Tea Leaf Nation

A High School Spat About Taiwan Rocks the Chinese Web

School isn't real life -- but try telling that to the angry, tweeting hordes.

Model United Nations Conference Held At Beijing No. 4 Middle School
北京-3月20日:2007年3月20日,模拟的美国代表参加会议。当天,北京四中的中学生在召开模拟联合国大会。这次模拟联合国大会由50名学生代表三十多个国家参加,议题是“全球文化多样性的保护问题”。所有议程均模仿联合国日常会议规则。Sidney Wong/China News Photos

When it comes to Chinese sovereignty, even a high school tiff more than 6,000 miles away is enough to roil the Internet. It all started with an angry Feb. 2 screed on the Facebook-like Renren social network from a mainland Chinese citizen, detailing a commotion over Taiwan’s status at a Harvard-based model U.N. conference for high school students in late January, where participants play the part of U.N. delegates. That post ignited a very real — and surprisingly divided — debate within mainland China about the nature of its relationship with Taiwan, and who has the right to speak on the sensitive topic. Controversy became heated enough that at one point on Feb. 9, “Harvard Model U.N.” rose to become the top trending term on all of Baidu, China’s most widely used search engine.

Accounts differ as to what actually transpired at the now-famous Harvard Model United Nations conference held in Boston. No one has disputed that Chinese participants noticed that the event’s handbook categorized Taiwan as a country, then requested a correction. (Mainland China views the self-governing island of 23 million as a breakaway province.) It’s unclear what happened next. The author of the viral Renren post, who claimed to be a leader of the Chinese delegation, wrote that she and two other leaders were unceremoniously expelled from the conference after their repeated requests for a correction were denied. Meanwhile, according to one organizer who spoke with Foreign Policy and asked to remain unnamed, several faculty advisors — not student delegates, as at least one media outlet has claimed — were asked to leave the premises as a security precaution after they could not produce conference badges.

The facts surrounding the small conference may be in dispute, but the outrage it’s generated is genuine. On Weibo, China’s most popular microblogging platform, many expressed outrage at what they saw as an attempt to deny that Taiwan is a part of China. “Taiwan is an inseparable part of China!” wrote one user, while another asserted that the best way to solve the problem would be to treat all those who supported Taiwanese independence as “traitors.” But others, also from the mainland, pushed back; one commenter from Beijing wrote on Feb. 10, “Taiwan has its own diplomacy, its own military, and its own governing party … how is this not like a country?” Another wrote, “Taiwan’s people should decide Taiwan’s future.”

Even the reliably nationalistic state-run Global Times noted splits in online sentiment. One Feb. 10 Times article cited a sympathetic online comment: “This is just the conduct of students and doesn’t represent the government; if someone wanted to categorize the New York Zoo as a ‘country,’ they are free to do so.” The article noted that others felt it was a serious matter when “the future U.S. political elite” differed so profoundly from the prevailing mainland view. A Times editorial that same day made the paper’s preference clear: “Those who purposefully continue in error aren’t the true elite.”

Chinese couldn’t even agree on who had the right to enter the debate. The author of the original account reserved some of her harshest criticism for the Chinese students at the conference who declined to demand a correction, whom she called “pathetic” and lacking the right to “express any opinion whatsoever.” She wrote that those students, whom she called the children of tuhao, or China’s nouveaux riches, were more interested in scoring a U.S. green card than defending their country. Not everyone agreed. On Zhihu, a Chinese question-and-answer forum, one user who claimed to be affiliated with Harvard wrote, “Many Chinese people in America think that what they are doing gives face to China. But in fact,” the user continued, “it’s their blatant stupidity that destroys China’s image, and they don’t even know it.”

Of course, it’s hard for anyone to please everyone when engaging the Taiwan question. One Zhihu user expressed sympathy for non-Chinese who unintentionally wade into long-standing resentments. “It’s pretty hard to deal with,” wrote the user. “If Taiwan is placed too high,” mainlanders won’t accept it. “But if Taiwan is placed too low or paired completely with the mainland,” Taiwanese will feel equally slighted. This is a situation now all too familiar to Harvard’s model U.N. organizers, themselves undergraduates. “We are all volunteers,” the student organizer told FP. The conference “is something we love to run” in order “to teach high school students” about the world. “This has been very sad.”

Nancy Tang contributed research.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy. @BethanyAllenEbr

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