Higher Education and Government Authoritarianism

I have spent the last two years working as a Professor of Law at a university in Istanbul, Turkey. The Turkish government is very active, some would even say meddlesome, when it comes to regulating education in the country. For instance, the government mandates make-up examinations for those students who fail. They are entitled to this free second chance for almost any reason. This erodes the meritocracy that should define higher education. Still, they are not done. Recently, there was a draft bill introduced into the Turkish Parliament that, if passed, would grant the Turkish Higher Education Board (YÖK) exclusive authority over pretty much every aspect of university education.

If passed, YÖK would be given the power to appoint university boards of directors and presidents, influence and even set curriculums, and make tenure decisions for professors. This power would even extend to private universities. It is the latest attempt by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to shape Turkish society more to its liking. Even though Turkey is a democracy, Turks are actually electing politicians with little checks on the power they wield. Turkey is, in essence, an electoral dictatorship.

The AKP is an Islamist government that has been ruling Turkey for over a decade. In that time, they have slowly dropped any facade of consensus building and now rule basically by fiat. This has been a problem since the beginning of the Turkish Republic in 1923. During the decades-long rule of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey was just as autocratic, so it is unfair to paint the AKP as the outlier in exercising authoritarian control.

I am not here to add to the volumes written on the weaknesses of Turkish democracy. I want to write about this specific bill. If it is passed into law and implemented in a typical Turkish heavy-handed way, it will set back the country’s development decades. In my opinion, there are three important elements that must exist in a modern, developed, and free society: an independent judiciary that enforces the rule of law, an independent media which informs and criticizes, and an unregulated academic environment where dissent and controversial opinions are welcomed into the public sphere. Turkey is failing miserably on press freedom and while the courts have so far avoided complete capitulation to government control, the Prime Minister continues to hammer at and erode their resistance. Academic freedom in Turkey is already far from where it should be with too many sacred cows that are difficult to criticize, but now the regime is moving in to finish the job.

Is the sun setting on Turkish educational freedom?

Is the sun setting on Turkish educational freedom?

Governments have long known the power of universities in shaping societies. In the United States, it was the college campuses that helped lead the anti-Vietnam war sentiment. More recently, students in Taiwan led the protests against increasing relations with China. China itself is being questioned for the establishment and agenda of its worldwide network of Confucius Institutes.

None of this has been lost on the AKP. The government has dealt with massive protests and corruption scandals over the past 12 months and has so far weathered the storm, thanks in no small part to short-sighted self-interest by a plurality of the Turkish electorate. The danger of losing their iron grip, however, is growing. Turkish university students are at the vanguard of challenging government authoritarianism and even though they are unorganized with no goal other than expressing dissatisfaction, the AKP is moving to nip it in the bud before it gathers cohesion.

With too many reporters already behind bars, with the government actively meddling in the judiciary and Central Bank, the Turkish electorate cannot afford to hand the keys to education over to ideological autocrats. The unfortunate problem is that awareness is almost certainly too low. Turkey is still very much a developing country relying on a cheap and unskilled labor force and foreign investment to fuel growth. As of 2011, approximately 14% of Turks had any kind of tertiary attainment (Bachelor’s degrees). This is less than half the OECD average. When 86% of the population has never graduated from a university, government control of the university system is not likely to raise many hackles. Turkey is in a precarious position. With a largely uninformed electorate, the country needs to rely on a small minority sounding the alarm or an increasingly autocratic government to abruptly shift course and scale back its authoritarianism. I don’t want to sound fatalistic, but it’s not looking good.


If you have any thoughts or comments, please share them below! You can also email me at thenonicheblog@gmail.com or follow me on Twitter at JohnS_20.

Finally, please consider visiting my Indiegogo campaign where I am currently trying to raise funds to ease the expense of my independent study. Studying abroad in Taiwan is not properly supported by the US government, but you can help!

Prime Minister Abe Must Stand Up for Women

One of the biggest news stories in the United States over the past few months has been the case of Elliot Rodger. I do not want to dredge up tired gun control arguments but I do want to talk about the other important point that came out of the incident: sexism and its seemingly unending pervasiveness in modern society. As the Rodger incident has clearly shown us, sexism is not just something that causes discomfort or hurt feelings. It can and has led to violence. And although it has been a source of violence since well before Rodger’s infamy, the mass killing has prodded people, especially men, to attempt to actively change behaviors that enable such a harmful atmosphere.

