Recent weeks have seen numerous allegations of financial mismanagement, pork barrel politics and outright corruption involving the Taipei International Flora Expo. Approved by the International Association of Horticulture Producers in 2006 when President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was Taipei mayor, the expo, due to open in November, was to be the keystone in Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin’s (郝龍斌) re-election bid. Once a near-lock, Hau’s return to office is now seriously threatened by the expo controversy, which only promises to get worse now that the Taipei District Prosecutors’ Office has taken over the investigation.
The value of the flora expo is not in doubt. Barring a major reversal, money invested in the project is likely to turn a profit, while Taipei may gain international recognition as its host. And both the media and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) city councilors have performed brilliantly in exposing the irregularities even as Hau’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration did everything possible to hide them.
Yet hanging over the flora expo controversy is a larger question that all sides need to address, including the media, which is the emphasis on projects that promise short-term political and financial gain, while others get short shrift because they are not as flashy or require long-term commitments that will eventually benefit someone else.
This imbalance between short and long-term political will is especially apparent in the attention given the flora expo, a project that is more show than substance, as the government continues to issue policy statements in response to the nation’s population crisis. Faced with a further decline in a birthrate already too low to sustain the population, the Ministry of the Interior last week announced a new program that will give families NT$3,000 a month for childcare services.
With daycare costs in the range of NT$25,000 per month, it is hard to imagine that such a subsidy would encourage working couples to have children, especially since they must have at least three to be eligible for the subsidy — and it will last only until the qualifying child reaches the age of two.
Even less impressive was another initiative by the ministry, namely a contest to come up with a slogan to promote childbirth. The winning submission: “Children are our most precious treasures.”
Pressed on the subject of the declining birthrate, Deputy Minister of the Interior Chien Tai-lang (簡太郎) in March declared that Taiwanese should begin to look more favorably on children born out of wedlock.
More than a lack of political will, the sheer absurdity of such responses reflects the importance of the issue. Whatever malfeasance was committed in the run-up to the flora expo, and whatever good it will bring, pales in comparison to the effect of continued population decline. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to think of another issue as important, including the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) and Chinese missiles across the Taiwan Strait.
The declining birthrate increases the problem of an aging population. It threatens labor shortages, falling domestic consumption, declining tax revenues and increased dependence on foreign workers — and students. The education system is already feeling the pinch as enrollment figures fall, forcing hundreds of schools to close and teachers to be laid off. Whatever the dangers of admitting Chinese students to Taiwanese universities, who will fill the seats without them?
Flower shows are fine, but governments must offer leadership on the messier problems facing the nation. Other developed countries are successfully dealing with their population issues. Taiwan’s declining birthrate should be declared a threat to national security and the Ministry of the Interior told to raise its game. In Taipei, perhaps the next mayor can depend less on bling and more on babies.
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