Monday, March 31, 2008

'A rare opportunity'

Taiwan's pragmatic president-elect urges Beijing to seize the chance for cross-strait detente

Newsweek, March 27, 2008

A political earthquake recently shook Taiwan. Out went the brash, pro-independence party. In comes the Kuomintang's mild-mannered, China-friendly Ma Ying-jeou, who has ambitious plans to open Taiwan's economy to China. The power shift has raised high expectations of economic revival in Taiwan, as well as cross-strait d├ętente.

Now comes the hard part. Ma, who takes office on May 20, must jump-start Taiwan's economy amid what's shaping up to be a nasty global downturn. And his promise of warmer cross-strait ties depends to a large degree on China's goodwill. NEWSWEEK's George Wehrfritz and Jonathan Adams sat down with Taiwan's president-elect to talk about Tibet, his economic plan, and his message for Hu Jintao:

NEWSWEEK: You won in a landslide, surprising many observers who expected a close race. What do you attribute that to?

The pugnacious nationalism … of the current government has created many problems. But I think economic problems were the biggest [factor] … the current administration's performance has been so poor and people just felt that enough is enough. My running mate and I made a very comprehensive proposal for the future. But our opponent … didn't really lay out a vision for Taiwan. He spent a lot of time attacking me, and my family members. That also proved to be counterproductive. People wanted the candidates to tell them where Taiwan should go.

NW: You now have a strong mandate. What do you think the Taiwanese people want?

Ma: They want a vibrant economy, a clean government, a society with equitable distribution of wealth, and a peaceful Taiwan Strait.

They've been very much troubled by the existence of a very corrupt government … this is probably one of the single most important things. The year before last year, there were 100,000 people rushing into the streets to protest [against corruption involving the First Family and top officials]. That never happened in Taiwanese history, so many people. And this is something that people resent the most.

On the economy, I think it's quite clear that [the DPP's] policy of quasi-isolation [made] Taiwan businesses less competitive. Taiwan's national competitiveness in all of the surveys lagged behind the other three [Asian] "tigers." Our economic growth has become … only better than Japan. Intellectuals, the middle class, but also others feel change is really required.

NW: What positive contributions do you think your predecessor Chen Shui-bian has made to Taiwan's democracy?

Ma: He started as a human rights lawyer, defending some of the political prisoners, people who were roughly suppressed. So he did contribute to Taiwan's democratization. I think his rise to prominence from a very poor family proves that Taiwan society is a society with mobility.

But unfortunately, he didn't really keep his house in order. I was very much surprised by how many family members of his were involved in corruption charges. That's one thing.

Another is his insistence on the ideological isolation of Taiwan. [This] really brought a lot of damage to Taiwan. But otherwise I think he has his place in history as a democratic leader. I think people certainly remember his contributions in the past, but resent very much what he did in the last eight years.

NW: You've made many promises for improving cross-strait relations, on tourism, direct flights, and Chinese investment in Taiwan. But what makes you so confident China is going to engage you?

Ma: On the less complicated things like direct flights and more tourists, actually these issues have been discussed for at least three years. Each side knows where the bottlenecks are. I think basically they're ideological.

For instance, tourists. Our side says they should use passports, so that we can stamp on their passport. And they want to use a special travel document to avoid giving the outside world the impression that these are two countries. [But] you can always find ways to bypass that.

Let me give you an example. In 1990, the two sides met in Kinmen to discuss the issue of expatriation of illegal immigrants, criminals or criminal suspects. … So they met and everything went just fine. They came out with an agreement. At the last minute there was a bottleneck: how to date [it]. The actual month and date was September 20, the problem was the year. Here in Taiwan we used the 79th year of the Republic of China, they used 1990.

Well, the discussions were stuck for a while and then they made a brilliant decision, they said, just leave [the date] blank. You see, you can always find ways to bypass issues like this. That is why we are very confident that if we are willing to … bypass this problem [these things] could be done very easily.

NW: But recently during the campaign you called Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao "unreasonable, arrogant, stupid and self-righteous." You also suggested a possible boycott of the Beijing Olympics if the Tibet situation gets worse. Do you think that could hurt your efforts to improve cross-strait relations?

Ma: I didn't like the way they talked about Tibet and Taiwan together. It's like when they came up with the idea of 'one country two systems,' and wanted to apply that to [Taiwan]. We reminded them Taiwan is not Hong Kong, and they shouldn't draw that analogy. Actually they didn't have to talk about Taiwan when they are handling Tibetan affairs. And I think that was really an irritant, and that's why I had to not only criticize them, but denounce the way they talked about Taiwan.

And particularly during a presidential election – it's actually aiding my opponent. So that's why I became a bit furious.

On the boycott issue, of course those are conditioned on two scenarios. The first, they continue to suppress the Tibetan people, and the situation gets worse. And then, we should consult the people whether we should stop sending our teams to the Olympics … So we're watching the Tibetan affairs development quite attentively to see whether there's any sign of worsening.

NW: Do you see yourself taking a more moderate tone to make sure you can deliver things like direct flights?

Ma: Actually, these [things] are overdue, they should have been done more then ten years ago. Because [they haven't], Taiwan has become less competitive in many ways. The speed of China's rise has become so quick, [but] Taiwan has difficulty taking advantage of the situation. We're not saying we want to be "pro-China" -- we're just trying to do business as usual. So that's why we call it 'normalization' of economic relations with mainland China.

NW: If you were the Chinese leadership, how would you manage the Tibet crisis that we're seeing unfolding today?

Ma: I think they should learn from the lesson of June 4, 1989. Of course, Tibet is a very difficult case. But I think the Dalai Lama's call for autonomy seems to be a moderate one. Our position actually is in a way echoes the Dalai Lama's call for autonomy. Because he doesn't call for independence, he calls for non-violence. I think they should really start dialogue with Dalai Lama.

The Tibetan people are very, peace-loving people. But unfortunately, [Beijing] insists that the whole thing was instigated by the Dalai Lama. That makes things worse.

NW: The US economy appears headed into recession. Given this gloomy global economic outlook, how do you expect to deliver on your pledge to revive Taiwan's economy?

Ma: It's impossible for Taiwan to decouple its economy from that of the United States, particularly when the US is having economic problems, and maybe recession.

But cross-strait trade and investment still [give us] some room for maneuver. When the election results were revealed, the next day everybody seemed quite optimistic about the future. People believe they’ve been suppressed in the last eight years.

So I think if we are able to deliver on our promise of direct flights and tourists by July, the optimism will continue. If the current consumer behavior continues, there could be more than NT$100 billion of consumption by the end of the year. That means to add one percentage point to our GDP growth.

NW: Is it realistic to think Taiwan can go back to old days of high-growth, or should people be more modest in their expectations?

Ma: Well, even the DPP government once reached six percent growth. I think we will be able at least to create a favorable situation, by changing the policy on direct flights, on tourism, and get people generally optimistic for the future. And that will help. So this year, the general forecast for our economic growth is 4% or something like this. But I'm cautiously optimistic, I think it will be much better than that … People are thinking big, and I think this is good.

NW: Like many Asian countries, though, Taiwan is seeing growing inequality. How do you intend to tackle that problem?

Ma: We will introduce a new tax credit program for low-income workers, [like one] that has been in existence in the United States for quite a while. If you have a four member family and your income is below NT$480,000, you don't pay any taxes … we will give you money. It's called 'negative income tax.'

But for the moment, if we allow mainland tourists to come to Taiwan, I think, the low-income people could also benefit from that, because the businesses that would benefit from such a new wave of tourists is the service industry, that's spread across the society. So I think that way we could increase the general wealth of the society, particularly the middle and low income people.

And I think that can be done. Because the KMT, although it looks like a right-wing political party, has a lot of strength on the equitable distribution of wealth. So that will also be a very important part of our policy.

NW: There are a few major arms purchases in the pipeline, such as a request for F-16s. Are you concerned such purchases could harm efforts to improve ties with China?

Ma: In the early 1990s, we were able to acquire F-16s from the US, and also Mirage-2005s from France. At the same time we reached a 1992 consensus with the mainland. The 1992 consensus is an important milestone because that's the first effort from the two sides to … manage the problem of 'one China'.

Once we developed that formula, 'One china, respective interpretations,' that effectively shelved the problem. Then we could turn our attention to more urgent issues. So what I've been calling for is that both sides simultaneously return to the original version of the 1992 consensus.

And I think our effort has actually made some inroads. The mainland realizes that now Ma Ying-jeou is president, and he supports the 92 consensus, [which is] 'One China, different interpretations.' If they don't [cooperate], then cross-strait relations would not have a breakthrough, and four years later people may choose the DPP.

NW: Would you continue to push for major arms purchases from the US?

Ma: Yes, actually those that are in the pipeline are the Patriot-3 [missiles], and we have already agreed to purchase the P3-C reconnaissance anti-submarine planes. And now the only issue not decided is the submarines. And I think this is very controversial, it's very expensive. So when we are inaugurated we have to deal with these three first. But F-16s, have been already requested, I think the Americans have not made a decision yet. That is also very urgent in a way, in a way it's more urgent than the submarines, because we have to replace the aging F5-Es.

