Students Put in a Call to Taiwan’s President

Although diplomatic agreements with China prohibit the U.S. government from granting visas to Taiwanese officials, Harvard’s Fairbanks Center found a way Monday to bring President of Taiwan Chen Shui-Bian to Coolidge Hall anyway—they teleconferenced him in.

Chen addressed 30 persons, mostly students from Historical Studies A-74, “Contemporary China,” for about a half-hour and took questions from the audience.

Chen focused his speech on the possibility of achieving political consensus in Taiwan, as well as issues of economic growth and relations with the United States.

Shaun L. Rein, the teaching fellow of A-74, who arranged a lottery for the event, said he thought Chen put a “glossy picture” on things because he was speaking to an American audience.

“It was a little biased in the way he consistently referred to democracy and friendship with the United States,” Rein said. “It seemed like a vehicle for propoganda.”

But many students said they still felt honored to hear the president talk in a small and casual setting.

Andres W. Su ’03, who was living in Taiwan when Chen was elected, said he relished his chance to directly question the chief executive.

“When I lived in Taiwan, I had heard many different opinions about Chen, and now I had the opportunity to talk to him and ask him a question,” Su said. “It was very exciting.”

Chen gave a patriotic answer to Su’s question of whether the president felt that native Taiwanese were more closely associated with the Republic. Su said the president responded by saying that anyone who loves the land could be Taiwanese.

While students noted Chen’s guarded nature in answering many of the questions, they said they understood that Taiwan’s political position forced Chen to hold his tongue sometimes.

“It was obvious that he skirted some questions, but it’s politics,” said Karen T. Lo ’05. “Many of his answers were very general because he doesn’t have the freedom to say certain things.”

An on-line transcript of the session omits Chen’s answer to perhaps the most controversial question, which hinted that the Taiwanese government’s unwillingness to reunite with mainland China served the president’s best interests but not that of the Taiwanese people.

“It was interesting to see how this event was reported in the press,” Rein said. “Even such a democratic nation as Taiwan censors things.”

Nevertheless, Rein said the “amazing” event enhanced the course and was impressive for the students who attended.

“It’s incredible that we were able to have a small group of students meet and talk with the president of a country,” he said. “It gave a lot of students a better idea about the issues facing Taiwan.”

—Staff writer Sarah A. Dolgonos can be reached at dolgonos@fas.harvard.edu.