Chinese prof in Italy lectures Taiwanese student in class for categorising Taiwan as country

He said he was just communicating personally with the student, and not bullying or mistreating him.

Kayla Wong | April 01, 2022, 06:02 PM

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Unhappy that a Taiwanese student had written "Taiwan" as the country he's from, a Chinese professor teaching in Italy proceeded to lecture him in class about the issue, telling him that Taiwan is not a country.

In a clip that has been widely circulated on the internet both within and outside China, Chen Zhen, an adjunct professor at the Polytechnic University of Milan's department of architecture, could be heard telling the other two Iranian students in English first that what he was about to say to the student, surnamed Wang, has nothing to do with them.

The Zoom session appeared to consist only of Chen and the three students, who were in the same group for a group project.

Wanted to "communicate" with the student personally

Addressing Wang in Mandarin, Chen said he noticed that Wang had written "Taipei, Taiwan" for the city and country he's from.

Therefore, Chen wanted to "personally communicate" with Wang about it.

He then started his lecture on the legal status of Taiwan.

"The entire European Union (EU), including Italy, thinks that Taiwan belongs to China. You should know that there's not a single EU government, including most countries in the world, that formally recognises that Taiwan is a country.

Secondly (pause), your government's constitution is also not about Taiwanese independence. You can go translate your Republic of China's constitution, which states that Taiwan is only a province, and not a country. You guys have Taiwan province, and also Fujian province, as well as six special municipalities."

He continued to try to get Wang to see things from his perspective.

"I very much understand your current generation, that the education you've received has resulted in your national identity deviating from ours on the mainland. Right?

But whether you see it from an EU perspective, or your own constitution, Taiwan is never the name of a country. I hope you can understand this. This is legally speaking.

Your government can find loopholes, can play with words, can fool others, because they have never changed their constitution, nor do they dare to. Even with 8 million votes (for Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen), they don't dare to do so."

Said he's not bullying the student

Chen also reassured Wang that he's not trying to use his position as a teacher to bully a student, and that the talk has nothing to do with Wang's academic performance or grades.

He also brought up the fact that they are in an architecture class, as opposed to, say, perhaps a political science class.

"Of course, I'll stress here that this has nothing to do with your paper, not your scores. But when I saw what you wrote, I personally, as a person from China, have to point it out.

This is unrelated to me being a professor. I hope you don't see this as an act of mistreatment or bullying from a teacher. I just want to communicate with you, between a person and another person, between people who speak Mandarin.

After we finish our communication, I hope that when you submit your assignment next -- you have the freedom to write whatever you want, I will not change the score of your group because of this because you will be scored as a group. After all, we are an architecture class."

Said Taiwan will be under China soon

Chen also suggested that Wang listen to the commentaries of a few specific political commentators if he's "confused about [his] national identity".

"Tang Xianglong will say every Friday that he's in Taipei, but he cares about his China," he said.

Chen further said it doesn't matter even if Wang doesn't change his views, but warned that should the situation change, he might need to take a long time to change his thinking, implying that when Taiwan comes under China's control, Wang would have a relatively long road ahead of him to get used to the fact that Taiwan is part of China.

"It's fine if you're not confused about your identity, you're very 'green' (term to broadly mean pro-independence although Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party arguably stands more for pro-status quo), and in the near future, if the situation in Taiwan changes significantly, there might be a relatively long process for you to reform your identity.

Because from a personal point of view, I feel that there might be a major change for Taiwan's situation soon. So I hope that you will listen to me, and see this as a personal communication between two people. But of course, it's your freedom to write whatever you want."

Student changed country from Taiwan to China

The incident caught the attention of Italian former foreign minister Gianni Vernetti, who called for the Polytechnic University of Milan to suspend Chen, saying that he was "bullying" a student by trying to "impose Chinese propaganda" through the guise of "a geographical lesson".

Chen's remarks were also picked up by at least two Italian media outlets.

Taiwan's Representative Office in Italy, which acts as a de facto embassy, had written to the university's rector, Ferruccio Resta, as well as the head of the architecture department, to defend the rights of Taiwanese students, Central News Agency (CNA) reported.

Resta later responded on Mar. 28, saying that the school had set up a disciplinary committee to conduct an internal investigation into whether Chen's behaviour comply with the university's code of conduct.

In a screenshot of the group's online submission on the comparative study of Iranian and Chinese gardens, Wang had apparently changed his city and country to be reflected as "Taipei, China" instead.

How the clip got circulated

According to CNA, the clip of Chen lecturing his student was posted by himself on WeChat on Mar. 18. The screenshots of Wang's online submissions were also posted by Chen to show the success of his "communication" with his student.

The clip was then picked up by prominent Chinese dissident Wu Lebao, who posted it on Mar. 24, causing a stir online.

Applauded by other Chinese

Chen's remarks to his student were well-received on popular Chinese social media platform Weibo, where nationalistic voices tend to be amplified.

The majority of commenters thought that he was a good teacher for teaching the "right" values to his students, and that he was reasonable and made logical sense. Many found his words inspiring as well.

"Winning over someone with logic! There will be less wriggle room in the future for lines to be blurred!"

"(Repeating Chen's words) You will have a rather long process to reform yourself."

Reply: "Their current generation is useless, like Hong Kong. At least 30 years are needed till the next generation."

Reply: "As long as Taiwan unites with the mainland, doesn't matter if they're useless, it's no big deal... We will be like making an entire generation obsolete, especially the media and law people."

Taiwan is not recognised as a country

Taiwan is not recognised as a country under international law.

The self-ruled island does not occupy a seat in the United Nations, and only 14 countries recognise its government currently, including Vatican City, a country in Europe.

The 193-member international organisation currently views the People's Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing as having the right to speak for the island, despite the PRC never controlling the island before.

According to renowned German jurist Lassa Oppenheim, who wrote in International Law: A Treatise, recognition from other states is required for a country to be a member of the international family.

James Crawford, an American professor of International Law, also argued in The Creation of States in International Law that Taiwan is not an independent country as it has never explicitly proclaimed independence.

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Top image via Twitter & Politecnico di Milano