Before he could reach 60, taxi driver Liu Chin-yi (劉進義) took his own life because he was struggling to make ends meet. His suicide note read like an elegy for Taiwan’s lower classes and the difficult lives they lead.
Tragically, Liu voted for President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) because he had become disillusioned with the lack of improvement in the economy under former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). However, after five years of Ma, not only has the promised economic upturn failed to materialize, but salaries have continued to shrink, with some salaries falling to less than NT$20,000 a month.
At a loss, Liu watched on with anger as Ma embarked upon what critics call a political vendetta against Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平). In his suicide note, Liu blamed the government for focusing on internal disputes instead of the economy and, in his anger, decided to make that final journey.
Liu’s experiences and the his changing perspective are a perfect reflection of Taiwan’s socioeconomic situation over the past 13 years. They show that the majority of Taiwanese are unaware of the reason for today’s sluggish economy.
Liu seems to have not known that the reason the economy deteriorated under Chen was because of his policy of proactive liberalization toward China. This policy saw Taiwanese businesses invest heavily in China, draining local investment and causing a decrease in overall salary levels that affected business for taxi drivers.
If Liu had known this, he would never have voted for Ma, because Ma advocates an even more proactive opening up to China. Nor would he have believed Ma’s “6-3-3” campaign pledge that was supposed to bring about 6 percent annual economic growth, US$30,000 per capita income and an unemployment rate lower than 3 percent by last year. The president has since said that the target date was 2016, but that he had not explained how he would achieve these goals clearly enough.
After five years, Ma has failed to deliver on his “6-3-3” vow and Liu’s monthly income dropped to just NT$20,000. Unfortunately, Liu did not realize that this was the result of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) that Ma signed with China. If he had known, he would probably have come out to protest against the cross-strait service trade agreement, which is a significant extension of the ECFA.
Ma wanted Wang out as he was not cooperating with the president’s demands to speed the agreement through the legislature. Had the agreement been stalled in the legislature because of tensions between Ma and Wang, this would have been a good thing for Liu, as it would have provided a glimmer of hope to the economy and given people less to feel pessimistic about — it would have been a cause for celebration.
Unfortunately, the pro-China pan-blue camp still has firm control over the discourse on political and economic issues. They craftily ousted Wang because of his resistance to the agreement and smeared him by claiming that his actions were causing “internal attrition” and “prevarication” in the legislature.
Taiwanese society seems to have responded to these events mainly with editorials and critiques about how political in-fighting is sinking the ship and taking ordinary people down with it or point out how Taiwan needs to stop wasting time and refocus on the economy. This is a dangerous mindset, because it suggests to the public that the Ma administration’s economic policies are correct and that political protest is wasteful.
It was precisely this erroneous mindset that caused Liu to become depressed and eventually lose the will to live.
As Taiwan’s largest opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party, should also take some responsibility for Liu’s death. It did not opposed the ECFA strongly enough, while its criticism of the service trade agreement has been halfhearted at best, with the party only saying that the pact was achieved through backroom deals and is bad for the economy.
This has allowed the Ma administration to easily gain the advantage when it comes to propagating its policies for
economic integration with China and subsequently distort how the majority of Taiwanese think and see things. This is the most saddening thing of all.
Huang Tien-lin is a former national policy adviser.
Translated by Drew Cameron