NW: When do you think the practical economic discussions with China will segue into a political dialogue?

Ma: In terms of priority, [the] economy comes first. The normalization of the economic relationship, not only as regards direct flights or tourists, those are the very basic things, but also thinking about an investment guarantee agreement, an agreement to avoid double taxation, an agreement to let Taiwan financial service industry go to the mainland and invest, and to take care to serve their Taiwan clients.

All these things, in other parts of the world these are just basic in economic relationships. But after 20 years of active trade, we haven't got those. And that is why we think this is high time to focus on those issues.

Of course, you could simultaneously engage them on the issue of a peace agreement. But those [are] maybe going to take more time. For instance, whether they withdraw the missiles or the military confidence-building measures, all of these require some time. Those touch very sensitive nerves [on both] sides.

But in principle the mainland side is ready to negotiate a peace agreement with us. And I think this is a good sign.

As [Beijing] becomes wealthier and more important as a world power, they also become more sophisticated … in dealing with Taiwan.

From roughly 1995 to 2005, a ten-year period, they focused on "one country, two systems." And that was a failure of course, very few people in Taiwan supported that. So they shifted to a policy intended to prevent de jure independence for Taiwan, instead of promoting unification of the two sides.

And I think that is a very pragmatic change, and it also gives us the needed room for negotiation. [I] made it very clear that I won't support de jure independence and on the other hand, I won't discuss the issue of unification with the mainland during my term of office, which is at maximum eight years.

I think I may not even be able to see that in my lifetime -- [a solution to] the sovereignty issue. But we don' have to solve that at the moment. What [Beijing] is very much concerned about is [that] Taiwan shouldn't drift further away.

Well, once we guarantee that what we mean by 'different interpretation' of 'one China' is "Republic of China," our version -- we're not talking about a "Republic of Taiwan" – they could rest assured. This is a very important promise on my part. I risked my political life to say that. In Taiwan, to say that seems to be [treasonous] to some members of the DPP. But I made it very clear, listen, I will be the President of the Republic of China, which is the official name of Taiwan.

And so, if I insist that when I agree to the "One China" principle that my interpretation is the "Republic of China", I'm only enforcing my duties as the Republic of China president, there's nothing wrong with that. But this cannot be done by a DPP president.

So I think if I do that, the mainland, of course, they always think that the Republic of China has become defunct. But the Republic of China is well and here, and it's getting better in terms of our democratic outlook and all that. They have to recognize that reality.

I have a theory, that in the past, from 1949 from maybe 1979, the two sides, mainland china and Taiwan, denied the existence of the other side. So that is called 'mutual denial'. We can't really move from there to mutual recognition, because each sides' constitution and political situation excludes that possibility.

What we can achieve is something in between, what I call 'mutual non-denial'. In other words, you call yourself, the PRC, I take note of that, but I wouldn't have to say anything further. Same thing is true, I call myself, the Republic of China, you don't have to admit you actually cannot recognize that. It doesn't matter. All you have to do is not to deny our existence.

Then, room is created for maneuver. And I think this room is badly needed for both sides of the Taiwan Strait. They don't want to get involved in a major warfare with the United States. But if Taiwan declared de jure independence, they'd have to take action.

Now Taiwan has a new president, who vowed that he would not seek de jure independence. They could rest assured that that possibility is ruled out, as far as my term of office is concerned. And I will [not] negotiate any settlement of the Taiwan issue during the 8-year period. So maintaining the status quo is the best choice for the moment.

NW: There's a notion that China will evolve peacefully. Do you see its leaders today as easier to deal with; do you see progress?

Ma: Well, at least as far as economic decisions are concerned I think the answer is probably positive.

But on political issues, particularly human rights, they still lag behind.

But I think they are making progress, and we have to recognize that. And they need further encouragement. Take the Tibetan affairs, for instance. I noticed that there are more than 100 rather well know intellectuals in mainland china calling for the leaders to hold dialogue with the Dalai Lama. That never happened in the past. Nobody dared to stick their head [out] to do that. And now they will risk their life to say that. And I'm deeply impressed.

And I think in an Internet age, sometimes this information will spread very fast, and people will understand that, well, [there are] different perspectives. So I think mainland China is changing, [and] I'm cautiously optimistic about social development,

Their leaders have become less stringent, less inflexible, and more sophisticated in dealing with sensitive political issues.

NW: Do you have a message for Chinese President Hu Jintao as you prepare to take office?

Ma: The existence of Taiwan is an undeniable reality. We have different degrees of Taiwanese identity, that is very natural. For instance, my parents came from the Chinese mainland, and I was born in Hong Kong. But once I become president, I have to insist upon … Taiwanese identity.

But that wouldn't hurt the bilateral relations between Taiwan and the mainland because I also made it quite clear that during my term of office I would not pursue or support de jure independence.

Hu once said [we should] keep or maintain the commonalities, [and] ignore the differences. If we can maintain that spirit, obviously a lot of things can be achieved. I call upon him to seize this opportunity.

This is a rare opportunity for them to see the emergence of national consensus. [Taiwanese] support a more open relationship with the mainland, but at the same time, [to] maintain the Taiwanese identity. This is a very important message they shouldn't lose sight of.

Original site

Pragmatism rules

The Politics of Practical Nostalgia

Asians are rallying to new leaders promising something the region once took for granted: growth.

George Wehrfritz and Jonathan Adams
NEWSWEEK, March 29, 2008

Voters in Asia are kicking out incumbents like never before.

As maturing economies combine with the global slowdown to put a brake on the pace of development, Asians are electing pragmatic managers-in-chief who promise a return to the good old days of fast growth, job security and social mobility.

The first came in South Korea last December, when former Hyundai chairman Lee Myung-bak won election as president vowing to serve as the pro-business CEO of a "Global Korea" and ending the reign of a string of populist liberals.

On March 8 in Malaysia, an opposition coalition dealt the ruling party its worse loss in four decades by running on bread-and-butter issues and promising to end a stifling Malay affirmative-action system.

Then on March 22, voters in Taiwan tossed out a quixotic nationalist who had undermined Taiwan's key economic advantage—access to mainland China—in favor of Ma Ying-jeou, who promises to improve economic ties with the mainland. In an exclusive interview with NEWSWEEK last week, Ma said he won because voters were tired of "pugnacious nationalism" and because the economic performance of outgoing President Chen Shui-bian had been "so poor, people just felt that enough is enough."

It's a counterrevolution of sorts. Unlike the rabble-rousers, populists and old-guard ideologues they've ousted, Asia's new leaders are mostly common-sense conservatives who preach limited government, free trade and multipronged development strategies that evoke the go-go 1980s—in the hope they can recapture the 8 to 9 percent growth that transformed backwaters like South Korea and Taiwan into modern, high-tech economies.

Such pledges have hit home with voters keenly aware that, outside China and India, Asia's growth rates have slowed to an average of about 5 percent in the last decade (compared with 6.5 percent in emerging markets worldwide).

"Prodded by a realization that the world is passing them by, voters in the region's laggard economies have either thrown incumbents out or cast protest votes against their governments," writes Ruchir Sharma, head of global emerging markets at Morgan Stanley, in a recent note.

Yet reviving the kind of rapid growth that Asia enjoyed before the 1997 financial crisis may not be possible. These countries, particularly Taiwan and South Korea, may be too mature to expand as fast as developing economies can. Lee, for example, has promised to push South Korea's growth rate back to 7 percent. But with a GDP already at $950 billion, that would require an additional $67 billion in output each year. Ten years ago, the same feat would've required only $25 billion.

East Asia's industrial giants have lost much of their labor-intensive manufacturing to China, and governments are under intense pressure to respond. But the old strategy of export-led expansion—which included keeping currencies artificially cheap and erecting barriers to protect the local market—won't fly anymore. Once upon a time, these states used centralized government to build and defend internationalization, but that is increasingly difficult in a world where vast trade and capital flows are overwhelming national bureaucracies.

"All of these leaders have to cope with a new world where they have much less power over their own economies," says Phil Deans, a political economist at Temple University in Tokyo. "You can't be ideological when confronted with globalization, you have to be pragmatic."

That's one trait the new leaders share. Ma joined the ruling Kuomintang shortly before it ended 38 years of military rule in 1987. In 2000, the KMT lost power for the first time to the Taiwan-born Chen, a former human-rights lawyer who obsessively championed Taiwanese identity and implied that Ma and other mainlanders had divided loyalties. Chen fought economic integration with China as a threat to national security, and Taiwan paid the price: during his eight-year reign, the economy grew at just 4 percent annually—down from nearly 13 percent in the 1980s.

Ma campaigned on the argument that integration with China is a savvy global economic strategy, not a threat. When he takes office in May, he plans to forge direct transport links with the mainland, free up capital flows and open the door to millions of Chinese tourists. "We're not saying we want to be pro-China," says Ma. "We're just trying to do business as usual."

