As the date for the signing of the economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) approaches, Japanese business guru Kenichi Ohmae was invited to address a forum held at the Presidential Office. The object of the exercise was to deliver a glowing endorsement. In his speech, Ohmae called the ECFA an “elaborately designed vitamin” that would help Taiwan “become a significant hub in the Greater China area.” He also predicted that this window of opportunity to break into the China market would close in little over a year and urged his audience to sign the agreement with all speed.
The vitamin metaphor is an interesting one. Not all doctors, for example, agree on exactly how much good they do us. It doesn’t really hurt if we neglect to take them, and if we do, the benefits are hard to see, if indeed they exist at all. Of course, there are times we lack certain vitamins when supplements can make up for this deficiency, but the positive effects of taking vitamins with our diet are far from established.
The same thing can also be said of the potential benefits of the ECFA for Taiwan: Signing it may well bring certain advantages, but it will just as likely create headaches. The government is forever extolling the virtues of the agreement, but they are not exactly forthcoming about the possible downsides. In other words, they are being economical with the truth, leading many to conclude that the government is not being entirely honest.
We can perhaps compare Taiwan’s signing of the ECFA with China to Hong Kong’s signing of a Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) in 2003. Two reports are pertinent here. According to a report by the Organic Laws and Statutes Bureau on the actual consequences of the CEPA, Hong Kong now has more rich people, but also a record number of poor, with salaries falling and the gap between rich and poor widening. Then there is a UN Development Program (UNDP) report that concludes Hong Kong has the world’s most serious disparity between rich and poor, despite also being the wealthiest place in the world in terms of average wealth. The suspicion is that the legislature is delaying publishing the former report until after the ECFA has been signed, out of concern that its findings could undermine the government’s case.
Ohmae approaches the ECFA as an outsider focusing on the economic effects. He does not have to worry about the overall impact it will have. For Taiwanese, however, the situation is much more involved, and they do not necessarily view the ECFA in such rosy terms. While it is true that some may welcome the effect it will have on Taiwan, there are many more concerned about the repercussions on their jobs and the survival of the industry that they are in.
More importantly, though, Ohmae ignored the political implications. Although the ECFA is being billed as a purely economic agreement, there is no escaping the fact that it will be seen from outside as an internal trade arrangement, just like the CEPA. Taiwan, like Hong Kong, will be viewed as part of China.
It is also worth bearing in mind that Ohmae’s predictions won’t necessarily prove to be accurate. Remember his former prediction that Taiwan would be absorbed into an alliance of Chinese nations by 2005? These foreign gurus are wrong at least as often as they are right. The people actually living in Taiwan still have a say in their future and tomorrow’s march offers a crucial opportunity to make their voices heard. They need to get out there and speak with one voice, because it may well be their last chance to do so.