Saturday, 16 January 2016

Taiwan, after the gold-rush

Back around the end of October last year I took the opportunity offered by a friend's wedding in Hong Kong to make a week-long side-trip to Taiwan. Whilst I'd lived in Taiwan from 2001-2002, and visited there regularly whilst working for Foxconn (the Taiwanese manufacturing giant) in the middle years of the last decade, this was the first time I'd been back there since 2009.

Taiwan is still the great place to be that I remember, though of course as all the people there I knew in my 20's are dealing with the issues that you find yourself dealing with in your 30's and 40's, so clubbing was no longer on the agenda (though we did sink more than a few beers at The Hammer). Staying with my good friend The Writing Baron in Danshui I was able to visit all the local sites - the various old century forts and residences being worth a good afternoon's wander to see.

[At the Hongmao Cheng in Danshui]
When I'd previously lived in Taiwan, the generally-held view amongst the expats was that Taiwan was something of an undiscovered gem. If that was the case back in 2001 it no longer really can be said to be so since the expansion of cross-strait links has led to large scale tourism by mainlanders, with mainland tourist groups visible at all of Taipei's tourist attractions. The CKS memorial, which still has the propaganda-tastic War of Resistance museum underneath it (it basically tries to make out that the massive defeats that Chinese forces suffered during the war were a form of tactical retreat), was thronging with mainland groups.

Politically also Taiwan has seen some surprising developments. I was amazed to find, as I walked down Ketagalan Boulevard (the main thoroughfare going by the presidential palace in Taipei) to find half the road blocked off with tape for a demonstration by no more than about a dozen or so aged pro-unification demonstrators singing pro-Communist songs. The sound of Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China being sung somewhat tunelessly in an unmistakable Taiwanese accent is certainly not something I would have expected to hear in Taiwan even now.

[PRC flags on display at the pro-unification demonstration on Ketagalan]

A few hundred yards from Ketagalan I also stumbled on the stalls and banners of the pro-independence camp, brashly declaring themselves in favour of democracy and liberty. In contrast to the pro-unification demonstration, these were totally unmanned -it appeared that they had gone off for lunch.
[Out to lunch? The stalls of the pro-independence movement] 

Of course, both demonstrations form the wave-top-froth hiding the deeper currents in the waters of Taiwanese politics. Arriving in the aftermath of the replacement of the KMT's presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu (who had proved unpopular) with Eric Chu (who was proving equally unpopular), the result of the presidential election (the polls for which have just closed) seemed an almost foregone conclusion. The DPP's Tsai Ingwen is almost certainly going to become the first female president in the Chinese-speaking world, the first de jure (as well as de facto) female ruler of a de jure (if perhaps not really de facto) Chinese state since the Empress Wu Zetian in the 8th century AD.

The reasons for this likely electoral avalanche go beyond the mere unpopularity of the KMT candidate to economic stagnation which seems to have Taiwan in a solid grip. The economic boon which the greater integration with mainland China (as championed by the KMT) promised has not been realised. It is uncertain, however whether the DPP would have done things very differently had it been in power over the last 8 years - indeed when asked about Ma Yingjiu's achievements in establishing links with the mainland in a 2012 interview Tsai Ingwen essentially said that the credit for them belonged to the DPP's pre-2008 talks with mainland officials.

The impact of this economic malaise is palpable throughout Taiwan. On a nostalgic trip back to Miaoli, where I had first lived in Taiwan, it struck me that at the time I had lived there the town had been in the middle of a mini-gold-rush of sorts. Miaoli was home to many of the engineers who worked on the construction of the high-speed railway, now completed, and at the same time Taiwan in general was going through a fad for buxiban (cram schools) that employed many foreign teachers. Bars and schools abounded in the town to serve both.

Now many of the old bars which I knew have closed, with few new ones opening to replace them. Many of the old buxiban had also closed, in fact whole chains that ordinary people in Taiwan would have known by name had dwindled to insignificance - the Shane English Schools chain that I worked at in 2001 seemed to have shrunk to only it's head office on Roosevelt Rd in Taipei, and re-focused its efforts on study-abroad programs. Friends who I met over a bowl of noodles had all either lost their jobs or found themselves stuck in an economic rut.

Despite inflation averaging 1-2% since 2001, the salaries people were earning for jobs like English teaching were exactly the same, or even a bit less, than those that they would have made 15 years ago. This problem is not limited only to the English-teaching business either - real-terms wages in Taiwan saw no growth between 2000 and 2011. The prospect of Taiwan becoming permanently stuck in what might be termed an "upper-middle income trap" is very real.

Inevitably, the cross-strait issue remains the big issue in Taiwan. Paradoxically to what some on the pro-China side might have expected, the Taiwanese identity has only strengthened as cross-strait ties have burgeoned. Everyone I asked about in Taiwan spoke of this.

It's glib to talk of familiarity breeding contempt, but there is certainly an element of this. I saw this even amongst my pro-KMT colleagues at Foxconn - the more they came into contact with the mainland and particularly its government, the more they became conscious of the differences between mainland China and Taiwan. It is hard to see people who identify primarily as Taiwanese ever willingly accepting the rule of the present mainland Chinese government.

With Tsai's likely election, it's inevitable that there will be talk of increased tensions. It is important to keep in mind here that the real tensions in the Taiwan Straits come from the threat of invasion of Taiwan from mainland China, and that it is only the complete withdrawal of this threat to Taiwan's freedom and security that will remove these tensions. With the growing military capabilities of mainland China, capabilities that will soon mean that (unlike in previous years) an invasion might actually be launched with a fair degree of certainty of success, and with a much more hardline mainland Chinese government that is also facing potential economic problems which it may wish to distract people from, this seems unlikely.

[UPDATE 1] The BBC is now reporting a victory for Tsai. with Chu conceding and resigning as head of the KMT. Taiwan is now entering a new era . . .

[UPDATE 2] The Central Electoral Commission has Tsai receiving 56.2% of the vote, an increase of more than 10% over her defeat in 2012. This compares favourably with Ma's 51.8% in 2012, but is a bit lower than Ma's 58.5% victory in 2008. The KMT languish at 31% of the vote.

[UPDATE 3] Shanghaiist reports that the DPP has won 50 of the seats in 110-seat Legislative Yuan  declared so far, with 34 seats still to announce. A majority seems virtually guaranteed, a 75% super-majority for the Pan-Green parties required to pass constitutional amendments is uncertain.

[UPDATE 4] HKFP is reporting a different figure - 41 seats for the DPP, 14 seats for the KMT, 3 seats for the post-Sunflower New Power Party.

[UPDATE 5] CTI news has the DPP at 68, KMT at 35, NPP at 5, PFP at 3, and others (New Party and TSU?) at 2. Depending on who the "others" are, that's 11-13 seats short of the 86 seats needed for a pan-green super-majority.

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