26 June 2019
Young Taiwanese were a major source of support for Ko Wen-je. Photo: Reuters
Young Taiwanese were a major source of support for Ko Wen-je. Photo: Reuters

Taiwan’s young people worse off than HK counterparts

The stunning victory Saturday by Dr. Ko Wen-je in the Taipei mayoral election represents the second dramatic protest, after the Sunflower movement, of the young people of Taiwan this year.

Their votes played a significant role in enabling Ko to obtain 854,000 votes, 57 per cent of the total, against 41 per cent for Sean Lien of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT).

Across the island, 620,000 people were voting for the first time.

As they did in the occupation of the Legislative Yuan in March, the young people were protesting not only against the ruling Kuomintang but also against the island’s two-party political system of the last 20 years.

Democracy has not led, as so many hoped, to a fairer and more just society – but the opposite. Taiwan now has one of the most unequal distributions of incomes in the world.

Hung Ming-hwang of Chinese Culture University says the richest 1 per cent had 14 per cent of total taxable income reported in 2011.

This group of 56,000 people had an average taxable income of NT$10 million (US$322,000); it rose in 28 of the previous 30 years.

Compared with the countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Taiwan has the second-highest concentration of wealth after the United States, ahead of Singapore, Britain and Japan.

On Thursday, the government published figures showing that the average monthly wages of the island’s 8.58 million workers was just NT$35,551 (HK$8,884).

“My friends who graduated from National Taiwan University [NTU], the top in the country, earn an average starting salary of NT$22,000 a month,” said Ye Ming-chuan, a teacher.

“That is the same as a decade ago. They have no prospect of buying a home in Taipei or a major city. They are worse off than young people in Hong Kong, where wages are substantially higher.”

So the anger of those who voted for Ko and joined the Sunflower movement is similar to that of the protesters this autumn in Hong Kong.

They see the political system as having failed them and created an economy that favors the rich, the well-connected, property developers and large conglomerates.

While he was supported by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Ko does not belong to any political party. He says that he is neither “blue” (KMT) nor “green” (DPP) but “white”, the colour of the jacket he wears in the NTU hospital where he has worked for nearly 30 years.

He is presenting himself as bringing in a new kind of politics.

“The young see the DPP as having failed in its role to supervise the government,” Ye said. “The Sunflower movement was a protest against traditional politics, and so was a vote for Ko.

“They have a sense of helplessness. A couple who are both university graduates and have jobs have no prospect of improving their situation.”

Denis Huang, a journalist, said: “From the central government to the local level, the stranglehold on resources and the pull of interests held by conservative groups have never relaxed.

“Given the inequitable distribution of social resources, along with the future burden of growing national debt and public spending, the young have a sense of stifling helplessness.”

In the Global Competitiveness Index published by the World Economic Forum for 2014-2015, Taiwan ranked 14th, a drop of two places from a year earlier but ahead of Canada, Belgium and China, in 28th place. Hong Kong ranked seventh.

Over the past 10 years, gross domestic product has grown by an average of 3-4 per cent, but wages have fallen, if inflation is included.

This means that the wealth Taiwan has created has flowed not into the pockets of office and factory workers but large companies and owners of shares and property.

Since the mid-1980s, Taiwan’s firms have moved a large proportion of their industrial capacity to the mainland and Southeast Asia, removing a large segment of managerial and well-paying jobs.

Taiwan is competing in a global economy in which the barriers between the movement of people, goods and capital are coming down. It is competing for foreign investment against all its neighbours.

Ho Chih-chin, a former finance minister, said global wealth was concentrated in the hands of rentiers. The only way to redistribute wealth is through the tax system, he said.

But, as western countries engaged in tax reform and increased taxes on capital gains, Taiwan moved in the opposite direction.

“When the potential profit, risk and tax burden associated with speculating in real estate and stocks are far more advantageous than investing in new businesses or R&D, why bother to invest in industrial upgrading and in the younger generation?” Ho said.

The KMT’s defeat at the weekend was its worst in Taiwan since 1949.

This may force President Ma Ying-jeou to listen to the voices of the young.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker

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