwan’s largest political parties), attended meetings at the diplomats training school of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and met with a professor and students at the Department of Diplomacy of National Chengchi University.

Susan HendersCultural visits took the group to Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and the Juming sculpture museum. They also toured Taroko National Park, Juming Museum, Fort San Domingo and Danshui “Fishermen’s Wharf” in Taipei and the northern coastal area, and took a trip to Taroko National Park in east-central Taiwan.

Susan Henders

Fawcett Weiner said he was surprised to learn how internationally focused Taiwan politics is. “Domestic issues don’t seem to figure as prominently in domestic political parties,” Fawcett Weiner said. “The political parties often agree on domestic policies and issues. It is the international issues they disagree on. And that balance of focus was something we talked about a lot.”

For the study trip, Fawcett Weiner wrote an essay on the relatively new Economic Cooperation and Framework Agreement between Taiwan and China, which is a start to lifting trade barriers between the two territories. It examined the likelihood that economic integration could mitigate the threat of armed conflict between them, based on liberal institutionalist theory.

The student essays, which covered topics as diverse as education for Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, the impact of migration on Taiwan, and the political, economic and cultural dimensions of Taiwan-China relations, sparked intense discussion with audiences in Taiwan, said Henders.

“The openness of the Taiwan people we met with to talk about issues, even the tough issues, was a great opportunity for the students to learn,” said Henders.

The Young Leaders Delegation Program is one way that Taiwan’s government tries to influence the public, rather than the government, of another country, so that its situation is better understood. “For Taiwan, public diplomacy is an especially important part of their diplomacy as they don’t have a lot of formal diplomatic relationships with other countries,” explained Henders.