Sun, Oct 22, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Time to look after Taiwan's poor

By Lin Kuo-hua 林國華

"I don't care if the rich get rich. It doesn't bother me. They should get richer. I'm worried about the poor getting poorer and not getting richer. If there are several Bill Gates in the country, I don't care. Lifting the bottom of society is the most important." So said Muhammad Yunus, this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, in a 1996 article in Britain's the Independent titled The Good Banker.

Yunus' philanthropy as the "poor man's banker" is commendable, and consequently Taiwan's United Daily News (聯合報) and China Times (中國時報) newspapers have recently written a number of articles on related topics. Among them was an editorial with the title, "Who do the banks serve, and who does the state serve?" Common sense dictates that banks serve their customers, and that the state serves its citizens.

Perhaps some will say that banks serve their stockholders, and the state serves its politicians. But this editorial came to a different conclusion.

The whole article could have been trimmed to one statement: "Financial institutions have expanded but businesses are quickly going bankrupt and those in deep credit card debt have no way out. The essence of governmental service has been lost!"

If the rapid pace of business bankruptcies and growing numbers of "credit card slaves" are the result of the disappearing essence of government service, then it seems the article's premise is that the banks should serve their card slaves, and the state should serve industry. The entire editorial contains no statistics and simply reads like an attack on President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).

In fact,Yunus raises a point most worthy of Taiwan's attention: that "lifting the bottom of society is the most important."

What exactly does the bottom of Taiwanese society look like? According to the 2005 Survey of Family Income and Expenditure (九四年家庭收支調查報告) published in August by the Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics, last year the income of the poorest 20 percent of households had decreased by 9 percent since 1999, primarily because wages had plummeted 19.8 percent over that six-year period.

More tragic still was that of those low wage earners, more than half the heads of households were unemployed. Obviously, from the viewpoint of supply and demand, employment opportunities have decreased and the terms of employment have deteriorated. If we further consider Taiwan's foreign investment, we can see that the chief culprit is the shifting of production to China, or, in international diction, the more neutral globalization.

Some Taiwanese scholars have long argued that the three direct links with China are actually a question of class interests, and not a question of political identity. In January, Taiwan Thinktank conducted a survey on cross-strait trade that came to a similar conclusion.

It doesn't seem too far off the mark to further modify that argument to say that cross-strait trade is a question of class interests, and not a question of political identity.

Former Taiwan Confederation of Trade Unions member Lin Thung-hung (林宗弘) once summed up the trends of cross-strait commerce and globalization as the "consolidation of Taiwanese businesses, the marginalization of the working class, and the decline of the middle class."

Taking aim at the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration, he accused it of opening the floodgates for Taiwanese investment in China after it gave in at the National Economic Development Advisory Conference in 2001 with its "active opening" policy, adding that Taiwan already has had to deal with the employment crisis that followed excessive economic opening to China and its ineffective management.

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