Taiwanese youth pick China jobs over politics

China's XiamenAir unveiling its first batch of Taiwanese cabin crew last Wednesday. China is wooing youth from the island in what analysts say is a "soft power" push to sway political sentiment.
China's XiamenAir unveiling its first batch of Taiwanese cabin crew last Wednesday. China is wooing youth from the island in what analysts say is a "soft power" push to sway political sentiment.PHOTO: XINHUA

Stagnant graduate pay, rising cost of living and mainland perks raise fears of brain drain

TAIPEI • Taiwan has long seen its international allies switching allegiance to an ascendant Beijing, but now there are also fears of a brain drain of the island's youth as they pursue careers in rival China.

China still sees the self-ruling island as part of its territory, but young people in particular have increasingly developed a sense of pride in their Taiwanese identity.

However, with monthly starting salaries for college graduates unchanged at below NT$30,000 (S$1,350) since the 1990s, and property and consumer prices spiralling upwards, some are now taking a more pragmatic approach.

China is also wooing young Taiwanese talent in what analysts say is a "soft power" push to sway political sentiment.

Ms Katherine Wang, 33, quit kindergarten teaching in Taipei and co-launched a business in May offering a variety of courses for young Chinese women in south-eastern Xiamen, saying she feels "hopeless" about Taiwan's economy.

"I see a ray of hope in Xiamen and working there makes me happy. I want to make a name for myself and my partners and hopefully expand our business to all over China," she explained.

Ms Wang receives free housing and office space as an incentive from the Xiamen city government, an example of the perks offered by the provincial authorities, which also include generous grants.

According to China's Taiwan Affairs Office, over 6,000 young Taiwanese are working or interning at more than 50 youth start-up bases launched since 2015.

Top Chinese political and business leaders, including Premier Li Keqiang and Alibaba founder Jack Ma, have encouraged Taiwanese youth to chase careers in China.

While Ms Wang says she has no strong political views, others who do are putting them aside for jobs.

One twenty-something has opted to work in China even though he supports Taiwanese independence - a concept intolerable to Beijing. "I just focus on how to do my job well," the young worker told AFP on condition of anonymity, saying he hoped it would be a stepping stone to an international career.

Despite being a fully fledged democracy, Taiwan has never announced a formal split from China. Beijing has threatened military action if it ever did.

There are already well-established business links between China and Taiwan. Taiwanese manufacturers flocked to the mainland to take advantage of its resources and cheaper labour after restrictions were lifted in the late 1980s.

China is also Taiwan's biggest trade partner and market, with exports there totalling US$112 billion (S$153 billion) - 40 per cent of last year's total.

But the youth links have an extra dimension, says Professor Shih Cheng-feng, a political analyst at National Dong Hwa University. "China realises that it needs to take a soft approach and use 'carrots' to attract (young people) in the hope that they will have some impact at a critical time, such as the presidential election," he said.

"Young people may not actively support Beijing's agenda, but their hostilities can be reduced and that for Beijing is a worthwhile investment," Prof Shih explained.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2017, with the headline 'Taiwanese youth pick China jobs over politics'. Print Edition | Subscribe