Wed, Dec 24, 2014 - Page 3 News List

FEATURE: Ailing economy major challenge for leadership hopefuls

CHINA FACTOR:While there is acceptance among voters that trade with China is a fact of life, there is a push for the nation to be able to once again stand on its own

By Amber Wang and Benjamin Yeh  /  AFP, TAIPEI, with staff writer

As baker Lin Hsiao-an sits hoping for more customers to save her beloved, but shrinking business, she rails against the nation’s leaders over the slowing economy that has turned many angry voters against the government ahead of presidential elections.

Lin, 36, opened her Taipei cake shop 10 years ago with high hopes for her creative designs, but after a promising start, she was forced to lay off four staff and relocate to her apartment to save on rent. Now she bakes to order from home.

“My business is getting worse each year. In the past people did not hesitate to order a cake that cost NT$2,000 or more, but now most people order a cake under NT$1,000 and they want discounts,” she said.

Voters are bitterly disappointed that the economic prosperity promised by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) when he took office in 2008 has not materialized.

A stagnant economy, as well as fears over China’s growing influence, a string of food scandals and soaring housing prices saw the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) routed in local elections last month seen as a barometer for the 2016 presidential race.

Ma had pledged that improved links with China would spur growth, but many feel that new trade deals have only served big business, with ordinary citizens left out of pocket.

“I’m going to close my business, because it is getting worse and I can barely make ends meet,” Lin said.

“It is a pity that I have to give up something I have worked 10 years for, but I just have to be realistic. I have to change career while I still can,” she added.

Lin blames the government for her woes, as a lack of disposable income, rising prices of raw ingredients and food safety crises have left her business reeling.

Minister of health and welfare Chiu Wen-ta (邱文達) resigned in September after tonnes of food products made with tainted cooking oil had to be pulled from shop shelves.

With political parties formulating their campaigns ahead of the vote, resurrecting the hope of prosperity is key.

Taiwan was once one of the most dynamic economies in Asia, but its power has largely been absorbed by rival China.

Since the 1980s, Taiwanese companies have channelled more than US$200 billion into China, cashing in on cheaper labor and land despite Beijing’s lingering hostilities.

This has led to the weakening of Taiwan’s domestic manufacturing sector, previously a mainstay of the economy.

“As the manufacturing sector hollowed out and service industries have failed to provide as many job opportunities, lots of people found it difficult to find jobs,” said Gordon Sun (孫明德), director of the Macroeconomic Forecasting Center at the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research.

GDP growth has languished below 4 percent in recent years and is predicted at 3.43 percent for this year — an improvement on last year’s 2.23 percent, but still not enough to instill optimism.

Resentment among younger Taiwanese is high, with fewer job opportunities and little chance of owning their own home.

“I live with my parents and it would never cross my mind that I could buy a house in the future because it is just impossible with my monthly wage of NT$23,000,” office worker Lucy Liang, 26, said. “Most of my friends think the same way as I do — some are still trying to pay off student loans.”

Youth anger exploded in March when student-led demonstrators occupied the main chamber of the Legislative Yuan for three weeks in protest against the government’s handling of a contentious trade pact with China.

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