On Flags in Ross Dining Hall

By GEORGE WERNER

On a red piece of cloth (two units tall, three units wide) are five yellow stars. What the stars mean, no one can really agree upon, but that is no pressing matter. The flag does not need to mean anything in and of itself in order to stake a claim to 3.7 million square miles of territory. However, that flag, which represents only the government of the People’s Republic of China, now seems to be imposing itself upon the most mundane forms of personal expression.

Recently, a minor on-campus controversy has emerged on the matter of flags. Middlebury College’s Student Government Association (SGA) has been considering hanging a set of national flags in Ross Dining Hall, each one representing a country to which a current student belongs. The idea is not original to Middlebury — Colgate University’s Curtiss E. Frank Dining Hall is one example of a college cafeteria which already represents its students’ diverse national origins this way. Yet, the initiative has nonetheless received criticism among certain Middlebury students. Their complaint? That Middlebury’s SGA has dared to suggest hanging Taiwan’s flag.

The initiative has received criticism among certain Middlebury students.”

The controversy over Taiwan began in the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War as conflicting claims to power arose between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan). Since the war, each government has recognized the other as illegitimate. Consequently, on an international level, the issue has only become more complex over time. In 1971 the Republic of China’s seat on the UN Security Council was given to the People’s Republic of China. Later in 1979, Congress passed into law the Taiwan Relations Act which gave Taiwan a degree of de facto recognition by the government of the United States, although the U.S. has maintained a strictly informal recognition of Taiwan since. Internationally, seventeen countries exclusively recognize the Republic of China while fifty-seven countries (including the United States) possess informal relations with Taiwan.

Clearly, regardless of the stance of the People’s Republic, Taiwan is a country with de facto sovereignty as well as a good degree of formal and informal international recognition. Those students, then, who feel the hanging of the flag of the Republic of China is illegitimate, are advocating for the effective elimination of a country’s nationhood. By insisting that the flag of the Republic of China be excluded from the rafters of Ross Dining Hall, they seek to define for the college (and, more importantly, the community) which countries are permitted to exist. This perspective seemingly suggests that the issue at stake is the political sovereignty of the People’s Republic of China. Yet this view necessarily suggests that Middlebury College, an educational institution of 2,500 people in Vermont, somehow possesses the ability to determine which government of China is legitimate. That is nonsense.

Even setting aside the issue of the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China, there should be no reason for students to feel attacked on any grounds. Take that red, five-starred flag. If the flag of the Republic of China was hanging, would it be any smaller? If the flag of Tibet was hanging alongside it, would the flag be any less red? Would the five stars dwindle to four or to three? No, not at all. The only situation under which student supporters of the People’s Republic of China would lose the representation of their national identity would be by removing the flag they believe represents them — a proposition which no student has publicly endorsed. These students would undoubtedly feel attacked by such an act, yet they intend to do the same to students of other national identities.

Students attending a college are not and should not be diplomatic agents of a foreign government.”

There are very real issues related to political jurisdiction in China. Whether the flag of the People’s Republic hangs alone or with the Republic of China and/or Tibet should not be interpreted as an attack on people’s civic identities. This would matter to the government of the People’s Republic of China on the grounds that their authority depends on symbolic gestures. However, students attending a college are not and should not be diplomatic agents of a foreign government. They are individuals with their own specific traits. The idea that some students should be able to decide which flag represents another person’s national identity is wrong on these grounds and many others.

It is not my intention to cast judgment on the geopolitical conflicts related to China. While I am no fan of the human rights abuses, denials of basic human liberties and oppositional posturing of the People’s Republic of China, none of those factors should matter in the assessment of this issue. There is no reason why the individual rights of students should be violated because of political controversies which have no direct impact upon daily life at the college. Before the end of my time at Middlebury, I hope to see a wide assortment of flags representing all the national origins of students who attend the college.

George Werner is a member of the Class of 2021.

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