The year 2012 is over. It was an unbearable year for the people of Taiwan, and it all began with the election of the wrong president.
A re-elected president, a new Cabinet and a new legislature all took office at the beginning of the year, but over the year these government officials and elected representatives fell short of public expectations.
Taiwanese saw the economy take a dive, increasing public hardship, social unfairness, political corruption, Chinese intervention and the nation’s marginalization in the international community.
Although the world did not end on Dec. 21, an atmosphere of pessimism swept the nation in the face of all these crises.
Perhaps the economy and people’s living standards suffered most.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said late last year that he could see the light at the end of the tunnel. It is no surprise to hear a president stress that things are looking good, but his remarks highlighted the fact that the nation’s economy had hit rock bottom.
How bad was the situation? Early last year, the Ma administration estimated the annual economic growth rate for the year to reach 4.58 percent, but that figure was adjusted downward nine times over the year: By the end of the year it was questionable if it would even reach 1 percent.
This performance was worst among not only the four Asian Tigers, but of all of the 12 major Asian countries.
Due to the economic downturn, the public suffered. Taiwan’s unemployment rate was the highest in East Asia and the average wage level fell back to the level of 14 years ago.
Both white and blue-collar workers were frustrated, and about 93 percent of white-collar workers wanted to find an extra job on the side.
Young Taiwanese were hardest hit, as unemployment among those in their 20s reached as high as 14 percent, while a low monthly salary of NT$22,000 (US$690) became the norm among those who did have a job.
What made those at the bottom even more miserable was that fuel and electricity prices were hiked in the spring, which caused a chain reaction of price hikes as public anticipation turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, greatly increasing the daily expenses of wage earners.
In addition, both people who preferred to dine out and people who had their meals at home suffered from the impact of the strong push for US beef after the import ban was lifted.
After complaints from the public, the government spent several months before finally proposing a distorted version of the capital gains tax on securities transactions, which drew strong criticism from stock investors. Before the government had even profited from the new tax, it suffered from the reduction of the securities transaction tax.
Part of the reason for the economy’s dark prospects was the incompetence of those in power and the problematic industrial development mode.
Many Taiwanese companies invested in China in an effort to reduce costs and expand their scale, but the lack of innovation and the low profits of contract manufacturers meant that this strategy became unsustainable.
The reason for the economic slowdown, then, was not the economic cycle or external factors. Rather, it was a fundamental problem of development strategy. If adjustments are not made in a timely fashion and Taiwan continues to lean toward China, Ma’s claim that he sees the light at the end of the tunnel will simply be a deception to himself as well as everyone else.
A sluggish economy will exacerbate social conflict. Take last year’s hottest topics for example. The lack of an increase in the basic wage and the surging housing prices highlighted the widening income gap.
Controversy over the Labor Insurance Fund and pensions for military personnel, civil servants and public school teachers reflected the unequal treatment of different professional groups, and in particular, the issue concerning the 18 percent preferential savings interest rate on part of the pensions for government employees showed that the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) would not touch the benefits of its die-hard supporters.
The government was too weak to reform the pension system and Taiwanese youth, in addition to enduring low wages and high unemployment, will now have to carry the burden of growing public debt for many years to come.
In addition, there were many reports of people committing suicide after seeing no way out of their poverty.
If the Ma administration merely consisted of “bumblers,” Taiwan’s economy and society would not have deteriorated to this state of affairs.
The government lowered the inheritance, gift and business taxes for the rich and was very generous when it came to spending money on sponsoring its supporters, while oppressing the basic wages and rights of wage earners and farmers.
Moreover, the government raised the fuel and electricity prices in the name of reform, yet failed to improve the efficiency of state-owned enterprises.
Even worse, it introduced the capital gains tax on securities transaction and increased the second-generation national health insurance premiums and the national pension premiums, tormenting the public who were already reeling from a poor economy.
Officials ignored the complaints of stock investors, the losses of bank depositors and the hardships of part-time workers.
It is the government’s responsibility to serve the public, but it has failed to perform this duty and has instead created further hardship.
Last year also saw China launch more direct and comprehensive political warfare against Taiwan. It demonstrated its ability to influence the results of the presidential election by telling pro-Chinese businesspeople to speak up in support of Ma.
Later, with the help of their Taiwanese allies, high-raking Chinese officials traveled across the nation to lure Taiwanese people to China to promote unification as well as oppose independence.
Finally, a concert in connection with the Chinese Music Chart Awards (中國歌曲排行榜) was held in Taipei on Dec.29. China not only penetrated Taiwan, but also encouraged Taiwanese from all walks of life to visit China, offering courteous treatment, making its approach even smoother and more sophisticated.
In comparison, the Ma administration bragged about the benefits of the signing of the cross-straight Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement with China in 2011, claiming that it would boost the economy, increase exports to China, attract foreign investment and benefit free-trade agreement talks with other countries.
Taiwanese have gained none of those benefits over the past year. After opening Taiwan up to Chinese tourists, the Ma administration, which leaned excessively toward China, placed its hope on Chinese capital and allowed Chinese companies to participate in public construction projects.
For many years, Taiwan has suffered by the equating Sinicization with internationalization, but Ma has continued to do so. This is tantamount to inviting disaster.
China’s direct and indirect penetration into Taiwan eroded not only the nation’s economy and security, but also press freedom. Taiwanese tycoons with huge business in China continued to buy up Taiwanese media outlets last year. Clearly, the Ma administration had no intention of taking care of the nation.
Luckily, academic and social groups actively fought against media monopolization, hoping to reverse the situation. Just as in the case of former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) denied applications for medical parole, the major media buyout took place under the looming specter of China. These are all indicators of the autonomy of the Ma administration’s decision-making.
In terms of Taiwan’s democracy, everyone paid attention to the major corruption scandals involving former Executive Yuan secretary-general Lin Yi-shih (林益世) and former National Fire Agency director-general Huang Chi-min (黃季敏).
Meanwhile, the KMT paid a NT$45 million fine for the vote-buying practices of its candidates in various elections. Corruption and vote-buying clearly remained rampant. The legislature, where KMT legislators enjoyed a majority, was an anti-reform rubber stamp that prioritized the interests of the party and individual legislators.
In the judiciary, prosecutors and investigators continued to treat politicians from different camps differently, and there were no signs that they would stop being political tools.
The past year was indeed unbearable, which has been reflected by public opinion.
Early in the year, Ma was re-elected with over half of the votes, but his support ratings declined drastically to between 10 percent and 20 percent, as an increasing number of Taiwanese regretted electing him.
Ma, who never admits to having made a mistake, said the future was bright once again, claiming that Taiwan would overcome all difficulties, and that the economic growth rate had exceeded 6 percent for one-and-a-half-years during his presidency.
GDP grew 10.9 percent in 2010, but that must be considered a rebound from the previous year, in which GDP contracted by 1.9 percent. At a time when the government struggled to keep the economic growth rate above 1 percent, Ma repeated the same old trick, by comparing this year to last year and claiming that the outlook for this year is bright, although the UN warns that the global economy could remain stagnant for two more years.
However, Taiwan no longer believes Ma. Ninety-five percent of Taiwanese say that his efforts to boost the economy were imperceptible. Besides, he failed to fulfill his promise that he would donate half of his salary if his “6-3-3” promise failed.
His New Year’s address, entitled “Lighting candles for the next generation,” is still ringing in our ears, but how can we believe that a team that is unable to light candles, will bring a bright year?
Lu Shih-hsiang is an adviser to the Taipei Times.
Translated by Eddy Chang