South Korea is also eager to relive its bygone boom. Its last president, Roh Moo Hyun, tried to radically restrain the nation's giant conglomerates, which he claimed had gained unfair advantages during decades of authoritarian rule. Roh preached higher taxes, wealth redistribution and greater independence from the country's traditional protector, the United States. His popularity suffered from policy flip-flops and bad management, but what really cost his allies the presidency was a 5 percent growth rate, declining foreign investment and paltry job creation.

Now Lee, who promised in his Inaugural speech to go "beyond the age of ideology to the age of pragmatism," is planning steps "to boost investor and business morale," says Sakong Ill, co-chair of a new presidential competitiveness committee. Both Ma and Lee advocate deregulation and business tax cuts, and aim to build their capitals into regional financial hubs.

"Pragmatism in policymaking [is] spreading across the region," wrote Nicholas Kwan, regional head of research at Standard Chartered in Hong Kong in a recent note to clients. "Economic sense once again prevails over populist politics."

There is, however, a throwback, statist side to some of these leaders, who are setting specific growth targets and spending heavily to reach them—as did their predecessors from the '50s through the '90s. Lee's "Plan 747" aims to deliver 7 percent growth, a per capita income of $40,000 within a decade, and to earn South Korea a spot in the G7. Ma's "633" plan aims to achieve 6 percent annual growth, boost Taiwan's per capita income to $30,000 by 2016 and cut unemployment to 3 percent.

To promote growth and build financial hubs, both are doling out billions: Lee has proposed a multi-billion-dollar north-south canal and Ma favors $130 billion in public-works projects for upgraded mass transit and expanded airports and container terminals. Political scientist Shih Cheng-feng of National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan says such massive public works are "an old game" that will at best provide a short-term growth spurt.

Still, the urgent desire to rev up growth that animates Ma and Lee has also surfaced in Southeast Asia. Because both the economies and democracies are less developed in the Southeast, the electoral backlash against incumbents has been even more dramatic.

In Malaysia, three tiny opposition parties nearly ousted a coalition that has reigned since independence in 1957. Led by Anwar Ibrahim—a former deputy prime minister who was purged in 1998 after clashing with strongman Mahathir Mohamad over how far Malaysia's economy should open—the opposition won control of two key industrial states and is now positioned to challenge Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. "Issues long considered too sensitive to broach—such as Malaysia's affirmative-action policy—are on the table," writes Sharma.

In neighboring Thailand, voters have broken a cycle of coups that goes back to the 1960s. In the past, junta leaders held on to power as long as they could and then installed civilian allies. But 14 months after generals ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, they were forced by public pressure to hold the Dec. 23 elections that Thaksin backers won. As a result, Thaksin has changed "the way things are done in Thailand," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. "Today the forces at home and abroad are in his favor."

A successful economic answer to the pressures of globalization was central to Thaksin's rise and helps explain his return. During his five-year term the economy boomed, rural growth spiked and Thailand became the only country in Asia to narrow its rich-poor gap. His Thai Rak Thai party gained popularity by spending heavily on infrastructure and the poor, including village-level development programs and nearly free health care, yet keeping Thailand open to foreign investors and aggressively promoting trade.

Then came the junta, which managed in a few short months to scare off foreign investors and alienate rural Thais by advocating quasi-Buddhist "efficiency economics" that emphasized stability over growth. Under the generals, Thailand grew by just 4.8 percent last year. Now Samak Sundaravej, the new prime minister—who is widely seen as a Thaksin proxy—has approved $635 million in new funding for villages and a $1.3 billion tax-cut package to boost the sluggish economy. Thaksin inspires such personal loyalty that Bangkok cabby Dogruk Komning, 26, who saw business plummet under the junta, says he voted for Samak even though he feared it might lead to another coup.

It's too soon to tell whether the rise of the popular pragmatists is a paradigm shift or a passing fad. A lot depends on whether the new leaders can deliver. With the U.S. economy entering what could be a serious recession, Asia's richer economies have particular cause for concern. Their strategies, mixing free-market pragmatism with the old Asian impulse to command economic growth, suggest some confusion about how to grow fast.

What the new leaders aren't asking is whether the old rates are still realistic. The richest economies typically can't grow faster than 3 percent for sustained periods without overheating. With average incomes now exceeding $15,000—not matching Japan but not poor either—South Korea and Taiwan may find that 5 percent is their new speed limit. With average incomes of only $6,150 and $3,400, respectively, Malaysia and Thailand will likely find it easier to hit 7 percent or more.

But as Deans points out, the growing power of global markets means "new state leaders have fewer levers they can pull, [and] it's much harder to manage economies than it used to be."

Particularly when voters expect past performance to predict future results.

With Jaimie Seaton in Bangkok and B. J. Lee in Seoul

Original site

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Taiwan's sun city

Taichung offers an unusual blend of attractions for creatures of the day and of the night

By Jonathan Adams

(an edited version appeared in Silkroad, Dragonair's in-flight magazine)

It's the city known for having Taiwan's best weather. Tucked behind the high central mountain range on the island's western plain, Taichung is sheltered from many of the typhoons and seasonal rains that batter the island's east coast and northern capital, Taipei.

The result is the island's sunniest skies. That’s reflected in one of the city’s culinary specialties, the scrumptious taiyang bing or “sun cake”—a circular pocket of flaky dough with gooey, sweet filling inside.

But when the sun goes down over Taichung’s 1 million citizens, it also becomes Taiwan’s “sin city.” Taichung, the island’s third largest city after Taipei and Kaohsiung, has long had a reputation as a gangster’s playground. Las Vegas-style districts burst with pachinko parlors, massive, neon-lit KTVs (Taiwanese karaoke halls) and high-end “love motels” offering two hours or more in a luxury hideaway. Cabdrivers and other locals will tell you that many of these joints are owned and frequented by hei dao ren—(“black way” people or gangsters.)

Meanwhile, scantily-clad "betel-nut beauties" sell the mildly-intoxicating nut from garish, transparent booths that dot the city.

Not surprisingly, the government omits these details from its many promotional brochures.

Still, Taichung’s gaudy underworld is just one of the city’s many faces. Locals insist there’s little danger here for foreign tourists. The city government—under its jolly, energetic mayor Jason Hu—has been touting Taichung’s cultural attractions: Its fame as the birthplace of Taiwan’s world-famous “bubble tea”, its baked specialties, family-friendly parks, world-class museums and musical events. In November 2007 it hosted games for the Baseball World Cup and Asian Championship at its new international stadium downtown. With its recently opened international airport and nearby high-speed rail station, Taichung is more accessible than ever.

Indeed, it stands ready to become a hub for direct cross-strait flights, should Taiwan and China ever manage to ink an agreement (Now, all mainland-bound passengers must change planes in a third location such as Hong Kong or Macau).

And in 2009, it plans to open the jewel in the city’s crown: an eye-catching metropolitan opera house designed by renowned Japanese architect Toyo Ito.

In short, Taichung is making a bid to shed its seedy image and become a world-class city. Mayor Hu says the city’s already made great strides in the last six years. Illegal sex establishments have been reduced by nearly 80%. The massive Central Taiwan Science Park nearby is attracting high-end chip, flat-panel and other technology companies. With the nation’s highest proportion of budget expenditures on education, science and culture, Taichung is packed with universities—almost one third of the population are students. And that population is swelling as the city attracts more and more white-collar Taiwanese.

Hu notes that a Taiwanese magazine recently ranked Taichung as the island’s most “livable” city. “People’s impression is hard to change, it will take time,” said Hu. “But the city’s getting better and better. With the high-speed rail, our own international airport and hopefully cross-strait air and sea links, Taichung will be very international.”

In that respect it’s still a work in progress; a city with a split personality. Even some of the locals are skeptical of Hu’s vision; it’s not uncommon to hear them grumble that the new stadium and airport are just boondoggles. But such down-to-earth pragmatism, along with the city’s unpolished rough edges and outsized ambitions, are all part of Taichung’s charm.

Colorful past

The earliest inhabitants of the area around Taichung were Aborigines of Austronesian—not Han Chinese—stock. It was an unremarkable patch of the western plains during Taiwan’s eclectic past as a pirate haven, Dutch colony, and destination for adventurous Chinese settlers. Then, in the early 18th century, the Qing decided to establish a settlement and garrison here, bringing it into the fold of its massive empire.

In 1895 the Qing ceded Taiwan to the Japanese. Taichung—then called Taichu—became a focus for Japan’s development of the island. The Japanese built Taichung Park, which remains a popular spot today. They also built a city hall and linked up the city to a new north-south rail line.

When Taiwan was turned over to the Chinese Kuomintang government after World War II, it hosted a US air base outside the city, as part of an anti-communist front line during the Cold War. US forces withdrew after 1979, when the US normalized relations with the People’s Republic of China.