Unfortunately, the process of deconstructing patriarchy is going to take time and we will have to endure those that are still behind the curve. This week, an egregious act of harassment and hostility towards women happened in Japan. While making a speech on women’s rights, Councilwoman Ayaka Shiomura was heckled mid-speech by opposition lawmakers. To her credit, Ms. Shiomura kept her composure and handled the situation as professionally as any reasonable person could expect.

One of the hecklers has come forward to apologize. There are still several councilmembers that have not yet come forward. The alleged hecklers are believed to be from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which of course is the ruling party under Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. The Prime Minister finds himself in a difficult situation and he must act quickly, decisively, and convincingly.

Sexism is a pervasive problem in Japan and the country is known as one of the more patriarchal societies in the world. One of the aspirational goals of the Abe government is to try and redress this problem with something colloquially known as “Womenomics.” The government wants to increase funding for childcare and increase female participation in the senior management of the government and workforce. The goal is ambitious: raise the level of female participation from 3 percent to 30 per cent of senior management positions in the country by 2020.

With this aggressive platform against sexism, it is a public relations disaster that members of Abe’s own party feel it is appropriate to heckle a councilwoman with taunts about marriage and bearing children. This was on the floor of the Tokyo City Council for crying out loud! What kind of atmosphere exists where in even the most professional of places, where politicians are representing their constituency, is it appropriate for this kind of behavior?

This is where things get politically dangerous for the Prime Minister. It is apparent that some in his own party have not bought in to the crazy argument that women can actually do things on equal footing with men. Abe is now open to attacks on his policies. Clearly, critics may argue, Abe’s “Womenomics” is just setting goals in large numbers and not pushing for some kind of cultural change. Abe needs to address this challenge to his leadership directly. He must lead by example and show the people of Japan that the LDP is serious about improving the prospects for women. The offending LDP lawmakers must publicly apologize and the party must publicly discipline them in some way.

This is a slippery slope for Abe. The actions and attitude displayed by Elliot Rodger caused a firestorm in the United States about the treatment of women and the complicity of American men. Men were accused of not recognizing sexism, of ignoring its effect on women, and not speaking out to stop it. The Prime Minister is in a position to not only take discrete action against the perpetrators but also be the standard bearer for real change in Japan.

Abe is counting on national buy-in to his many policies aimed at changing the trajectory of Japanese society. If he wants to continue to press forward with his economic platform and a more traditional Japanese defense posture, he must forthrightly show the roughly 70 million Japanese women that his government is serious about equalizing their stake in Japanese business, government, and society.


If you have any thoughts or comments, please share them below! You can also email me at thenonicheblog@gmail.com or follow me on Twitter at JohnS_20.

Finally, please consider visiting my Indiegogo campaign where I am currently trying to raise funds to ease the expense of my independent study. Studying abroad in Taiwan is not properly supported by the US government, but you can help!

Why I Chose Taiwan and the Difficulty of Setting Expectations

As I have written numerous times before, this coming September I will be heading to Taipei. The ticket is booked, the fees are paid and I will be on my way.

When I told my family, friends, and colleagues that I wanted to go to Taiwan and study Chinese, I was repeatedly confronted with two questions: Why do you want to study Chinese? And if you are so interested in Chinese, why not actually go to China?

Before I address these questions, I want to fully disclose some things about myself. I am a lawyer who received his B.A. in History. I have always been interested in East Asia, particularly Japan. Due to various life events, I have actually never stepped foot in East Asia, so why now? I am at a point in my life where the time is right. It is a good confluence of timing, money, and interest. Over the years, I have read or studied various historical and political accounts of Japan, Korea, and China, but I had never really given Taiwan much thought. It has only been within the last year that my interest in the island really took off (more on that below.)

The first question is pretty simple to answer. There are two reasons why I have chosen to study Chinese. On a personal level, I have always been fascinated with the language and the culture and history built around it. There is more to it than that, of course. Learning Mandarin is a life skill. As a lawyer and academic, the plain fact is that Chinese is an enormously important language for my field. It opens doors and increases opportunities. I have also read that learning a language possibly facilitates greater creativity, something for which I am always on the lookout. I think a year of intense Chinese study will allow me to grow personally, professionally, and creatively.

As a lawyer/academic/writer, I could not ask for anything more.

Ok, but Why Taiwan?

This is a question that requires a little more explanation. China is the “obvious” choice to learn Mandarin. This is only the perception, however, and my study of Taiwan shattered all of my preconceived notions. Like many Americans, I unfortunately fell into the trap of regarding Taiwan as just “there” with the nation’s only interesting feature being its shared history with and relationship to China. My mindset started to change after I decided, on a lark, to read “Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse” by Shelley Rigger. The book was fascinating and I began to realize how criminally under the radar Taiwan is and remains in the minds of the average American. Soon after reading that book, I devoured everything I could about Taiwan.

