A tale of greed and bad governance

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將  / 

Tue, Feb 01, 2011 - Page 8

It’s hard to tell which is more embarrassing — that hundreds of Taiwanese would prostrate themselves before a wealthy Chinese tycoon so they could receive a “red envelope” from his hand, or the fact that after two-and-a-half years in office, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration has failed to look after the economic well-being of its own people.

A visit to Taiwan this week by Chinese recycling magnate Chen Guangbiao (陳光標), ostensibly on a “thanksgiving” tour to hand out an estimated NT$500 million (US$17.2 million) to Taiwan’s poor, initially sparked controversy when it was revealed that said envelopes were embossed with the inscription “the Chinese race is one family (中華民族一家親).”

Whether this was intentional or not, this gratuitous inscription raised the twin specters of “Han” chauvinism and the Chinese Communist Party’s united-front tactics, this time not by throwing money at Taiwanese corporations, but rather at its underprivileged.

To be fair, once we look past his proclivity for ostentation, Chen has already donated millions of dollars to China’s destitute, which is a testament to his generosity. That said, despite a relative shift in wealth across the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan’s GDP per capita is still five times higher than that of China and the latter has hundreds of millions of people who have yet to be lifted out of poverty.

A survey by Allianz Group in October showed that at the end of 2009, the average Taiwanese household had about NT$2.2 million in financial assets, the third-highest in Asia after Japan and Singapore, and 18th globally, with close to 40 percent of the population (or more than 9 million people) belonging to the wealthy middle class.

As such, it is hard to discount altogether the possibility that, to some extent, Chen’s goodwill has a political — namely “one China” — element to it. Otherwise, if he felt the need to help people outside China, why not give that money to the countless destitute in Cambodia or North Korea?

Chinese nationalism masking as philanthropy aside, Chen’s visit sheds light on a far more immediate problem, one that is purely domestic in nature. As a modern, developed and wealthy nation, there is no reason why hundreds of Taiwanese should have to rely on foreign largesse to make ends meet. Try as it might to blame the global financial crisis to justify budget cuts, the Ma administration’s justifications sound hollow when we take into account its profligate spending on such projects as the Taipei 101 New Year’s Eve fireworks, which cost NT$60 million, and this year’s Republic of China centennial celebrations, of which the total cost is estimated at NT$3.2 billion, or more than six times what Chen is expected to dole out during his visit.

This is not to say that fireworks and celebrations should be canceled altogether, but simply to point out that a nation that can afford to spend such amounts of money on visual extravaganzas does not — should not — have to depend on external generosity to address the basic needs of its citizens. If assistance from the wealthy class were needed to help the poor, surely finding willing donors in Taiwan shouldn’t be that difficult, as Taiwan has more than its share of those.

In its Global Wealth 2010 Report, the Boston Consulting Group put Taiwan at No. 10 in the number of millionaire households as a percentage of total households, with about 230,000, or 3 percent, in 2009. (To put things in perspective, the World Wealth Report 2010 by Merrill Lynch Global Wealth and Capgemini SA estimated that in 2009, China, with 1.3 billion people, had 477,000 millionaires).

Large purchases of Taiwanese electronics by Chinese delegations in the past two years, added to rising export figures to China and the region, have failed to be accompanied by wage improvements in the middle and lower classes. The benefits of rapid economic growth in the wake of the global crisis have not trickled down and have largely remained in the hands of the wealthy few, a phenomenon not unlike that observed in Hong Kong and which could become even more pronounced as a result of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) signed between Taiwan and China in June. The Boston Consulting Group report also showed that the number of millionaire households in Taiwan in 2009 rose 22.1 percent from the previous year, at the height of the global financial crisis, a trend that is expected to accelerate following the entry into force of the ECFA.

No outsider should be responsible for mitigating the effects of an increasingly inequitable society, as wealth distribution, especially in a rich country like Taiwan, is solely the remit of the government.

In the end, Taiwanese have every right to interpret Chen’s largesse with skepticism, if not rancor, especially if it is part of a political scheme. However, even more aggravating is that in allowing this individual to embark on his “thanksgiving” tour, the Ma administration doesn’t seem to realize that such benevolence should not be necessary in the first place. Why hundreds of destitute families in Taiwan have to rely on a Chinese tycoon is a question Ma and his entourage should seriously ponder.

J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.