Now, after a long lull, the city is being revitalized. Its changing face reflects Taiwan’s rising standard of living. The crowded night markets bustle with frenzied activity and are rich with the aroma of Taiwanese snacks. Locals and tourist stroll down the pedestrian-only Jingming 1st street or relax in outdoor cafes more reminiscent of Europe than most of Taiwan. Parents take their kids and dogs to the spacious green lawns outside the fine arts museum on weekends.

The area near the old train station used to be popular with locals. Now it’s a Sunday hangout for Indonesians laborers who now do the factory work that Taiwanese aren't willing to do so cheaply, and caregivers that newly rich Taiwanese can now afford.

The locals prefer a more upscale, newer area to the northwest—nicknamed “qiqi”—that’s clustered around the sleek Xinkong Mitsukoshi department store. Such upscale attractions represent how far Taiwan has come since the 1950s, when it was an agriculture-based economy still struggling to move into manufacturing for export.

Taichung used to be ridiculed by other Taiwanese as a cultural wasteland. The counties around the city have long been Taiwan's poorest, with land that’s not as fertile as that further south. Pockets of poverty still persist. But Taichung’s changing profile is a sign of how now-wealthy Taiwanese are putting a higher priority on arts, green spaces and quality of life.


Taiwan Fine Arts Museum (#2, Section 1, Wu chuan West Road, (04) 2372-3552, This first-rate museum holds the world’s largest collection of Taiwanese art. The museum hosts a wide variety of temporary exhibitions.

National Museum of Natural Science and Botanical Garden (#1 Guancian Road, (04) 2322-6940, This is a favorite of Taiwanese families, with hands-on, interactive exhibits designed to make learning scientific principles fun for kids. The grounds also include an IMAX theater and a lush botanical garden.

Parks: The city is dotted with sprawling green areas that are especially popular with Taichung’s middle-class and wealthy families. Newlyweds decked out in Western, Oriental or themed attire crowd into Taichung Park on weekends for their wedding photos. Lovers amble the park or go pleasure-boating on the small lake inside.

Another popular destination is the Fengle Sculpture Park in the city’s southwest sector.

Shopping: local youngsters flock to the alleys around Yizhong Street (beside National Taichung First Senior High School) for good deals on the latest fashions. More upscale shoppers head to the newer part of the city near the corner of Taichunggang and Liming Roads, around Tiger City and the Xinkong Mitsukoshi department store.

Tunghai University: The area near Tunghai University is still popular with students and artists. Attractions include an “art street” west of the university off Taichunggang Road, and a university chapel designed by world-famous architect I.M. Pei.

Dakeng Scenic area: A short cab ride northeast of the city will take you into the mountains. Get off on Dongshan Road at the former Junggong Primary School, which was damaged in the massive earthquake of September 21, 1999. Nearby are the trailheads for several short, attractive hikes. Don’t expect the wilderness; this being Taiwan, the “trail” is lined with outdoor KTVs, and vendors hawking fruit juice and other refreshments. Further into the scenic area on Dongshan Road, attractions include natural hot springs, fruit farms, golf courses, and longer hikes through hills teeming with macaques and other wildlife.

Taichung is also an excellent hopping-off point for excursions in central Taiwan. Highlights include Sun Moon Lake to the southeast, a sacred Aboriginal spot and former retreat for KMT strongman Chiang Kai-shek. The lake boasts one of Taiwan’s most luxurious hotels, the Lalu (, (04) 9-285-6888). Its massive swimming pool and stunning lake views make it a honeymoon destination for locals.

Another popular spot is Qingjing Farms, a mountain retreat that’s also in Nantou County to the east of Taichung.


Many of Taichung’s local specialties can be found at unpretentious night markets or streetside stalls. Adventurous souls can try the gelatinous chicken feet, baked potato with cheese and corn, or wash down fried chicken breast with an unusual blend of Heineken beer and green or red tea.

The city is home to one of Taiwan’s largest night markets, the Fengjia Night Market in the Xitun District, next to Fengjia University.

But perhaps the city’s most distinctive treats are its bubble tea, baked goods and other desserts. First, the bubble tea. Chen Shui Tang tea house claims it invented the famous concoction in the 1980s, though another local chain disputes this. The product originated from experiments with shaken tea drinks to attract new customers. Small tapioca balls were dumped in—along with straws wide enough to suck them up from the bottom of the cup—and the result was a fad that spread worldwide.

The chain’s most popular location at Jingming 1st Street will be closed for renovation until at least January 2008. But tourists can visit one of their ten other sites around the city, such as their flagship store at #30 Siwei Street (04-2327-3647). On offer is the original hot or cold “pearl milk tea” and a wide range of variations. Tasty snacks such as dried shrimp sauce noodles with pork slices, or sesame oil with thin noodles, are also served.

For a taste of Taiwanese cuisine, head to Lu Guang Qi Cun, in the hills overlooking Taichung (#11-2 Beikeng Lane, Beitun District, (04) 2239-0707). Here, an enterprising local has built a nostalgic homage to 50s and 60s Taiwan, with bamboo partitions, dark wood floors and exposed roof beams, decorations from Taiwan’s distinctive “budaixi” or glove puppet theaters, and a massive collection of records and bric-a-brac from a more innocent age. The restaurant offers an excellent nighttime view of the city from its large outdoor patio.

The food’s tasty too, drawing on all-natural products from the nearby Dakeng Scenic Area. Try the luguang sifangcai (fried pork strips with veggies and hot red peppers) and sunzi gao (radish cakes with a spicy sauce), washed down with suan meizi (sour fruitjuice).

If you’re a dessert lover, make a stop at the Yizhong Street district for a taste of Taichung’s feng ren bing, an eclectic down-home fusion of sweet, sour and red bean tastes that will send your tastebuds spinning. The stand across from Taichung First High School claims to have spooned out the stuff for more than 50 years.

Pie and cake-lovers should head to the nearby Rose Pie (#10 Taiyang Road, (04) 2229-1566).

And before you leave Taichung, be sure to stop by the Taiyang Bakery (Taiyangdang Bingdian, #23 Ziyou Road Section 2, (04) 2222-2662) to get a box of the city’s famous sun cakes. The shop guards its recipe jealously; no photographs of the kitchen are allowed in the kitchen lest trade secrets leak to competitors.

For an artsy dining experience, head to the Five-cent Driftwood House (#3 Shizheng North Third Road, (04) 2254-5678), with a funky exterior and castle-like interior.

High-end food options include the Sun Yat-sen Mansion (27 Wuquan West 6th Street, (04) 2377-0808, NT$1200 (HKD$285) and up, reservations required), and Tan-tsu Mien (#215 Huamei West Road Section 2, (04) 2312-3288), for gourmet seafood-lovers.


The Golden Jaguar (#64-4 Taichungkang Road Section 2, at the corner of Wenxin Road) is a massive neon palace that’s reputed to be one of Taiwan’s most expensive KTVs. Look for the black luxury cars with tinted windows lined up outside, and the armies of black-suited security guards. One hour will set you back NT$1,320 (HKD$315), not including food, drink and other charges.

Xaga is an upscale lounge and nightclub for Taichung’s beautiful things (#120 Henan Road Section 3, in the basement at Tiger City mall, 09-20-080-993). No jeans, flip-flops or sneakers allowed, entrance is NT$650 (HKD$155) on weekends.

For more relaxed pub fun, head to the Frog, a Mexican restaurant and watering hole popular with expats and locals (#105 Huamei West Street Section 1, 04-2321-1197, It’s packed with foosball tables, darts and plenty of beers. Upstairsis the Grooveyard, a small, laid-back live music venues. Both establishments are in the central pub district that's packed with plenty of other bars and restaurants serving all types of international cuisines.


Taichung has several high-end accommodations to choose from, with all the perks that international businessmen and other regular travelers expect. Many dot the city’s main thoroughfare, Taichungkang Road.

Splendor Taichung (#1049 Jian Shing Road, (04) 2328-8000,, rooms NT$6,500 (HKD1,545) and up.) Highlights include an outdoor pool, oriental-style spa, Chinese and Mediterranean restaurants and cigar and piano bars.

Evergreen Laurel (#6 Taichungkang Road Section 2, 04-2313-9988, rooms NT$6,400 (HKD1,522) and up). Creature comforts include a swimming pool, gym, sauna, spa services, teppanyaki and Cantonese restaurants, and an Italian-style cafe.

Windsor Hotel (#78-3, Taichungkang Road Sections 3, (04) 2465-6555,, rooms NT$8,800 (HKD2,093) and up). Includes five restaurants and a wine and cigar bar, swimming pool, gym and banquet and conference room.

Note: As with most of Taiwan, there’s no standard system for Romanizing Taichung’s place names. The capital Taipei now officially uses the mainland’s pinyin system, but other parts of the island haven’t followed suit. That means it’s common to see the same street name spelled three or four different ways. If in doubt, ask your hotel to concierge to confirm names and addresses, and write destinations in Chinese to give to your cabdriver.