When I started reading about Taiwanese history and examined Cross Strait relations from the Taiwanese side, I was hooked. Taiwan and Korea are the two “small fish” between the “whales” of Japan and China. They both have compelling and similar national narratives, but something about the Taiwanese story spoke to me. A country that was dealt a bad hand – a hostile giant neighbor, an oppressive authoritarian regime, and an increasing economic and political isolation – still overcoming the odds to build a blossoming modern, developed, and democratic country. Taiwan will always be linked in some way with China both culturally and ethnically, but the country has forged a unique Taiwanese identity for itself that transcends “being Chinese.” The island is still struggling with identity, but over time, a consensus does seem to be slowly forming. Like Austrians and Germans, there is a place for Taiwanese to recognize that though they may share some history, culture, and language with China, they are completely separate and distinct.

Professionally, I think Taiwan is an interesting case study for developing countries. After having spent the past two years in Turkey, I have witnessed how failure of the rule of law and inconsistent application of law can stagnate a country’s development. Turkey reached middle-income status in 1955 and is still considered a middle-income country in 2014. There are numerous reasons for that, but one of them is certainly the structure and implementation of law, policy, and regulation. Taiwan is a country that has blown through that trap. In 1980, Taiwan and Turkey were roughly the same in GDP per capita. Now, Taiwan is has almost double the GDP per capita in real terms and 2.5 times at purchasing power parity. Hopefully by living and studying in Taiwan, I can equip myself with the skills necessary to investigate and better appreciate how the legal environment contributed to Taiwan’s successes, especially after democratization. Taiwan can serve as a model for China and the rest of the developing world.

Turkey is a beautiful country with a lot of potential, but it has failed to live up to its potential thus far.

Turkey is a beautiful country with a lot of potential, but it has failed to live up to its potential thus far.

With my university contract expiring, I decided that now was the time to strike. I declined to sign a new contract and instead applied to the International Chinese Language Program. I feel like a country as fascinating as Taiwan deserves an up-close and personal look from me and I am really excited to embrace a new culture and experience.

The Thorny Issue of Expectations

The other issue I have been pondering is my expectation of the program. I would generously call myself a beginner in Mandarin. I am aggressively self-studying to reach the highest level possible by September, but I am still going to be a beginner when I touch down in Taipei. I am not sure what a realistic expectation should be. I plan on throwing myself into it at a healthy pace, meaning as hard as I can without burning myself out.

Expectations are important because they will drive my study program. Set goals too low and I will not live up to my potential. Set goals too ambitious and I will become frustrated by my lack of progress. The key to this next year is honing in on difficult but achievable goals for myself. Without a more solid background in Chinese, this seems extraordinarily difficult.

My optimal goal is not to reach professional fluency (because I know it is extremely unlikely in twelve months), but I would like to establish some sort of solid foundation to carry forward. Through these twelve months, I will spend almost 800 hours in the classroom. That’s a lot but far from the State Department’s estimate for professional capability, which also factors in high aptitude students with rigorous study. With my own independent study added to my classroom time, I can reach 2000 hours of Chinese, but I still don’t know how that affects benchmarks. Obviously, I need to take the linked hour totals with a pinch of salt.

So for those that have been through the process of learning Mandarin, what do you think? What kind of goals should I set? How helpful can I expect my self-study to be over the next three months?


If you have any thoughts or comments about what I should expect after a year of ICLP or Mandarin learning in general, please share them below! You can also email me at thenonicheblog@gmail.com or follow me on Twitter at JohnS_20.

Finally, please consider visiting my Indiegogo campaign where I am currently trying to raise funds to ease the expense. Independent study abroad in Taiwan is not properly supported by the US government, but you can help!

Taiwan: Focusing on the Positive

Warning: Link-heavy post. Make sure you have lots of open tabs in your browsers because I know how the internet works.

In his book (which I have quoted before) “Uncharted Strait: The Future of China-Taiwan Relations,” Richard Bush states “There is also sometimes a tendency in Taiwan to measure success in innovation according to global rankings, number of patents, and performance in international competitions.” Looking at Taiwanese media coverage, I think it is fair to say that Taiwan looks at raw statistics and rankings in almost every area. The nation’s complex “frenemy” relationship with South Korea illustrates this best.

