Tue, Apr 10, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Social class becoming a rigid reality in Taiwan

By Hsu Yung-ming 徐永明

The recent increases in the cost of fuel, water and electricity, and the rise in commodity prices, has been the subject of much debate.

Some blame the price rises on pre-election machinations, claiming they are the result of a freeze on prices prior to the election. Others blame international factors, saying that tensions between Iran and Israel are pushing up crude oil prices.

Certain industrialists have welcomed the rises, suggesting that the public has been spoiled by artificially low water and electricity prices.

Actually, the causes of the price rises are not really important. What matters are their social implications, in the sense that higher prices reinforce economic divisions.

Escalating real-estate and commodity prices are a barrier to social mobility, while members of the middle class who have managed to get their feet on the lower rungs of the property ladder become slaves to their mortgage payments.

In addition, the younger generation faces the prospect of joining the ranks of the “working poor,” a common situation in European cities during economic downturns.

The Taiwanese spirit of reaping the rewards of hard work is already a thing of the past. What we now have is a class-based society in which a whole strata of people have no future to look forward to. In addition, tuition fees are set to rise, even though higher education does not necessarily guarantee getting ahead.

Even those who own property in Taipei face the threat of seeing it expropriated in the name of urban renewal or transferred to banks in exchange for retirement pensions.

From housing and commodity prices to tuition fees and urban renewal, issues that were previously considered neutral are fast becoming mechanisms for the redistribution of wealth.

Take for example the Wang (王) family evicted from their home as part of the Wenlin Yuan (文林苑) urban renewal project in Taipei.

Although the Wangs’ case is an extreme example, the point is that we are allowing ourselves to sleepwalk into something potentially far more serious.

On top of this exclusionary and divided economy sits an equally exclusionary political system.

Prior to the presidential election, several Taiwanese corporate bosses came out in support of the so-called “1992 consensus” because they stood to benefit from it. However, after the election, the consensus was quickly dropped in favor of the “one country, two areas (一國兩區)” concept.

It is getting difficult to distinguish between Taiwan and Hong Kong, as Beijing and real-estate conglomerates conspire to decide who should be the area’s chief executive. Today, the very diversity and tolerance that is the pride of Taiwanese democracy is fading away.

An exclusive class-based society does not sit well with an inclusive democracy. The former does not allow for social consensus in national policy formation. Since the election, we have endured the US beef issue, the “one country, two areas” concept and price rises triggered by state-owned enterprises, all of which were products of closed-door decisionmaking.

As a result, social and political tensions and confrontation are on the rise. President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) remains largely untouched by this, but many Taiwanese are struggling to ensure their children do not face a future of downward social mobility.

When Ma gives his inaugural speech on May 20, he will be speaking of a Taiwan under the thrall of an increasingly exclusionary political and economic system.

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