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Monday, April 4, 2011

The National Taiwan University Bike Rack: A Glimpse Into Student Bicycle Culture

Although I spent part of the weekend in Taipei off the bike, true to form, cycling wasn't too far off my mind. I was especially interested in the bike racks around the National Taiwan University campus, which have become a part of the university's more infamous features.

At NTU there are thousands of rusty bicycles clustered in single and double-decker racks around the perimeter of the school, like fruit rotting on a vine. Despite the dilapidated appearance, these machines still function to serve as cheap transportation for students and faculty alike, often being passed down from graduates to underclassmen like used calculus books or the "just-in-case jar".

One really interesting feature I noticed on several of the bikes at NTU, were the placards students attached to their bikes in an effort to advertise events organized for their departments or college clubs--effectively turning bike space into ad space.

Like many universities around the world, universities all over Taiwan encourage students to participate in groups or clubs. But unlike many of their international counterparts, Taiwanese students are directed away from participating in groups that may become too political, and universities have even been encouraged to dissuade students and faculty from engaging in political discussion or debate on college campuses. Instead of using the university experience as a forum to discuss and debate ideas and ideologies, Taiwanese students are encouraged to channel their energies into less contentious vocations like hip-hop dance, sports, music, movies and religious service clubs.

Compared with many "western" universities where students are regularly asked to free Leonard Peltier and Mumia or protest against the latest military adventure... or South Korea, where protests and face-offs with riot police are practically viewed as a rite of passage for any college seems Taiwanese student groups are little more than vapid adolescent gatherings. The reason for such a stark contrast between these university traditions stems from Taiwan's unique political history, and in particular, stems largely from a series of events that transpired on the National Taiwan University and National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU) campuses on April 6, 1949.

In the wake of the Chinese Nationalist Party's (KMT's) bloody retribution campaign that followed the 228 massacre in 1947, tensions in Taiwan remained high as Chiang Kai-sheck's government prepared to cede China to the communists and evacuate to Taiwan by mid 1949. The KMT security apparatus was already deeply distrustful of local Taiwanese, whom they often viewed as "Japanese slaves" and not to be trusted.

On August 6, 1949, KMT security agents stormed both NTU and NTNU campuses to arrest students involved in a student organization that the party had deemed, "leftist". When students refused to hand over the group's member list, the agents began a large scale arrest in which hundreds of students were taken into custody on charges of treason. Some students fled, others spent several years jailed as political dissidents. This event is largely viewed as the beginning of the era of White Terror, when the KMT government used an expansive system of secret police, paid informants, kangaroo courts and murder to cement their hold on power using the rough tactics of fear and intimidation.

From this point forward, student organizations were severely curtailed as the government feared any type of public organization. With later periods of marginal political liberalization, less intimidating student groups were encouraged as both a safe outlet for youthful energy, and as a means for the party-state to keep an eye on the nation's youth. Furthermore, the KMT maintained some control over student organizations through patronage as many student groups received generous financial sponsorship from the KMT and were thus requested to perform functions for KMT voter mobilization and other partisan activities well into the democratic era.

Despite Taiwan's recent political liberalization, student groups have largely failed to mirror their international counterparts in other democratic countries, and remain aloof from politics. The advertisements on the backs of a few bicycles is a reminder of how Taiwan's unique political history has greatly influenced student culture here in Taiwan and how the events from decades ago still reverberate across Taiwan's political landscape.

Acoustic Guitar Club: Guitar Night

Countryside Service Corps

Cocktail Week

Dept. of Public Health Night

Yunlin and Chiayi Students Union

Dept. of Bio-industrial Mechatronics Engineering Night (woot!)