Everywhere you look, Taiwan seems to compare itself to South Korea. On the surface, it makes sense. The post-World War 2 histories of the nations are eerily similar. Both were divided nations (the KMT view); both faced an existential threat from their communist kinsmen; both suffered decades of oppressive military dictatorship; both achieved economic miracles; both now have blossoming democracies less than 30 years old.

It is not out of the ordinary for countries with so much in common to see each other as rivals, especially when both countries make economic hay in the same industries. Taiwan, however, seems to have developed an undeserved inferiority complex when it comes to South Korea. I understand, given its complicated international status, Taiwan must deal with alienation and other decided disadvantages. The media, for reasons not obviously clear to me, seems to overblow the country’s “shortcomings.” To illustrate, let’s take a look at a small sampling of commentary from the last few years. Here are some of the articles that showcase Taiwan’s feelings towards South Korea (as seen through the media):

This one is a bit more objective, but it still paints the picture of a “lagging” Taiwan.

Samsung itself is a “threat” to Taiwan.

Taiwan Lagging Behind South Korea.

South Korea’s trade relationships seen as a “crisis” in Taiwan.

“Taiwan wants to be able to compare itself with Korea, so it is careful to watch its every move.”

The Taekwondo controversy.

My personal favorite is this China Times editorial posted on the KMT website which laments what a blow it is to Taiwan that it cannot join South Korea in a “club” for which Taiwan does not even qualify. I mean, Taiwan should feel shame for not being counted in a club that would require the island to more than double its population!

Now, I am not Taiwanese. I do not have the experience of growing up in Taiwan and everything that comes with it. I am not going to use this space to lecture anyone on how they should feel about something with which I am not personally familiar. I do, however, want to point out, as an outsider, some things of which Taiwan should be proud. Again, this is just a sample of the plethora of things Taiwan has going for it.

Doesn't this look like something to be proud of?  Copyright: DaveWilsonPhotography used through CC License.

Doesn’t this look like something to be proud of?
Copyright: DaveWilsonPhotography. Used through CC License.

First, a Korean diplomat and then an exchange student briefly talk about aspects of Taiwan that are noteworthy. Besides personal perceptions from Koreans, there are also objective measurements where Taiwan enjoys distinct advantages that I would argue are more important than pure economics. Freedom House, for instance, rated Taiwan as more free politically than South Korea. According to Reporters without Borders, Taiwan’s press is freer than both South Korea and Japan.

For those that still want to focus on economics, The Heritage Foundation, a conservative American think tank, ranks Taiwan’s economy as freer than both South Korea and Japan. Forbes believes Taiwan is a better place to do business than South Korea. And just today, Swiss bank UBS speculated that Taiwan could outstrip South Korea in economic growth this year, ironically because South Korea depends on its economic relations with China more than Taiwan does.

Taiwan is still, by almost any objective measurement, a flourishing nation. The Taiwanese media and other parties seem to focus on areas where Taiwan seems to be falling behind, giving disproportionately less attention to all the things the island does well. I am not sure why Taiwan needs to have a measuring stick at all. Instead of comparing Taiwan to some outside party, why not focus inward and support policies that make the majority of Taiwanese happy?


If you have any thoughts or comments about Taiwan’s relationship with South Korea or the position of Taiwanese media, please share them below! You can also email me at thenonicheblog@gmail.com or follow me on Twitter at JohnS_20.

In this article, I told you I was an outsider. Well, starting in September, I will be a Taiwan insider! I will be living in Taiwan to study Mandarin in the International Chinese Language Program at National Taiwan University. The flight is booked and tuition and housing deposit wired. I am definitely going, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t use any help. Please visit my Indiegogo campaign where I am currently trying to raise funds to ease the expense. Independent study abroad in Taiwan is not properly supported by the US government, but you can help!

Quick Update about ICLP and my Taiwan Education

I am in the midst of grading final exams here in Istanbul, so the “real job” has taken over this week. Before I let this fledgling blog languish too long without a post, I thought I would write a quick update on where I am with the ICLP. For those that may not know, I wrote about it here and here.

Next week is when I will send out the official acceptance of my spot in the program. I have been wrangling with some insurance companies and other administrative issues, but those things will get taken care of before long.

My Indiegogo campaign is far short of its goal (with plenty of time still to go), but I am doing better than I expected for someone who is just trying to raise some awareness and fund an education. I am not offering any nifty prizes. I am not offering any amazing new products. Any donation I get is out of pure generosity and a desire to help spread the word.

With the recent 25th Anniversary of Tiananmen Square, awareness and reflection are ever more important. For those in China, Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the broader Pacific region, the actions, both good and bad, of the Chinese Communist Party carry heavy consequences. As an American, I feel the need in my own small way, to make sure attention is paid to these consequence, both occurring and potential.

