As Taiwan’s soft power strategy is tested, Honduran students grapple with the potential loss of educational opportunities.
BY LINDA YANG
“I have instructed Chancellor Eduardo Reina to manage the opening of official relations with the People’s Republic of China, as a sign of my determination to comply with the Government Plan and expand the borders freely in concert with the nations of the world,” Honduran President Xiomara Castro tweeted on March 14. Taiwan and Honduras officially cut diplomatic ties on March 26, ending a friendship of more than 80 years.
In response to the news, Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu stated at a press conference that “to safeguard national sovereignty and dignity,” and with immediate effect, Taiwan would end all bilateral cooperation and aid programs to Honduras.
Subsequently, Honduran students can no longer receive government scholarships given to students from Taiwan’s diplomatic allies. Before the breaking of diplomatic ties, Honduran students could apply for a higher education scholarship from the Taiwan International Cooperation and Development Fund (TaiwanICDF) as well as Mandarin-learning scholarships and degree program scholarships from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA).
In recent years it has been standard practice for the Taiwan government to revoke scholarships given to students from countries that sever ties with Taiwan. Although Honduran students were not exempt, MOFA – citing humanitarian reasons – said it would provide scholarships to affected students until the end of the 2023 spring semester. Students who decided to leave after spring were provided with a one-way economy class ticket back to Honduras.
According to the Ministry of Education (MOE), a total of 359 Honduran students were studying at universities and colleges in Taiwan during the first half of 2023. Among them, 104 were receiving government scholarships. All but two Honduran students at National Taiwan University (NTU) were government scholarship recipients.
“NTU was hoping MOFA would keep its scholarships for Honduran students in place,” says Yuan Hsiao-wei, executive director for international affairs at the university. “But if that is not possible, the school will do its best to help students finish their studies by seeking other scholarships or work-study opportunities.”
Ileana Rodríguez, a third-year student majoring in chemical engineering, says NTU reached out to her and other Honduran students to offer scholarships consisting of tuition reimbursement and a monthly stipend a couple of days after the government scholarships were scrapped.
Rodríguez first heard about the scholarship she originally received when she was a high school student. Her aunt, who had seen an announcement in the newspaper, encouraged her to apply. But it was first after taking Mandarin as a foreign language at university that Rodríguez became interested in Taiwan. She drafted a plan to apply for the scholarship, finish her degree, and gain some work experience in Taiwan before returning to Honduras.
“The rough draft of the plan is still the same, but the future feels so uncertain now,” she says. “My life changed so quickly in a month, so I’m not really sure about what the future will bring.”
Gustavo Castro-Wu, a third-year computer science and information engineering student at National Dong Hwa University (NDHU), says he felt deflated following the announcement. “It felt like my time in Taiwan was over. Many mixed feelings of confusion, despair, and disappointment – that everything that I had worked for in the past three years would vanish overnight.” But despite being greatly affected by the situation, Castro-Wu is more concerned about his underclassmen.
“If the scholarship has to be revoked, we third-year students have to pay about a year out of our own pockets,” he says. “If the second-year students or even freshmen want to continue, they have to pay a lot more. Seeing them leave after having seen the amount of effort they have already put in is upsetting. That’s the situation sometimes. Sometimes, despite your best efforts and dreams, some families can’t give that sort of support even if they try.”
NDHU has offered the students a full scholarship and a monthly stipend of about a quarter of what they would have gotten from their original scholarship. Castro-Wu says the conviction of students to finish their studies remains the same, but their goals will be harder to achieve. The decision to provide scholarships rests with each individual university, and every university has handled the situation differently. “I know friends who weren’t offered any scholarships or aid,” he says.
Scholarship soft power
Taiwan has long offered scholarships to foreign nationals as part of its soft power efforts. Popular scholarships include the Huayu Enrichment Scholarship for language learning offered by the MOE, the Taiwan Scholarship offered by MOFA, and the International Higher Education Scholarship Programs offered by TaiwanICDF, Taiwan’s state-funded international development agency. Recipients of the latter two scholarships were affected by the break of diplomatic ties, as these are specifically granted to students from Taiwan’s diplomatic allies.
Both MOFA’s Taiwan Scholarship and scholarships from TaiwanICDF cover tuition, a monthly stipend, and economy tickets to and from Taiwan. The TaiwanICDF scholarship awards students a monthly allowance of between NT$12,000-17,000, while the Taiwan Scholarship provides a monthly stipend of NT$25,000-30,000. The Taiwan Scholarship also offers a one-year Mandarin Language Enrichment Program (LEP).
Two of Taiwan’s closest neighbors – Japan and South Korea – offer similar programs to young people looking for international study opportunities. The Japanese government’s Monbukagakusho Scholarship covers tuition, a monthly stipend, and round-trip airfare. South Korea offers scholarships that include tuition, airfare, a monthly allowance, housing allowance, medical insurance, and fees for Korean language study.
Scholarships are a way for nations to promote themselves and encourage people from other countries to visit. By offering grants to university-age people, countries can also attract the talent needed for the future workforce and promote greater diversity within their academic institutions.
“As globalization becomes inevitable, attracting foreign students helps the Taiwanese society and companies learn how to interact with people from different backgrounds,” says Chang Jung-nung, a former professor of international affairs and diplomacy at Ming Chuan University. “This helps cultivate cultural literacy in both directions.”
Ming Chuan University is one of the most popular universities for international students in Taiwan. One of Chang’s students is Haitian, and after learning Chinese he is now fluent in English, French, and Mandarin, which makes him a sought-after talent for many companies. He can help develop foreign markets where English and French are widely spoken and communicate with Taiwanese employees in their native language.
From the recipient’s viewpoint, a scholarship is sometimes the only way to obtain an education abroad and experience another culture. For Castro-Wu, Taiwan’s high-quality education was another point of attraction.
“Having seen what the computer science and information engineering study program looked like in comparison to Honduras, it felt like the right choice to study abroad,” he says. “Experiencing a new culture was also a dream of mine.”
While scholarships offered by the Taiwan government present a great opportunity to achieve these goals, they also come with risks. Due to Taiwan’s unique political situation, students could get caught in the middle of a political game should their home country decide to break off ties. NDHU’s Chang says he prefers a system where MOFA allocates the budget – and perhaps guarantees a number of scholarships to students from countries with diplomatic ties to Taiwan – but gives the MOE authority to select eligible students to mitigate these risks.
“Breaking diplomatic ties has a great impact on scholarship students,” he says. “A better way would be guaranteeing the scholarship during the time of their study no matter the status of diplomatic ties.”
If responsibility for Taiwan’s scholarships were transferred to the MOE, eligibility would no longer be determined by students’ nationality. This change would eliminate the political risk associated with the current system while still retaining the scholarships’ soft power, fostering a positive perception of Taiwan among international students selected to study here.
“I was not really aware of the risk,” says Rodríguez. The fact that Honduras and Taiwan had been allies for around 80 years gave her a false sense of security before she arrived in Taiwan. “I didn’t fully grasp the possibility of the cutting of ties until I was already in Taiwan, and I heard stories about how it had happened to other Central American countries like El Salvador, and then it actually became a real possibility with the election of President Xiomara Castro.”
When asked about his plans for the future, Castro-Wu says his goal has always been to return to Honduras with the knowledge gained in Taiwan and use it to improve his home country.
“It wouldn’t have been great to have come all this way only to not give back,” he says. “That is what I felt was so morally great about the scholarship. Not only would it result in a better relationship between both countries – knowing that Taiwan also wants to see Honduras succeed as a result was a great show of confidence in the Honduran people and its friendship to Taiwan.”