It was the economy, stupid

In choosing a new president, Taiwanese voters focused more on their pocketbooks than fears of Chinese dominance

Jonathan Adams
Newsweek Web Exclusive, March 23, 2008

In its fourth presidential election Saturday, Taiwan voted overwhelmingly for the candidate backing warmer China ties, potentially ushering in a new era of moderation after eight years of Chen Shui-bian's confrontational approach.

In the end, the Kuomintang's Ma Ying-jeou successfully sold himself as the candidate for change, as opposed to four more years of the status quo under Chen's pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.

Voters embraced widespread expectations that Ma can revive the island's stagnant economy, while rejecting DPP rival Frank Hsieh's scare tactics and negative attacks.

Speaking at a press conference after his victory, Ma said voters had given him a mandate to improve ties with China. But he made clear he would not compromise on Taiwan's sovereignty.

"Taiwan should be more open and more pragmatic; we should not isolate ourselves," said Ma. "Freedom and democracy are our most valued possessions—we will defend them with our lives."

China considers self-ruled Taiwan a part of its territory that must eventually return, by force if necessary.

Ma's landslide victory (58 percent to his rival's 42percent in a vote with high turnout) surprised analysts who expected a closer race. The result showed that for Taiwanese voters, the economy trumped national identity—the issue that had been decisive in previous elections.

Ma is a Hong Kong-born Mainlander, and some thought that could cripple his chances amid surging Taiwan-first pride. (Under the KMT's one-party rule, a Mainlander minority that arrived in the late 1940s long ruled over a native Taiwanese majority.)

"People think the economy is most important," said analyst George Tsai. "Identity or ethnic difference aren't important enough now to prevent a Mainlander from being elected. And that's a healthy trend for Taiwan's democracy."

Taiwan's economy is strong on some indicators, such as exports and GDP (5.7 percent this past year). But Taiwanese complain of stagnant wages, inflation and fewer job opportunities. They say strong growth is only benefitting a few in the island's high-tech and other sectors, and not trickling down to the lower and middle class. It's popular in Taiwan to refer to an"M-shaped" society, in which inequality has widened and the middle class shrunk.

Amid those economic woes, many saw Hsieh's DPP ignoring bread-and-butter issues while instead prioritizing identity politics and needless confrontation with China.

At a Ma appearance in Taipei, Luo She-mei, 38, said she'd voted for Chen's DPP in 2000, but this time would vote for Ma. "Our salaries haven't gone up, and there are fewer jobs," said Luo. "I think there should be a change of parties—we should give the KMT an opportunity."

Ma's economic plan promises Taiwanese relief. It features ambitious economic openings to China, including more Chinese tourists and investment allowed into Taiwan, and direct cross-strait flights. He even envisions a possible cross-strait common market.

In the last weeks of the campaign, Hsieh tried to scare voters on that issue, saying that what he termed Ma's "one-China market" could lead to a flood of Chinese laborers and cheap, poor-quality Chinese products into Taiwan. Voters didn't buy that—in part because Ma insisted he would not allow in Chinese laborers or agricultural products.

Meanwhile, Ma enjoys widespread admiration for what supporters say is a clean, upright character. That was a key selling point after corruption scandals that have dogged the ruling DPP in recent years.

Though himself a product of the KMT authoritarian machine that ruled Taiwan for more than 50 years, his supporters insist he now represents a "new KMT." Ma is committed to democracy and it's impossible for the party to return to its corrupt, authoritarian past, they say. "Today's KMT isn't the same," said Lin Jing-chong, 53, after voting for Ma in a Taipei suburb. "And if Ma doesn't do a good job, we'll change again in four years."

Ma has reassured pro-independence or pro-status quo Taiwanese by ruling out unification with China, and by saying Taiwan's fate must be decided only by its 23 million people. He won over some native Taiwanese by spending months with Southerners in the lead-up to the election—staying overnight in their homes, and joining them on their farms and fishing boats.

His recent criticism of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao suggested his stance on Taiwan sovereignty would be firm. Wen belittled Taiwan's status in comments Tuesday, saying Tibet and Taiwan were both parts of China, and that the 1.3 billion Chinese and 23 million Taiwanese should jointly decide Taiwan's fate. Ma called Wen's comments "irrational, arrogant and foolish," and said he wouldn't rule out a boycott of the Beijing Olympics this summer if the situation in Tibet deteriorated further.

Such talk could be a preview of how he's likely to deal with China in the next four years. On economics, analysts say he'll be able to move quickly on his agenda. (Although it's not clear he has a sufficient cure for what ails Taiwan—particularly if a U.S. recession hits the export-dependent island hard.) But on cross-strait politics, the going will be even rougher.

Ma has often criticized China, saying it should apologize for the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, and that it should remove the 1,000 missiles pointed at Taiwan before peace talks could start. He spoke out against China's 2005 passage of the "Anti-secession Law," which codified its threat to attack Taiwan if the island makes its de facto independence permanent. He was subsequently denied a visa to visit his native Hong Kong.

Based on that record, analysts say that while cross-strait talks could resume under Ma, the likelihood of a political breakthrough remains slim. "Economic linkages will bind the two sides together," said analyst Tsai. "But politically, they're drifting apart."

For their part, most Taiwan voters are focused on livelihoods, not grand peace deals. Coming out of a voting booth Saturday, Du Tie-lou, 31, had a simple rationale for supporting Ma. "I think if Ma's president, it will be easier for laobaixing [common people] to make a living," said Du, his mouth stained red from the betel nut popular with Taiwan's working class. "He'll be better for the economy."

The Kinmen model

Both presidential hopefuls in Saturday's election want to boost economic relations

By Jonathan Adams
The Christian Science Monitor, March 21, 2008

KINMEN, TAIWAN -- For a glimpse of Taiwan's warming relations with China, come to this forested island just off the mainland coast.

Direct cross-strait travel is largely prohibited because of the decades-old standoff between Taiwan and China. But here in Kinmen, Chinese tourists visit freely and Taiwanese businessmen can ferry across the strait to the mainland.

The Kinmen model will be expanded to all of Taiwan if either of the two candidates in the Taiwan's presidential election Saturday has his way. Their only argument is over the speed and scale at which that should happen.

For behind all the boisterous rallies and China-bashing rhetoric across Taiwan in recent days, this election is not about the usual hot-button issue of unification with, or independence from, China – neither of which is in the cards anytime soon.

Rather, it's about how economically close Taiwan should be with its giant neighbor. Will it be an uneasy handshake or a passionate embrace?

Either way, the candidates' willingness to engage rather than confront Beijing signals a pause in Taiwan's independence push and the likely cooling of a long-simmering Asian flash point.

"No matter who wins, we'll move closer to China," says Lin Wen-cheng, a China expert at National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung and a former adviser to two Taiwan presidents. "Cross-strait relations are going to improve."

From battlefront to tourist stop

Kinmen was a dangerous front line in the mid-20th century, with some 100,000 Kuomintang soldiers engaged in fierce artillery battles with the Communists just a few miles across the water.

Now, only about 5,000 Taiwanese soldiers remain at coastal gun emplacements and other sites. Ferry terminals have replaced minefields; in 2001, daily runs were established with two cities on the mainland. These give Chinese tourists a chance to visit Taiwan and some Taiwanese businessmen a shortcut to their mainland factories.

Most cross-strait travel, by contrast, must pass through a third location such as Hong Kong.

China-Kinmen transits have soared from 21,000 in 2001 to 725,000 last year; homeward-bound mainlanders crowd the ferry terminal with huge hauls of the island's famous goods.

Boosting cross-strait ties

The Kuomintang's (KMT) Ma Ying-jeou, who led in the latest available polls, has made the more ambitious pledges of the two candidates. He promises direct cross-strait flights, more Chinese tourists and investment allowed into Taiwan, and, possibly, a cross-strait common market. He also wants to engage Beijing in peace talks and is willing to accept the "one China" principle in order to do so.

His rival, Frank Hsieh, makes similar promises, but is more cautious. And his party refuses to accept any version of the "one China" principle, which would make cross-strait political talks more difficult, if not impossible.

Mr. Ma has an edge in the economic debate, which is why most analysts suggest that he'll win this weekend. Many islanders blame Mr. Hsieh's Democratic Progressive Party for Taiwan's poor economic performance. Real incomes are flat and Taiwan has lagged behind its fellow Asian "tigers" on indicators such as per capita gross domestic product.

Many voters, disillusioned with the party's corruption scandals and bumbling eight-year rule, want a change. And Ma is seen as an upright politician with an appealing economic plan.

Still, observers say Hsieh is mounting an 11th-hour comeback. "He's catching up," says analyst George Tsai.

Hsieh has done that in part by running a relentlessly negative campaign. He has attacked Ma's patriotism and tried to scare voters with the prospect of a "one China market" under Ma that would see Chinese laborers, low-quality Chinese products, and Chinese agricultural imports flood into Taiwan. (Ma insists he would not allow in Chinese laborers and would limit Chinese imports.)

