Keelung officials and scores of tourists were shocked on Tuesday when a tear ripped open the side of Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman’s massive Rubber Duck, quickly deflating the floating installation. However, it was hard not to see the incident as a metaphor for so many of the government’s airy proposals to reinflate the economy or keep Taiwan afloat on the world stage. Civic authorities in Taiwan were quick to embrace the Rubber Duck last year after the giant bathtub toy proved to be a success in Hong Kong. That a massive yellow duck could provide a quick injection of cash to municipal and central government coffers was never in doubt. However, such temporary attractions are no alternative to long-term programs that can create jobs and provide viable, sustainable economic benefits.
Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) on Thursday called for Taiwan to become a “tertiary industry-based country” capable of attracting more than 10 million international tourists annually for medical care and holidays over the next decade. That is just a fancy way of saying he wants to see a more service-oriented economy.
Eight million foreign visitors arrived in Taiwan last year, a record achieved thanks to the government raising the quota for free independent Chinese travelers early last month, and the goal for this year is 9 million. However, will a “tertiary industry-based country” be any more achievable than previous administrations’ aims of making Taiwan a “green silicon island” — the NT$2.6 trillion (US$86.8 billion at current exchange rates), six-year national development project announced in 2002 — or a “regional financial hub (first mooted by the Council for Economic Planning and Development in 2004), “regional transport hub” or even a “regional democracy hub” — the brainchild of former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮)? It seems unlikely. Jiang’s blueprint once again highlights the current administration’s reliance on China — under this plan in the form of Chinese tourists — to sustain Taiwan’s economy. After all, Minister of Transportation and Communications Yeh Kuang-shih (葉匡時) attributed the annual growth in tourist arrivals to President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) cross-strait policies. Yeh said those policies have raised Taiwan’s international visibility, but in truth, that visibility has only be raised vis-a-vis China.
The government is relying on Beijing to allow Taiwan entry to or guest status with international organizations and to relax travel restrictions on residents of more Chinese cities, and it is relying on direct Chinese investment in Taiwan to spur the economy.
For all of Ma’s and Jiang’s talk about regional economic integration — with the dream of being able to join the nascent Trans-Pacific Partnership and ASEAN’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership at some far-off point in the future — the only integration Taiwanese can see is Taiwan becoming more closely entangled in China’s tentacles. Their talk of further liberalizing the economy to meet international standards is simply so much smoke to hide the incursions of Chinese capital.
A repaired and reinflated Rubber Duck returned to its nesting spot in Keelung’s harbor yesterday. If only the nation’s problems could be so easily resolved.
However, a patchwork of ill-planned development projects, secretive trade pacts with Beijing, an over-reliance on Chinese tourism and a lack of innovation on the part of government and elected officials are all keeping Taiwan’s leaking economy sinking ever lower into the waters of the Pacific.