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Taiwan Shouldn’t Feel Inadequate Compared to China

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Taiwan Shouldn’t Feel Inadequate Compared to China

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If we look at China honestly, we can understand why it is backward; its glitziness should not trigger any feelings of inadequacy. Everyone has their own difficulties, and their own strengths and advantages. That is just the way it is.

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Taiwan Shouldn’t Feel Inadequate Compared to China

By Joyce Yen
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Editors' Note: This article is translated from an op-ed from Opinion@CommonWealth

Students from the People’s Republic of China studying in Taiwan are often asked by local Taiwanese, “Is it true you don’t close the door when using the bathroom?” Not only is such a question tactless and rude, it also reveals the questioner’s ignorance. All it takes is a trip to Shanghai or Beijing to cause one to turn around and wonder, “These people have progressed so quickly; what right do Taiwanese have to judge them?”

Looking at China as a whole, it has truly developed at a startling pace. In fact, the Chinese economy has developed to the brink of surpassing that of the United States in terms of scale, with some observers predicting that that moment will come in 2030, while others say as soon as 2018. Still, do not forget China’s large population. China has the world’s second-largest GDP, yet on a per capita basis, it enjoys only one-third the GDP of Taiwan, lagging behind even Brazil and Mexico. When the day comes that China’s economy surpasses that of the United States, the country’s per capita GDP will still only be half that of Taiwan. It would seem that those looking to measure their inadequacy against a relatively under-developed country are misdirecting their attention.

Those that beg to differ can cite all sorts of examples: airports and transit hubs decades more advanced than those of Taiwan, performance halls and art museums many times more magnificent than in Taiwan, and greater Internet startup momentum than Taiwan offers. Looking at statistics, although China’s current per capita GDP only ranks in the eighties worldwide, it is 40 times higher today than it was in 1980. Further examining the climate for speech, since the emergence and popularity of Weibo (China’s microblogging version of Twitter), leeway for the average citizen to express opinions has greatly increased, and as long as one does not threaten the party’s leadership, one can criticize practically anything or anyone.

These people would probably say that today’s China is like the Taiwan of 20 or 30 years ago, and that Taiwan’s prosperity lost momentum because of Taiwan’s small size and its leaders’ populism. In contrast, look how huge China is, with leaders that move forward in step with the times. Naturally, its prospects for the future are excellent.

But here is the problem: Twenty or thirty years ago, back when it was said that “everyone in Taiwan is up to their knees in money,” vocational school graduates would never have called themselves “losers,” let alone college graduates vocational school graduates.

Yet today’s China is clearly in the midst of a high-growth phase, and young workers are already referring to themselves as “ants” (蟻族) in reference to their low quality of life, lack of time for anything but work, and their reluctance to hold out any hope for the future.

“Plebs”(屌絲) is an even less elegant yet more common term in China, often used in reference to people from the countryside with little hope for becoming official city residents, resulting in their becoming the healthcare system underclass as well as their children being the educational underclass.

Image: Chien-Ying Chiu

If young people refer to themselves as “plebs” when economic growth remains at eight percent, what will happen when it drops to five percent?

This is the reality obscured by the shiny airports and transit stations: The greatest contributor to economic growth is clearly China’s huge labor force, yet the state has been slow to grant workers equal rights to healthcare, nor is it willing to give their children equal rights to education, instead choosing to spend its budget on vanity development projects.

A 40-year gap in the start of development also separates China and Taiwan. This can be seen in the adoption and application of technology, often seen in China as the “leapfrogging” phenomenon. For instance, while in Taiwan the average household first got a landline before individuals began using basic mobile phones and eventually graduating to smart phones, for many people in China, a smart phone was their first telephone, and they bypassed desktop computers altogether, first gaining internet access on their phones.

Another area in which China has leapfrogged is its world-leading mobile payments systems. In China, most members of the public skipped straight from using cash to making payments via mobile phone, skipping credit cards. The use of credit cards is not widespread in China, which can be attributed initially to protectionism, as China was slow to open up banking operations for foreign entities such as VISA and MasterCard.

Another example is e-commerce (such as Taobao and jd.com). Brick-and-mortar shops have fallen behind on-line retailers, making people even more accustomed to making on-line purchases. Yet cheap labor is another factor. For example, e-commerce company ele.me has been able to take its brand of on-demand meal-delivery service to 200 cities in such a short time because of the plethora of lower-class youths willing to go out on a scooter and race the clock in all kinds of weather. It is not easy work, yet they do it for meager wages, which is why they refer to themselves as “ants” and “plebs.”

This brings us to another difference between China and Taiwan: scale. All large countries are similar in that there are large gaps from region to region, and development can never take place at exactly the same pace. Consequently, China’s top-tier cities are glitzier than Taiwan’s, yet other areas can be expected to continue lagging behind. And precisely because many areas are behind, young people from poor towns looking for work cannot afford to be choosy. This explains why the app-based service ele.me has no shortage of young delivery personnel in 200 cities.

If we look at China honestly, we can understand why it is backward; its glitziness should not trigger any feelings of inadequacy. Everyone has their own difficulties, and their own strengths and advantages. That is just the way it is.

The point is that each has a different system, as well as different stages of development, and not many things about China are really worth emulating for Taiwan. And if that is the case, why should Taiwan feel inadequate?

When you know what your problems are, then you know which countries you should emulate. If the problem is democracy that could stand improvement, then examples of fine democracies abound, like the UK and Germany.

As for lack of innovation in industry, there are also many countries worth emulating, such as popular music in Switzerland, television production in the Netherlands, and high-tech research and development in Israel. It will take at least 15 years for China to reach an economic bottleneck like we have in Taiwan, so at this time there is still no reason to feel left behind.

(This article was taken from “Once the Lowest Hanging Fruit Have Been Plucked,”(《最低的水果摘完之後》) published by CommonWealth Magazine Publishing.)

Translated from the Chinese article by David Toman

About the author

Joyce Yen
Director of Ars Longa Press, Ms. Yen holds a Bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from the University of California at Berkeley. She has written columns for the Min Sheng Daily News, China Times, and Taipei Times, and is a former winner of the Liang Shih-Chiu Literary Award Translation Contest.



Opinion@CommonWealth
website is a sub-channel of CommonWealth Magazine. Founded in January 2013 with its main focus on social, humanity and policy issues and opinions, Opinion@CommonWealth is dedicated to building a democratic, diverse platform where multi opinions can be presented.

Currently, there are approximately 100 columnists and writers co-contributing on Opinion@CommonWealth to contemplating and exploring Taiwan's future with the Taiwanese society.


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