On his trip to South America and the Caribbean, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), during a state banquet in Paraguay, talked of how Taiwan’s unemployment rate stood at only 4.14 percent, to the envy of his hosts and the diplomats in attendance, including Spain and Chile. Without any disrespect to the nation’s allies, for Ma to brag about his record in office truly was a case of the poor man flaunting his wealth in front of beggars.
Sadder still, just as the president was bragging to our diplomatic allies overseas, the public was busy tearing into the government back at home.
The “818 Tear Down the Government” sit-in protest on Aug. 18 remonstrated that the government’s exorbitant fines and land grabs have not only violated people’s property rights, they have also shunted workers, faced with low salaries and high property prices, between a rock and a hard place. Young people — usually so indifferent to politics — are taking to the streets, giving vent to their various grievances.
It is not just a matter of the forced demolitions of people’s houses in Dapu Borough (大埔) in Miaoli County. It is not just the senseless death of army corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘). It is the multitude of injustices that exist within Taiwanese society. It is a shame that Ma prefers to compare Taiwan to less fortunate nations and drag out statistics to pretend all is well at home, rather than look at how other countries are faring and reflecting on how he could improve society.
Spain is one of Europe’s PIIGS, an acronym referring to the European countries whose economic development was particularly badly hit in the financial crisis: Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain. Latin American countries’ manufacturing structure is different from ours. Countries like Chile and Paraguay depend heavily on exports of agricultural goods and raw materials.
Other allies on Ma’s itinerary — Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines — have little more than tourism to rely on. These are all developing nations with an annual GDP per head below NT$20,000. For Ma to compare Taiwan with these countries serves only to make him feel good.
The hollowing out of Taiwan’s industry makes it harder for people to find jobs. Taiwan has more than 200,000 new graduates thrust into the job market each year, only to find there are few opportunities. They have no option but to sacrifice their training and specialty and to go into labor-intensive and relatively low-paid professions.
This ramps up supply and suppresses salary levels in the service sector. Industry becomes less able to create jobs, and powerless to offer higher pay, which explains why salaries in Taiwan have stagnated over the past 16 years.
Taiwan’s wealth disparity is now even more serious than in Japan and South Korea. Increasing numbers of people, while not unemployed, are counted among the ranks of the “working poor,” grinding away day by day, but unable to benefit from the fruits of economic growth and finding it ever more difficult to make ends meet.
There is an increasing sense of tension in society; the public is feeling more aggrieved as every day goes by. If all Ma can do is say that things are okay, and that 4.14 percent unemployment is not that bad, then there will be more people standing up trying to pull down the government. As long as Ma is in power, life will be difficult in Taiwan.
Hong Chi-chang is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator and former chairman of the Straits Exchange Foundation.
Translated by Paul Cooper