The unrest in Tibet gave Hsieh an opportunity to turn voters' focus to Taiwan's sovereignty, an issue where his party has an edge. Hsieh has said that if the more China-friendly Ma is elected, Taiwan could become another Tibet.

Ma rejected this and lashed out at Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao for saying Tuesday that Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait should decide Taiwan's fate.

He called Mr. Wen "ruthless, irrational, arrogant, foolish, and self-righteous" – a clear attempt to avoid being seen as soft on China.

In fact, the two candidates agree that Taiwan is a sovereign state whose future can only be determined by the Taiwanese. Ma has been sharply critical of China in the past, saying, for example, that Beijing should apologize for the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and that it must remove the 1,000 missiles pointed at Taiwan before peace talks can begin.

That record has convinced many Taiwanese that he can protect the island's democracy. Chen Kai-lun, a flower-shop owner in Taichung, says he doesn't buy Hsieh's scare tactics. "Ma won't sell us out. I trust him."

Beijing prefers Ma

For its part, Beijing would prefer Ma as president, because his party has traditionally opposed Taiwan independence. Observers expect a President Ma would make quick progress on tourists, investment, and direct flights, while Beijing would be more wary of Hsieh.

"If Hsieh gets elected, Beijing will wait and see what Hsieh does after he takes power," says Jin Canrong of Renmin University of China in Beijing.

In Kinmen, people are focused on livelihood issues. "The economy's not good; it's hard to bear," says KMT supporter Chen Zan-sheng.

Outside a nearby restaurant popular with Chinese tour groups, Kinmen government official Fu Yang-tu says this view is common. "People in Kinmen support whoever has better policies for the economy," says Fu. "Most think Ma's are better."

That's not surprising – 90 percent or more on this outlying island support the KMT. But in this election, many Taiwanese are joining Kinmen's residents by voting with their wallets, not their hearts.

Original site

Bad eggs and pretty fruit

March 21st, 2008
Far Eastern Economic Review
Taiwan Election Notebook

I went to Taichung to see candidate Ma Ying-jeou “sao jie” (literally, “sweep the streets” - i.e. stump for Saturday’s election). But I got there late and never caught up with him.

Hsieh may be feeling the same come Saturday night - if all the analysts I spoke to today are right, that is. They say Tibet, Wen Jiabao’s remarks Tuesday and the “one China market” scare campaign have all helped Hsieh - but it won’t be enough for him to catch Ma.

Having missed Ma, I made the best of it and got some “man on the street” quotes from Taichung residents. I was especially keen to take the city’s temperature, as central Taiwan is up for grabs in the island’s elections. Northern Taiwan is KMT-held, southern Taiwan is pro-DPP. But Taichung - along with Chiayi, Changhua and Yunlin counties - are more evenly split.

I can hardly say I got a scientific sample, but it was an entertaining visit nonetheless.

First there was the obligatory cab driver chat, on the way into town from the high-speed rail. The cab driver quote is so cliched that it should be banned from journalism. But this guy, Huang Ching-fu, was straight out of DPP central casting.

“The KMT came to Taiwan and killed many people,” said Huang. “They stole lots of money from the Taiwanese people.”

But wasn’t that all a long time ago? Isn’t today’s KMT different?

“No, everything they say is dishonest. They’re bad eggs ("huai dan”),” said Huang firmly.

“Taiwan wants to buy weapons from the US, but the KMT doesn’t want to buy them.”

But wouldn’t there be some good things about a Ma presidency?

“If Ma becomes president, there’s no bright side,” scoffs Huang. “Nothing good can come from doing business with the communists.”

He petered off into a rant on poor-quality Chinese products, then the kicker: “I don’t want Taiwan to be a part of China.”

Next time you want to know why the DPP gets so many votes, talk to Huang. The flip side of the DPP’s patriotic love of Taiwan is deeply rooted anti-KMT hatred; I’ve often thought the second may be more important to the party’s support.

Others were more charitable to Ma. “The DPP just turns everything around during elections,” said fruit seller Chung Rui-sen, 47. “They cheat uneducated people.” He’s not moved, for example, by Hsieh’s scare tactic that Ma would let in a flood of cheap Chinese fruit and vegetables.

“This is impossible,” said Chung. Even if that did happen, he says, the quality of Chinese fruit is poor. “Look around, Taiwan’s fruit is so pretty,” said Chung, pointing at his bananas, apples and grapes. “If mainland fruit comes here, no one would dare eat it.”

What about Hsieh’s claim that Ma will let Chinese workers flood into Taiwan, stealing jobs? “That won’t happen,” said a betel-nut seller down the street, as his three-month old baby slept next to him. “I’m not worried.”

Flower-shop owner Chen Kai-lun, 44, also supports Ma. “He’s cleaner,” said Chen, referring to corruption scandals that have dogged the DPP.

The tally: vendors for Ma (3); taxi-drivers for Hsieh (1).

Original site

Youth dump DPP

Taiwan's governing party fears it has lost youth vote

By Jonathan Adams
International Herald Tribune, March 19, 2008

TAIPEI- With the presidential election set for Saturday, the youth vote has become a focus - and the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party is worried that many of its young former supporters may have turned against it.

In the 2000 and 2004 elections, the youth vote helped propel the DPP into power. It may have been critical in 2004, when Chen Shui-bian won the presidency by fewer than 30,000 votes.

That year, nearly 60 percent of voters aged 20 to 29 favored Chen, who was seen as promising a fresh start after more than half a century of rule by the corruption-tainted Nationalists, or Kuomintang. But this month a United Daily News poll found a reversal, with more than 60 percent of prospective voters in their 20s now supporting the Nationalist candidate, Ma Ying-jeou.

The DPP's own corruption scandals have been one source of disenchantment. Another has been concern that the party's often strident emphasis on Taiwan's independence from mainland China may be hurting the island's economy and costing it jobs.

Ma's campaign has been making the most of this opening, courting young people with hip T-shirts, campaign blogs and even a "Babes for Ma" group of young female supporters. The Nationalists' youth department recently ran an online contest in which Web users could vote for the Babes group's leader, according to local media reports.

Frank Hsieh, the DPP presidential candidate, is fighting back. He has enlisted a spokesman from a heavy metal band, set up a blog and posted a series of ads on YouTube. In one, he makes a punning reference to a sexual position in the film "Lust, Caution." In others, he talks about the need to protect privacy in the wake of the Edison Chen sex photo scandal, in which explicit images of the pop icon were distributed on the Internet, and tells a corny joke as one of his own young staffers groans.

The DPP's hope is that the YouTube videos, blogs and contests will lure youth support by projecting a hip, tech-savvy image. But according to political analysts and polls, the pro-independence party has been losing ground, while the Nationalists' Ma is picking up support with his clean reputation and pledge to revive the economy.

"The DPP is trying to stir up emotion and enthusiasm, but it won't work as well this time because young people have changed a lot," said Liao Da-chi, a political analyst at National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung. "They feel pressure to find a job."

This month, one of the DPP's own rising stars, Luo Wen-jia, a former DPP legislator and member of Hsieh's campaign team, said bluntly that his party had "already lost the election" because it had lost support from many young people, according to local media reports.

Others in the party share his concerns. "Young people were our most loyal supporters, but now we're losing them," said a 32-year-old DPP official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with reporters. "This is very dangerous."

He blamed the problem on a dramatic worsening of the DPP's image since it gained power in 2000 promoting issues like environmentalism and labor rights, which resonate with youth. Most importantly, the party promised clean politics.

Now, after a string of corruption scandals involving Chen's own top aides and relatives, many young people are disillusioned.

"Our party's image can't be turned around with a few YouTube videos," said the DPP official. "Hsieh is trying to use those to appeal to young people, but that's not what they most care about. They care about jobs and the future, and Hsieh should offer them better policies."

Research also suggests that younger Taiwanese are less ideological and politically partisan than their elders. That makes them less likely to be swayed by the DPP's appeals to Taiwanese nationalism at the cost of better ties with Beijing, which considers Taiwan a renegade Chinese province and has not ruled out the use of force to reunite it with the mainland.

"Younger Taiwanese tend to be pragmatic and flexible in their views," wrote the Taiwan expert Shelley Rigger in a 2006 study for the East-West Center Washington. "They lack the passionate emotion that drives many" in the older generation.

Among the survey findings Rigger cited: Those under 40 were more likely than their elders to identify themselves as both "Taiwanese" and "Chinese," and had the highest support for engagement with the mainland. They were also less likely to be affiliated with a particular party.

According to the United Daily News poll, those in their 20s are also the least likely age group to vote Saturday.

There are 3.67 million people in Taiwan between the ages 20 and 29, according to Taiwan's Ministry of the Interior -- all eligible to vote.

Both parties have their work cut out for them if they want the support of Owen Lo and Pomin Chang, both 20-year-old engineering students at National Taiwan University in Taipei. Chatting in the basement of a McDonald's next to campus, they insisted that they cared about the election but said they weren't impressed with either candidate.

"I care who the president is, but I don't think either's fit to be president," Chang said. "Neither is very honest."

