22 January 2019
Taiwanese welcome Chinese money but have mixed feelings about mainlanders. Photo: Bloomberg
Taiwanese welcome Chinese money but have mixed feelings about mainlanders. Photo: Bloomberg

Taiwan’s economic reality vs popular sentiment

Since Ma Ying-jeou became president of Taiwan in May 2008, he has brought economic and social ties with the mainland closer than at any time since 1949.

But, while the island’s economy increasingly depends on China, this intimacy has turned its people away from their cousins over the Straits.

A total of 43 percent of people support independence, up from 22 percent in 2009, according to a national survey published every four years by Commonwealth (Tianxia), Taiwan’s most authoritative magazine.

Asked if they wanted to work in the mainland, 64.2 percent said no, against 31 percent who said yes. Only 3.2 percent identified themselves as Chinese, against 59.4 percent who said they were Taiwanese and 33 percent who said Taiwanese and Chinese. 

Asked if a new service sector agreement the government is negotiating with China is good for Taiwan, 30.9 percent said yes and 42.1 percent said no. The results were published in the magazine’s latest issue.

The survey shows the widening gulf between popular sentiment and economic reality.

In 2013, the mainland and Hong Kong were Taiwan’s largest export market, importing NT$3.35 trillion (US$110.9 billion) of goods, up 1.4 percent over 2013, according to official Taiwan figures. Second was the US with NT$3.28 trillion, up 3.6 percent, and third Japan with NT$1.1 trillion, down eight percent.

The mainland has also overtaken Japan as the biggest source of tourists. According to the Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing, a record 2.2 million went to the island last year, up 11 percent over 2012. Mainland companies have also started to invest in Taiwan.

But, the survey shows, these close encounters with their ‘cousins’ from across the straits have not made Taiwan people more favorable to them – in fact, the reverse. 64.3 percent said that the island is too economically dependent on China, up from 61 percent in 2010.

The exchanges have given Taiwan people a glimpse of what life would be like in a unified China, under the ‘one country, two systems’ that Beijing is proposing, similar to that in Hong Kong.
As in Hong Kong, there is widespread anger over the bad manners and vulgarity of some visitors, leading to the comment: ‘我们欢迎人民币,不欢迎人民’—we welcome the people’s money (renminbi) but not the people’.

Most of the money spent by the visitors goes to the tour operators and hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops, where they spend their time, and not to the general public.

The islanders see the wide gap between them and the visitors, in terms of history, culture, political values, religious belief and understanding of the world; mainlanders are taught to hate Japan, while many Taiwan people regard it as an important source of their culture, education and economic success.

They also see the ‘mainlandisation’ of Hong Kong – its decreasing media freedom, the control on its government exercised by Beijing, its inability to control the influx of mainlanders and soaring property prices, due in part to investment from wealthy Chinese. If Beijing will not allow universal suffrage in Hong Kong, how can it allow it in Taiwan?

It is this public hostility that constrains the government from opening the market even further to Chinese investment. The number of sectors open to them is smaller than those open to overseas Chinese and foreign investors; high-tech sectors like wafers and LCD displays are off-limits.

Mainland politicians and members of the Communist Party or the PLA cannot run investment projects in Taiwan. One Chinese professional will be given a work visa for US$300,000 of investment; a maximum of seven Chinese professionals may be granted a visa for one investment project.

While Western economies are rushing to attract Chinese investment in their ailing property markets, Taiwan places severe restrictions on purchase of real estate. One aim is to prevent soaring prices and widespread speculation, like what is seen in Hong Kong and cities in the mainland.

But the economics are working in Beijing’s favor. The survey found 88 percent of people dissatisfied with President Ma’s handling of the economy.

Fifty-one percent said economic stagnation was the greatest risk for Taiwan, compared to 30 percent who cited political conflicts; 93.8 percent said the widening wealth gap was extremely serious.
Asked their priorities for the government, 52 percent said revival of the economy and 22 percent said boosting job creation.

Ma’s best hope of improving the economy is through more investment and trade with the mainland; but that is something his people do not want. How will he square the circle?



Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker

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