To promote exchanges and services, members from more than 100 Taiwanese business associations in China officially established the national-level Association of Taiwan Investment Enterprises on the Mainland in Beijing last Monday. Just like the Taiwanese homeland associations that began appearing around the world in the 1970s, business associations symbolize the rise of the Taiwanese people, and their country's strength. The rapid growth of such associations in China carries a special significance in cross-strait relations.
When overseas Taiwanese associations were first established, the purpose was to promote communication among overseas Taiwanese, so they could feel at home wherever they lived. Most members shared a similar background -- they came from Taiwan and had gained academic degrees in their country of residence, with most holding doctorates or master's degrees. They were professionals with stable occupations and economic foundations, and their children received an excellent education. Most importantly, they grew up under difficult circumstances, were self-confident and shared a love for Taiwan.
Faced with the constraints of martial law as Taiwan's democratic movement began developing, the ideals, background and training of homeland association members turned many such associations, mainly in the US, into spiritual allies of the dang wai dissidents as they started a decades-long quest for democracy. With Taiwan's first direct presidential election in 1996, democracy was finally established in Taiwan.
The government and Taiwanese associations underwent three stages: oppression and division; confrontation; and reconciliation. In today's Taiwan, there are no political prisoners or exiles, nor is there any blacklist for homeland association members. Some association members have even become key government officials since the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came to power in 2000. These are some of Taiwan's outstanding democratic achievements.
Following the development of Taiwan's economy, economic theory and the pressures of globalization caused the government to launch a "go south" policy. More Taiwanese businesspeople made increasingly large capital investments in Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Meanwhile, more and more Taiwanese emigrated to Australia and New Zealand, and Taiwanese established continent-wide business associations in Asia, North America, Europe and Africa. Just like the homeland associations had established the World Federation of Taiwanese Associations, business associations established the World Taiwanese Chambers of Commerce (WTCC) in 1994.
However, the WTCC does not include China-based Taiwanese businesspeople. China has always been a forbidden land for Taiwanese businesspeople due to the long-term confrontation and tension between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. After Deng Xiaoping (
Taiwan and China are basically economically complementary, and the attraction of the rapidly growing Chinese market made many Taiwanese businesspeople look to China to do business, openly or secretly, despite the Taiwanese government's "no haste, be patient" policy.
Although the DPP has been in power for seven years, this trend has not stopped, and it continues to further spread from the manufacturing sector to the services sector. After both sides joined the WTO, the practical effects of China's peaceful rising and Taiwan's economic downturn and marginalization will become more closely connected as a result of Taiwanese business investments in China.
Statistics from the Ministry of Economic Affairs show that by the end of last year, about 36,000 Taiwanese businesses had invested approximately US$50 billion in China. According to official Chinese statistics, 72,000 Taiwanese businesses have contracted total investments of US$70 billion, of which US$40 billion has been invested. If Taiwanese investments in the Virgin Islands and Cayman Islands are included in these figures, Taiwanese investments account for 16 percent of foreign investment in China, second only to Hong Kong.
During my three terms as legislator, I had extensive interaction with Taiwanese associations in the US, Canada, Japan and European nations. When I was a member of the Control Yuan, I had frequent and close interaction with China-based Taiwanese business associations. These experiences have shown me that these overseas businesspeople display the traditional Taiwanese spirit of hard work and endurance, and that they care for Taiwan, making them true diplomatic assets for the nation.
Starting out from political convictions, the Taiwanese associations relied on their ideals to write an important page in the nation's modern history together with Taiwan's democracy activists. Overseas Taiwanese businesses associations started from economic concerns to displaying a surprising strength. They have many employees in Taiwan and China who have helped the two nations earn large sums of foreign exchange reserves, thereby helping to maintain both countries social stability.
Given the very different political systems on each side of the Taiwan Strait and that cross-strait relations are dominated by political concerns, one can only wonder how Taiwanese business associations in China will be able to function, how they will interact with the governments on each side of the Strait, and if they will follow the overseas Taiwanese associations down the path toward political activism. We can only wait and see.
Huang Huang-hsiung is the founder of the Taiwan Research Fund.
Translated by Eddy Chang and Lin Ya-ti
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