He said he planned to cast an invalid ballot in protest.

Original site

On Taiwan's waterfront

A priest ministers to the needs of Taiwan's foreign migrant workers

Father Bruno Ciceri offers them shelter, helps them get jobs – and tries to lift the consciousness of a nation.

By Jonathan Adams
The Christian Science Monitor, March 19, 2008

KAOHSIUNG -- These days Father Bruno Ciceri is feeling gloomy. Twelve years after he came to this gritty port city to minister to exploited migrant workers, he says their working conditions haven't improved. "I'm seeing everything through dark glasses," he says.

But when he gets too down, all he has to do to lift his mood is walk into the main room of the shelter he runs. There, an idyllic beach scene greets him. From floor to ceiling, the walls are covered with blue skies, sandy shores, palm trees, and a distant volcano. The mural was painted by a Filipina migrant worker who stayed at the shelter. "This is where we've made a difference," says the priest.

Scores of "thank-you" notes are written on the painting to Father Ciceri and his staff – in English, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Thai. "You are the living saint of the migrants – may you never cease keeping the faith," says one.

The walls are a testimony to one man's impact on an often overlooked social problem in Taiwan. Since Ciceri's arrival here in the country's second-largest city, some 1,500 foreign migrant workers have sought refuge at his Stella Maris International Service Center, most from Southeast Asia. Starting in the 1980s, Taiwan began importing such workers to fill low-end jobs.

Today, some 350,000 migrant workers man Taiwan's cramped fishing boats, care for the elderly, assemble electronics, and work in construction. By all accounts, they make up a shadow labor market dominated by unscrupulous brokers and abusive bosses.

Fishermen are among the most vulnerable. They typically spend six months at sea, with no legal recourse if things go bad. Bullying, sexual violence, and fights are common. When abuse becomes unbearable, some flee when in port. The fortunate ones end up at shelters like Ciceri's.

Nguyen Van Thanh came to Taiwan in 2005 from Vietnam, lured by a broker with the promise of good wages on a fishing boat. Mr. Nguyen (not his real name) paid the broker $1,000 (US) for a three-year contract. He was told he'd receive $460 per month. Once on a Taiwanese boat, he discovered his wages were a third of that. His boat included three Taiwanese officers and a 44-man crew of mainland Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesians, and Filipinos. In their Kaohsiung port stops, they were kept in a cramped building with blacked-out windows.

Onboard, conditions were worse. "We often slept only two or three hours a day, there wasn't enough to eat, and we were beaten," he says. Once off the coast of South Africa, he says, a Taiwanese boss threw a mainland Chinese crewman overboard, leaving him to die at sea.

Ciceri doesn't even know how to swim. In fact, little in his background suggested he might one day be serving Asia's fishermen. Yet over the years the man from a small town near Milan, Italy, has become an expert on the fishing trade and its workers.

His call to service came early. At age 10 he knew he wanted to become a priest. But it soon became clear he wouldn't take a traditional path. At seminary he argued with a superior over their policy of opening students' mail. Later, he helped organize a protest over bad food. He was kicked out, but eventually managed to talk himself back into the seminary.

A week in Stuttgart, Germany, with Italian auto factory workers showed him his path. He still remembers one worker telling him, "'Tomorrow, you'll take the train and go back to your family, but I'll be here alone.' That's when I decided, I will be with the migrants." He was 23.

He became a Scalabrinian, one of 700 Roman Catholic priests in 22 countries worldwide who minister to migrants, refugees, and seamen. His first posting was Manila, where he ran a shelter for Tamil and Sinhalese refugees from Sri Lanka's civil war. He helped them along an "underground railroad" of sorts toward refugee status and a new life in Europe or Canada.

This experience was formative, reinforcing Ciceri's worldview. He accepts people as they are – fallible, full of fault – but refuses to accept the systems that trap them.

His introduction to migrant workers in Taiwan came in 1996, when he saw hundreds of Filipinos – employees at a major electronics factory in Kaohsiung – handcuffed and led from their dorm to airport-bound vans. Their contracts were up, and they were due to head back to the Philippines. Their Taiwanese bosses had cuffed them because they feared unrest. Ciceri sped to the site on his Honda motorcycle, charged past guards at the gate, and snapped pictures to record what was happening.

In Taiwan, his duty was to minister to fishermen as part of a global Stella Maris Apostleship of the Sea. But his job description expanded as he began to take in other migrant workers with nowhere else to go. Soon, he was running a 24-hour shelter and hot line, making regular runs to the airport, helping workers secure back pay and find jobs, and raising awareness of migrant worker issues. "A newspaper once called me the '7-11 priest' because we're always open," he says laughing.

The days are long. He lives with the migrants in the shelter, a dim and dank building near Kaohsiung's waterfront. He typically rises at 6:30 or 7 a.m., handles cases all day, and then works on conference papers and other writing until midnight. Ciceri's life is modest and simple, but full of meaning. "We're with the migrants all the time; we live the life they live," he says. "I chose to be of service to migrants. That's what guides me."

Some activists say migrant workers' rights have improved in recent years, if only slightly. Lorna Kung, of the Scalabrini International Migration Network, notes that migrant workers can now stay for up to nine years, rather than six. The government is mulling how to give caregivers better protections. Most important, there's more awareness of the problem – thanks partly to Ciceri's work.

"He's willing to devote himself to so many issues related to migrant fishermen," says Ms. Kung. "Ten years ago nobody cared, but now more and more people are concerned about the migrant workers' situation."

Still, Ciceri insists abuse and exploitation will remain rampant until systemic problems are addressed – including the shady brokerage system and the deeper problem of Taiwanese attitudes. Racism toward darker-skinned Southeast Asians runs deep and will take generations to uproot. "Taiwan people have to accept migrant workers – they are not commodities, not their slaves, not machines," says Ciceri. "They are people like them."

On a tour of Kaohsiung's port, Ciceri squints in the bright sunlight and surveys the scene he's come to know so well. A Taiwanese stevedore in flip-flops operates a crane that lifts massive slabs of frozen shark out of a ship. On the pier, four Filipino crewmen weld metal chains, as their Taiwanese bosses shout orders.

Ciceri chats amiably with the workers. While he is disappointed with the lack of progress in workers' rights in Taiwan – and may soon leave the country himself – he doesn't question his mission or direction in life.

"It's true I'm disappointed because there's no change on a general level," he says. "But we make a difference in the lives of some migrants, if not all of them. Even if in these 12 years I had just helped one person, that would be worth it."

Original site

When bozos attack

Slagging reaches new low in Taiwan campaigns

Jonathan Adams
Taiwan Election Notebook, March 18, 2008
Far Eastern Economic Review

Last week it was a group of loose-cannon Kuomintang legislators, who barged into the campaign office of Frank Hsieh, the Democratic Progressive Party candidate. An embarrassed KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou apologized for the intrusion, as did the legislators. Their ringleader even said tearfully he would “consider killing himself” if his actions led to Mr. Ma losing the election.

Today, the media went crazy over comments at a pro-Hsieh rally yesterday by a DPP education official. The official used unprintable slang to insult Mr. Ma’s deceased father. As one newscaster put it, “both blue and green [referring to KMT and DPP camps] agreed he went too far.”

Frank Hsieh apologized to Mr. Ma for the comments, while trying to distance his campaign from the official, Chuang Kuo-jung. Mr. Chuang resigned over the remarks late Sunday, according to local media. But all day, TV stations continued to replay the offensive footage, as analysts picked apart the impact on the election.

It wasn’t the first time the official in question had slagged Mr. Ma. In fact, Mr. Chuang became notorious in December for his off-color remarks while defending the government’s decision to change the signage on the former “Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall,” a Taipei landmark, to “Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall.”

While verbally jousting with the KMT over the change, he called Ma “sissy” (niang) and a “wimp” (xiao nao nao). He said that another KMT official so tightly “embraced” Chiang Kai-shek that he seemed gay.

Many Taiwanese criticized him for his intemperance; some even blamed him for contributing to the DPP’s thumping defeat in January’s legislative election. But he became an overnight hero for hardline KMT-haters; his fans in the DPP legislative caucus even brought him flowers. It remains to be seen how much Mr. Chuang’s comments will hurt Mr. Hsieh — they may serve to remind many fatigued voters of their disgust with DPP rule.

But the flap highlighted two points on this election. One is that both parties continue to have trouble reining in hardline elements in their own camps, a worrisome sign as Taiwan attempts to move toward a more stable two-party system.

The second point is more encouraging: Both candidates immediately disowned the remarks, highlighting their insistence on taking a more moderate road and themselves resisting extremism. That, at least, is an encouraging sign for Taiwan’s young democracy.

Victory for pragmatism

As a vote looms, Taiwan seems ready to abandon an era of defiant nationalism

Jonathan Adams
Newsweek, March 15, 2008

Ken Wen, 60, is fed up with Taiwan's pro-independence president, Chen Shui-bian. Wen, a home builder, voted for Chen and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) back in 2000. In so doing, he helped end the 50-year rule of the Kuomintang, which has traditionally opposed independence from China.

