ASIA: by Warren ReedNews Weekly
Can Taiwan resist falling into China's orbit?
, November 24, 2007
Unparalleled business opportunities on mainland China are acting like a magnet for Taiwanese firms. They are also causing acute conflicts of loyalties for many Taiwanese families. Warren Reed reports.Though Taiwan frequently rates a mention in the context of China and politics, it has little place in the consciousness of most Australians. This is anomalous because it is a modern and sophisticated state, and also one of our major trading partners.
We export to Taiwan over $6 billion worth of goods and services every year and buy relatively little in return. That's not a bad relationship with a largely mountainous island that's only half the size of Tasmania, yet has a population of 23 million.
The only resource the Taiwanese have is what they carry in their heads.
For those Australians who do visit, it's all pretty impressive - the world's tallest building in the capital Taipei, one of its fastest trains that cruises at 300 km/h, and a rich array of top-class international restaurants, galleries and museums.Economic integration
While keeping high-end manufacturing for itself (it has just pushed the US out of number two position as the world's top producer of semiconductors after Japan), much of Taiwan's industry has moved over to the mainland, where some millions of its businessmen live with their families and run plants. There's already a significant degree of economic integration at that level.
Yet in behind this, things are churning that we rarely hear about in Australia.
Over 30 years ago, I shared my university studies in Japan with a good Taiwanese friend. I saw him recently in Taipei and learnt of a dilemma he has in his family, one that is increasingly common.
My friend's family fled Shanghai in 1949 with Chang Kai-shek's forces when the Communist Revolution took place. They helped to build Taiwan into what it is today. My friend now runs the family company, which has an annual turnover of $US100 million.
A decade ago, when the fear of an attack from China was real, he and his wife chose to move their two sons over to Canada. They bought an apartment in Vancouver, put the boys into school and spent much of their time there looking after them. The boys, who have picked up Canadian nationality along the way, are about to complete their university studies in computer science and business management.
My friend sat down with them a few weeks ago in Vancouver to discuss the future of the family enterprise. He explained that he was ready to retire, that a Japanese multinational was interested in buying the firm out, but that he was resisting their overtures. He wondered whether his sons were ready to start to play a managerial role.
"Oh, no," they said. "We don't see our future in Taiwan at all. We'll go straight to Shanghai. That's where the action is, and that's probably where we'll base ourselves for the professional years of our lives. So, go ahead and sell the company if you want to."
My friend and his wife were shocked. They had always assumed that at least one of the boys would take over. They would keep their family home in Taipei, but had planned to move over to Vancouver to retire there, travelling backwards and forwards as family developments required.Full circle
Now all that's changed. The family is, in effect, about to complete a full circle in the space of half a century.
The boys are certain where their future lies, but my friend and his wife are left in a bit of a daze. They have no wish to grow old in the hustle and bustle of the new Shanghai, though they visit there regularly.
Their dilemma is not an easy one to resolve, for anyone - let alone for Chinese, a people who have always placed great emphasis on educating the next generation.
Back in Tokyo, over 30 years ago, my friend and I used to talk a lot about how things might shape up in Asia and how China might re-emerge on the scene.
In Taipei recently, we agreed that we had not been far off the mark, though we had never imagined that China's economy would develop so rapidly once the communist shackles were released.
But if there's one thing we never foresaw, it was the situation with which my friend and his family are currently contending.- Warren Reed, who has spent much of his life involved with Asia, is a former chief operating officer of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA).