September 26th 2015

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Abbott era ends as Liberals oust elected PM

EDITORIAL The future of the Liberals after leadership coup

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Vulnerable GLBT youth pawns in plebiscite game

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Cuts in aid trigger mass migration: more to come?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Labor campaign to 'get' Dyson Heydon backfires

FOREIGN AFFAIRS China's official media hints at power struggle in Beijing

ASIA Taiwan: no longer the Kingdom of Youth

MILITARY HISTORY Antony Beevor at the Australian War Memorial

LIFE ISSUES Assisted suicide and our society of autonomy

SCIENCE You can trust research papers (we think; we hope)

PUBLIC HEALTH Taxpayer funding offers no immunity from failure

MINING Supreme Court dismisses attack on Qld Land Court

CINEMA Technology and the antisocial network: The Social Network

BOOK REVIEW Hollow Heroes: An Unvarnished Look at the Careers of Churchill, Montgomery and Mountbatten, by Michael Arnold


NATIONAL AFFAIRS Turnbull divides party in Cabinet reshuffle

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Taiwan: no longer the Kingdom of Youth

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, September 26, 2015

Forty years ago, Taiwan was on the cusp of industrial take-off. It seemed that every shirt, pair of shoes and what was politely called “giftware” (in other words, junk) on sale in the department stores of the Western world was made in Taiwan. For the people of Taiwan, the deal was that the government would provide no social welfare, but that everyone would find work if they wanted to.

Demography is destiny

Taipei 101 hangs over the city

and surrounding hills

like a vast pagoda.

Taiwan was reaching its demographic peak. Young people were in the majority and were entering the workforce in their most productive years. They were also going abroad, mainly to the United States, to study. Some foreign observers said contemptuously that all they studied was computer programming and electronic engineering and were never going to return to Taiwan. But that turned out not to be the case. These programmers and engineers formed the intellectual core of Taiwan’s information technology (IT) revolution.

It seemed that some resolution of the cold war between the Republic of China on Taiwan (Taipei) and the People’s Republic of China (Beijing) was not impossible. Subtle hints were raising hopes of a cross-strait rapprochement. Entrepreneurs from Taiwan were already building factories in Mainland China, mainly in south China near Canton. In a cycle by now familiar to us, as Taiwan had moved upmarket, the factories had begun relocating offshore.

For young people, times were good. Jobs were easy to find, and young female labour was in high demand. Machinists and other jobs requiring nimble fingers provided quick money.

Universal military service for young men could not be avoided. Just about every conscript detested his time in the army. The era of battles fought by mass conscript armies was ending. Soon conscription would be much less onerous. Even at the height of conscription, it was almost impossible to find a man in Taiwan who could read a map, which makes one wonder what they did during their time in the army.

Plenty of jobs, plenty of play

The early 1980s saw the liberal­isation of Taiwan society in other ways. Movies, which were hughly popular because television was so boring, became more varied. Even the U.S. movie about an incident in China that showed the ruling party in a bad light, The Sand Pebbles, was released. However, few people went to see it, because it is not a very good film. Movie tickets were in such high demand that scalpers, or huang niu (yellow cows), made good money.

The mass transfer of people from the countryside to the city was under way. It was a case of “how you going to keep them down on the farm once they’ve seen Paree?”; or, as Cyndi Lauper sang, “girls just want to have fun”.

In the literature of the time, many country girls who stayed on the farm regretted that they did not have more time to “play”. The authorities, who lived in terror of an outbreak of licentiousness if they allowed dancing venues or nightclubs, found that they didn’t really have much to fear. The hangover from the Vietnam War, which had not long concluded, made the authorities wary of foreigners, especially young white males intent on having a good time.

What of today?

Taiwan is a safe place. People from all over South-East Asia seek to migrate to Taiwan. Many “mail-order brides” from Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand settle in Taiwan and take up the arduous role of “farmer’s wife”, a vocation that the native-born shun.

Things do not always work out for the new brides. Being a stranger is hard enough, especially when one does not speak the language, but the mother-in-law is the traditional troublemaker in Chinese families. Some foreign brides have their babies stolen from them and are sent home. China is one of the few societies where female suicides outnumber males. Every farming family wants a son.

But these days, Taiwan is one of the most highly urbanised and richest countries on earth. Almost 20 per cent of the population of Taiwan resides in Taipei, the capital city. Travelling around the city is easy. The Taipei Metro, which runs both below and above ground, goes almost everywhere. Trips that once took half a day now take 20 minutes. The Metro is utterly reliable and spotlessly clean. Any Australian city would be proud to have Taipei’s Metro.

Kaohsiung, the southern port city, also has a metro. As Carl Sandburg wrote of Chicago, Kaohsiung is a “city of broad shoulders”. Industries like iron smelting, shipbuilding and steel mills prosper there. The two cities are connected by a high-speed rail, meaning you can get from one end of the island to the other in not much more than an hour.

One thing one cannot fail to notice is that Taiwan is a high-tech society. Even humble couriers have television sets mounted on their dashboards so that they can keep up with the soapies, of which there are a plethora.

One familys story

Linda Lee grew up in a military village in the country. She has two children, Jase, 29, and Jim, 26. Linda is a valued employee of the Chinese Petroleum Corporation. Jase graduated from a Catholic university in southern Taiwan. Getting a job is hard work. Jase works at a bubble-tea stand in Taipei 101, which was once the world’s tallest building. She says it’s not much of a job, but it’s better than nothing.

Jase is a cheerful sort of person. She wanted to be a flight attendant, but she says she was too sturdy. She appears to be a trifle stronger than the matchstick-thin flight attendants one finds on Asian flights, but she couldn’t be described as overweight; although, in fact, due to a richer diet, most young people in Taiwan are taller and stronger than their parents.

Jim is also a university graduate. He went to Australia for two years on a Working Holiday Visa. As many as 32,000 young people from Taiwan have been in Australia on Working Holiday Visas at any one time over recent years. Jim was an assistant manager of a bubble-tea bar in Adelaide, among other things. He is a natural salesman, and he did well financially out of his holiday. He is still looking for something permanent in Taiwan.

Jase and Jim say things are cheap but wages for unskilled workers are low. For example, a can of Coca-Cola in Taiwan costs around 80¢ (Australian) at a retail outlet. In round terms, the same can of Coke in Australia costs about $A3.50. Food is cheap and plentiful, but there’s a catch. Firms have used recycled oil and sold it as pure oil. Not only backyard operators do this, but reputable companies. Consequently, consumers are very wary about the quality of processed food.

It should come as no surprise that parents in Taiwan, like Chinese parents everywhere, are very conscious of getting the best education they can for their offspring. Yet, however hard they study for the university entrance exams, not all of them will gain entry to National Taiwan University, the best university on the island, or to any university. The government has therefore rebadged vocational high schools on the island as universities.

Birth rates are falling, so the numbers of students are falling at places at these “universities” which the government intends to fill with external students. Sound familiar?

Jase and Jim agree life is tough for young people. Most families these days have one or two children, and parents want them all to go to the best high schools and universities. Winning entrance into Taipei First Girls’ High School, universally known as Bei Yi Nyu, is a ticket to success in life.

All the top schools in Taiwan are government schools. The Catholic Church, though, runs several well-regarded universities, including Fu Jen Catholic University, one of the premier institutions of higher education on the island.

For a young person seeking an entry-level position, hourly wages are in the region of $NT125 ($A5), but it is common to find reasons to dock a young person’s wage to around $A4. If they complain, there is always another young person waiting to take their place. So, when a young person from Taiwan goes on a working holiday to Australia, they are happy to take $A15 an hour.

Political naivete

Many people in Taiwan, including young people, are kind hearted, but Jase says that they often don’t have much common sense. They tend to have pity on corrupt politicians, like former president Chen Shui-bian, who have ended up in jail.

The government is often disorganised and, since a series of scandals over tainted food, people are losing faith in the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou. President Ma, they believe, is out of touch. They believe it is the duty of Ma’s government to bring bad people to justice.

President Ma is widely believed to be too intellectual and does not understand the concerns of the man and woman in the street. His approval ratings are stunningly low, a disappointing outcome for a man who entered office in 2008 with such high expectations.

Taiwan’s young people are a resilient bunch. Taiwan is a very stratified society, but with enough brains and energy one can scale the pyramid. Some say young people cannot endure hardship. Jill Lee, proprietor of a pest-control firm, says it is hard to retain staff. Most youngsters in Taiwan are cheerful and helpful and treat their families well, but employers regard them as the “strawberry generation”.

Taiwan youth do their best. Things are certainly better than in their parents’ time. Chinese families are like welfare organisations: few people starve. But the youth of Taiwan have high expectations. They want good governance; something, sadly, that has eluded them in recent years.

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