But now, after eight years of corruption scandals, cross-strait tensions and poor economic performance, Wen says it's time for another change. At a rally in the port city of Keelung last week, he said he planned to vote for the KMT's Ma Ying-jeou for president on March 22, hoping Ma will boost Taiwan's stagnant economy by strengthening links with China. "If we don't open up more, we're finished," Wen says.

That's a common view in Taiwan these days. In fact, both candidates in the upcoming vote—Ma and his DPP challenger, Frank Hsieh—have promised to open Taiwan's economy to the giant next door and to take a more moderate tone with Beijing.

But if the front-runner Ma, who is Hong Kong-born, triumphs over native son Hsieh, the voters' message will be especially clear. Ordinary Taiwanese will have rejected Chen's confrontational tactics: a victory not just for moderates like Ma, but also for Chinese President Hu Jintao, who's taken a more restrained approach to the island in recent years.

And by electing the first mainland-born leader since the end of Taiwan's authoritarian era 20 years ago, locals will also have stepped away from the identity politics that have long divided this island.

As all this suggests, a Ma victory would have far-reaching implications. First, of course, it would cool off one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints, the one place that could actually spark a war between China and the United States. (Beijing views Taiwan as part of its territory and has threatened force if the island makes a permanent break; Washington has pledged to help its democratic ally if attacked).

Since 2000, China and Taiwan have been locked in a vicious circle: Beijing has refused to deal with the island's pro-independence government, and Chen has inflamed tensions by loudly trumpeting the island's sovereignty. But Ma wants to break this cycle with expanded economic links and engagement with Beijing.

His pledges include the opening of direct cross-strait flights by May 2009 (travelers currently must touch down in a third location, adding several hours to trips), lifting caps on China-bound investment (helping Taiwan firms better tap the mainland market), allowing more Chinese tourists to visit the island (they're currently limited to 1,000 a day) and opening Taiwan's economy to more Chinese investment.

"There's no need to antagonize the dragon," Ma adviser Su Chi put it in an interview in January. His boss has even proposed to restart political talks with Beijing, which have been suspended since 1999.

Oh, and then there's the pandas. Unlike Chen, Ma has said he'd accept China's standing offer of two of the cuddly bears (the pair are currently cooling their paws in Sichuan).

But is Taiwan ready to put a panda-hugger in office? Despite Ma's lead in the polls, he's not yet a shoo-in. Pro-independence sentiment and Taiwan pride remain near record highs; 21 percent of islanders back full independence and 44 percent identify themselves as Taiwanese only, according to recent survey data.

As a mainlander, Ma remains vulnerable to attacks on his patriotism; if elected, he'd be first the non-local-born president since the autocrat Chiang Ching-kuo (who was Chiang Kai-Shek's son) died 20 years ago. Some Taiwanese say they still won't vote for a mainlander, and fear a Ma victory could usher in a return to KMT authoritarianism.

The DPP's Hsieh has tried to stoke such fears with negative attacks, portraying Ma as disloyal to Taiwan. But there are signs that the identity card is waning in force. After eight years of misrule by the local-born Chen, many Taiwanese are simply sick of him and his party. Restrictions on cross-strait investment and travel have hindered Taiwanese firms' ability to cash in on China's boom, and Chen's inflammatory moves—such as his recent plan to hold a referendum on rejoining the United Nations under the name "Taiwan" (as opposed to the "Republic of China")—have strained relations with Beijing and Washington to the limit.

With incomes stagnant and inflation on the rise, even many DPP supporters are now ready to jump ship. Wang Cheng-kun, the director of the doctors' association in Tainan, a DPP stronghold, recently endorsed Ma, in part because he was put off by what he saw as Hsieh's smear attacks and fearmongering. Wang also says he admires Ma's clean character and more-global outlook. "I've always been a [DPP] supporter, and I was afraid my friends wouldn't forgive me for my change of heart," Wang said. "But Taiwan must internationalize; we shouldn't isolate ourselves."

As well as a victory for Ma, a KMT win would also represent a triumph for China's President Hu. In years past, Beijing repeatedly drove islanders into the independence camp with its fiery rhetoric and ham-handed military threats. But in the past five years, it has adopted a much more nuanced strategy. "Under Hu's leadership, Beijing's approach has become more patient, less inclined to saber-rattling, and more self-restrained," wrote cross-strait security expert Lin Chong-pin in a recent essay.

True, China has ratcheted up the threats against Chen and other pro-independence diehards. But it's also launched a charm offensive targeting both the KMT leadership and the DPP's base. One recent carrot: a relaxation of restrictions on Taiwanese doctors—a traditional pillar of DPP support—working on the mainland. And on March 4, Hu repeated his offer for peace talks with Taiwan under the "one China" condition, even offering to meet those who'd backed independence in the past if they moderated their views.

Such overtures appear to be paying off; it's harder for pro-independence politicians like Hsieh to whip up anti-China sentiment while Beijing holds out olive branches.

Still, a Ma victory wouldn't end cross-strait tensions entirely. As president, he would have to avoid looking like a sellout to the 77 percent of islanders who still favor some sort of independence from Beijing or the political status quo. "Ma [must] take a slow, gentle pace in improving cross-strait relations," says political analyst Liao Da-chi. "I don't think there will be a dramatic change—each side will be very cautious."

What this means is that Ma is likely to emphasize the strengthening of economic links. A major political breakthrough remains unlikely: Ma himself has said it probably won't occur in his lifetime. At most, Beijing and Taipei will put aside, rather than resolve, the thorny issue of Taiwan's permanent status. So the island will remain in limbo, a territory claimed by China but effectively independent.

Yet like it or not, Taiwan's and China's economies are now connected at the hip—giving both sides a strong incentive for warmer relations. In that sense, it's good news that both Ma and Hsieh have pledged to take an open-minded approach to Beijing.

Whoever wins, pragmatism has already triumphed.

With Ko Shu-ling in Taipei

Original site

Closing the gap

Fear-mongering on the campaign trail

Taiwan Election Notebook, March 17
Far Eastern Economic Review

After a long buildup, Taiwan’s presidential race is finally heating up.

For weeks the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou has been far ahead of rival Frank Hsieh in media polls, in what looked like a highly lopsided race. Now, with one week to go before the election, it appears Hsieh is catching up.

Two Taiwanese media friends of mine said Hsieh’s ads and negative campaign were making a difference. Hsieh’s camp appears to have found a chink in Ma’s armor, by hammering away at what it calls Ma’s “one China market” policy. The proposal, long championed by Ma’s running mate Vincent Siew, would create a cross-Strait common market, binding the two sides’ economies closer together in a trade pact.

But Hsieh’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party is using the “one China market” theme to raise fears of Chinese competition. Namely, he’s raising the specter of a flood of Chinese agricultural imports and Chinese competition for jobs. The scare tactics seem to be having an effect–one of my media friends said she was shocked to overhear two Taipei roadworkers discussing the “one China market” as she passed by.

Meanwhile, Ma’s camp has been distracted by the fallout from an incident last Wednesday night. Four KMT lawmakers barged into Hsieh’s campaign headquarters with the finance minister in tow, accusing Hsieh of getting a sweetheart deal on his office rent. The scene spiraled out of control as scores of outraged Hsieh supporters protested, had shoving matches with police and smashed a police car outside Hsieh’s campaign office.

For the last two days, the KMT legislators have been apologizing for sparking the incident; Ma has apologized to the public on behalf of his party.

The Hsieh camp has pounced on this as well. It’s cast the KMT lawmakers’ barge-in as a taste of what’s in store if the KMT controlled both the legislature (where it now has a large majority, as of January) and the presidency. The subtext: voting for Ma would give the KMT so much power it would be akin to a return to the bad old days of KMT authoritarian rule.

In short, Hsieh’s campaign has seized on fear-mongering in a last-ditch bid to come back. That’s a time-honored DPP tool that’s especially potent when combined with positive emotional appeals to Taiwan-first patriotism.

The question, of course, is will it work? The March 22 vote has been hyped as one in which economic concerns may finally trump Taiwan identity. Ma’s promise of more economic engagement with China holds broad appeal–indeed, Hsieh’s platform is actual quite similar in substance (more cross-Strait flights; more Chinese tourists allowed in Taiwan; a relaxation of cross-Strait investment going both ways).

But now, Hsieh is cleverly trying to turn Ma’s strength (a vision of economic openness) into a weakness. The line of attack is straight from the protectionist playbook familiar in many other democracies. Most Taiwanese think more economic openness would boost incomes and livelihoods; but now Hsieh wants them to believe that too much openness–which Ma would promote–could actually have the opposite effect.

There’s no way to know what impact all this is having. The TV media reported last Tuesday a DPP poll showing Ma at 45.8% and Hsieh at 39.7%, but the Hsieh campaign would not confirm that.

In an email to me, it noted only that it’s illegal to release polls numbers in the 10 days before election day.