Thanks to all that have supported me thus far and thanks to all those that are doing their best to raise awareness on a much broader scale than I.


The United States Should Focus on Taiwan’s Democracy, Not Its Security Implications

In his book “Uncharted Strait: The Future of China-Taiwan Relations,” Brookings Institute Director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies, Richard C. Bush discusses many issues that impact relations between the states and effects on US policy. He spends a bit of time toward the end of the book talking about the push and pull of divergent views on Taiwan that exist among American academics, politicians, and policymakers.

I believe there is a dangerous divergence among American policymakers where neither side views the US-Taiwan relationship in a healthy way. On one side, we have what Bush cites as the conservative “friends of Taiwan.” This group views Taiwan as little more than the most expedient way “to contain China.” On the other side is the group that looks at the growing power and influence of China and declares that Taiwan has become a “strategic liability.” This group wants to abandon Taiwan outright in an effort to appease China and strengthen relations.

These two groups obviously differ on US arms sales to Taiwan. The “friends of Taiwan” want to arm the island to the teeth, effectively turning the country into an imposing porcupine that serves American security interests by checking and deterring China. The liability camp wants to rid the US of the burden of guaranteeing the sovereignty of what amounts to little more than a protectorate of America. What is painfully obvious here is that neither of these views takes the interest of Taiwan itself into account. Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, Taiwan’s relationship with the US is defined as an appendage of China-US relations.

J. Michael Cole recently wrote that Washington better re-assess its view of conditions in Taiwan or risk being caught by surprise by the backtracking of freedoms there or worse, a flash of conflict in cross-strait relations. I agree, however, I think this waking up not only requires re-assessing what is actually going on in Taiwan, but re-thinking the very foundation of the US-Taiwan relationship.

In the decades following World War 2, US foreign policy was ideologically driven and premised on the containment of the communist threat. Taiwan slid comfortably into this security policy architecture after China was “lost.” A funny thing has happened in the intervening decades, though. Taiwan and its democracy, despite missteps and growing pains, is learning to stand on its own two feet. Inexplicably, the US has not changed its view of the island enough in light of these developments. This is in contrast to changes in other parts of the world over the same time period. For example, since 1991, the US has invested over five billion dollars in Ukraine in order to help “build democratic institutions.” Sure, some of that was certainly military aid of some sort, but it sent a message to the rest of the world that even in a post-Soviet era, America was still in the business of promoting and supporting democracy.

This attitude is sadly rarely seen in current Taiwan-US relations. There was a brief flare up of such talk during the recent anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act, but it has not signaled any kind of shift in US policy. Taiwan is still first and foremost a security issue, the conventional wisdom goes. This is the viewpoint that needs to change. I am not advocating that we ignore the security implications or cease arms sales, but the rhetorical foundation of the relationship needs to be strongly and clearly redefined.

Instead of looking at the island as a forward base to contain China, America should voice support for a fellow democratic and capitalist nation. Why is that not a compelling enough reason? Overemphasis on security rhetoric not only taints US-China relations but also shakes the confidence of Taiwan and other Pacific allies. It antagonizes China and sends the signal to other countries that their value to the US is going to be measured in relative value vis-à-vis the second largest economy in the world with a population of 1.3 billion strong. How secure should they feel under this paradigm? Supporting democracy not only gives the US more moral authority when dealing with China but also reassures allies.

I am not calling for an end to America’s strategic ambiguity or that China should be bullied on ideological grounds, but basing support for Taiwan on a democratic and capitalist basis sends a firmer statement about what kind of issues the US deems important in any China-Taiwan future peace talks. This gives Taiwan at least a little more leverage in hypothetical negotiations. Further, a US emphasis on democracy as the cornerstone of the relationship may spur Taiwan to further its political reforms. Just as the Trans-Pacific Partnership holds out a carrot for Taiwan to liberalize its economy, an emphasis on democracy may not only nudge Taiwan toward more transparent and responsive government but also send a message to China that the US-Taiwan relationship is more nuanced than just a pure anti-China security arrangement.

By basing the relationship on these grounds, I believe it helps assuage China at least somewhat (if they believe the US is sincere) and keeps Taiwan moving towards a more responsive and pluralistic democratic society.


If you have any thoughts or comments, please share them below! You can email me at thenonicheblog@gmail.com or follow me on Twitter at JohnS_20.

Also, please visit my Indiegogo campaign where I am currently trying to raise funds for my upcoming enrollment in the International Chinese Language Program at National Taiwan University.