A far greater threat to Taiwan than the PLA or pro-unification forces is the potential hollowing-out of Taiwan’s brain trust as China’s economy becomes increasingly attractive to skilled Taiwanese. Taipei has been far too complacent in tackling this challenge and must reverse course before it’s too late.
The unveiling by the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office in late February of 31 measures to lure Taiwanese to work in China has renewed fears in Taiwan of a potentially devastating “brain drain” as young, educated and driven Taiwanese look across the Taiwan Strait for career opportunities.
Beijing’s new strategy, which involves 12 incentives related to business and 19 to social and employment issues, is the latest in a long list of efforts over the years to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese while increasing the economic interdependence between the two sides. Like similar efforts before it, the strategy relies on a deterministic view of the world, whereby material benefits are seen as a means to shape non tangibles such as political and ideological beliefs, as well as self-identification. The ultimate aim, which Beijing has made no secret of, is to break support for Taiwanese independence or the “status quo” and to engineer desire for unification under “one China.”
Whether economic determinism will succeed in convincing the Taiwanese that they are Chinese, or that the Marxist-Leninist — and increasingly repressive — system espoused by the People’s Republic of China is a desirable one for them, is very much in doubt. Similar efforts targeting minorities in China, such as Tibet and Xinjiang, do not appear to have yielded the expected dividends for Beijing. Over the years, Taiwanese have demonstrated that one can both engage China and reap the material rewards of those interactions while at the same time maintaining, if not strengthening, their identity as Taiwanese, a self-definition that encompasses the island-nation’s idiosyncratic geography, history, as well as liberal-democratic traditions.
The challenge facing Taiwan, therefore, isn’t so much that Beijing’s latest exercise will “brainwash,” or turn into “traitors,” young Taiwanese who may be tempted by the incentives than the risk that the nation’s best and brightest will choose to relocate and, in doing so, deny Taiwan the brain trust and talent it needs to build and reinvest itself for the future. (A secondary aspect to all this is that the more successful Beijing is in luring Taiwanese talent, the greater will its propagandistic claim be that the “China model” is a better-performing alternative to “messy” democracy.)
A potential “brain drain,” therefore, poses a more immediate threat to Taiwan’s future than does the People’s Liberation Army or backroom deals between the Chinese Communist Party and pro-unification groups in Taiwan, which at best have only had a marginal impact on the independence-versus-unification question. Although Beijing will continue to pressure Taiwan militarily, to work with likeminded partners in Taiwan and to seek to influence it via United Front activities, an economic, academic, scientific and creative hollowing-out of Taiwan over a period of time appears to constitute Beijing’s new strategy to resolve the Taiwan “question.”
The full future impact of that new strategy has yet to be understood, and there is no guarantee of success. Questions remain on how many Taiwanese will decide to relocate to China, their conditions once there (will they indeed be treated as equals?), retention rates and so on. Another unknown is whether China will succeed in perpetuating the economic miracle that, at the moment, makes it a seemingly attractive place to work. A slowing economy could undermine such efforts, while an economic crisis — which is not entirely impossible given the many contradictions that have been accreting over the years and the huge pile of debt upon which this economic rise has been erected — could quickly derail that initiative.
Nevertheless, while it is difficult to assess the potential success of China’s incentive strategy, Taiwan cannot afford to stand still and hope for the best. A “brain drain” (and that drain need not flow to China alone) should now be regarded as a threat to national security, and responses thereto need to be commensurate with the challenge.
While passivity seemed acceptable when China was lying low, Beijing’s new assertiveness under President Xi Jinping makes it clear that a much more proactive, creative and long-term strategy is needed if Taiwan is to survive the next phase in the battle over its future.
Consequently, Taiwan needs its own long-term national strategy. The incentives unveiled by Beijing last month, and the sheer attractiveness of the Chinese economy, should serve as a warning that Taiwan can no longer afford to be complacent. Pushing through structural reform should no longer be an academic debate, as has been the case under both Kuomintang (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administrations: it is now a matter of urgency, of survival for this nation. Parochial and protectionist forces can no longer be allowed to hold reform in check, and voters will need to give serious thought to electing officials whose policy platforms take the long-term (and sometimes painful, admittedly) view.
The list of things that need to be done is a long one. Here are a few areas where reform would help mitigate the impact of China’s latest incentive program, and the “brain drain” in general:
Level the playing field for foreign firms wishing to establish a presence in Taiwan. This means overhauling investment regulations despite the strong opposition by those with a vested interest in the status quo and ongoing protectionism;
Attract world-class foreign academics to teach at national universities. Current wages at universities in Taiwan are too low to attract top academics from abroad. Moreover, in some instances national universities have claimed (wrongly, it now seems) that as professors at state-level universities are treated as public servants and that only ROC nationals can be public servants, teaching positions at those universities are therefore unavailable to foreign or dual nationals. In a number of instances known to this author (all involving National Taiwan University), dual nationals were forced to abandon their foreign citizenship in order to be able to teach at national universities, or were told they could not be employed if they failed to do so. (No actual “rules” exist, and loyal readers point out they know of a number of foreign professors at various national universities.) Such protectionist measures (uncompetitive salaries, exploitation/inconsistent/informal application of the nationality “rule” or exceptions thereto) act as a disincentive for progress and rigorous academic work. External competition for teaching positions by world-class academics would provide a much-needed shock to the system and help rejuvenate Taiwan’s stagnant academic environment by bringing new ideas, fostering cooperation and so on;
Raise salaries so that Taiwan can compete with regional economies such as Singapore, Japan and China. Skilled individuals who can contribute to the rejuvenation of Taiwan will not consider a career here if the salaries and opportunities for career advancement in various sectors (business, high-tech, creative industry, etc) are not commensurate with what they can bring to the table;
Rewrite the rules on how much government agencies and government-funded NGOs can compensate individuals with special skill sets. Current payments for government-sponsored projects are ridiculously low and act as a barrier to attracting professionals, both Taiwanese and foreign, whose skills are needed to conduct specialized research, write reports, translate documents, conduct public diplomacy, and so on. Taiwan can no longer afford to treat the professionals it needs for such efforts as charity, or to cut corners, as if often does, by hiring low-paid alternatives. For such initiatives, China is putting money where its mouth is, and Taiwan needs to respond in kind. Taipei cannot play the “soft power” game on the cheap. There is ample talent in Taiwan, but much of it remains untapped as a result;
Reduce government wastage. Every year millions of NT dollars in precious taxpayer money are wasted on government-sponsored projects of questionable value, often to appease various political factions or as pots de vin for retired politicians. Grant application reviews for various initiatives, visiting scholars and so on must ensure a return on the investment by prioritizing projects that will contribute the most to the betterment of Taiwan. More of that money needs to be made available to young Taiwanese and NGOs (and pro-Taiwan professionals abroad), and less to political parties and retired politicians who refuse to bow out gracefully, or who threaten the current government if they do not receive the funding they believe is their due. Political parties must also cease holding promising projects hostage simply to score points against their opponents;
Tackle short-termism. Far too many promising initiatives launched by both the government and private sector fold after a few years due to funding drying up or benefactors shifting their attention elsewhere. China undoubtedly has a long-term view and ensures the sustainability of its initiatives; Taiwanese must respond in kind and make the necessary investments to ensure the viability of various initiatives that bolster Taiwan’s “soft power,” outreach and connectivity with the international community. Greater coordination between the government and non-government sectors in Taiwan and within the Taiwanese diaspora could help address the current short-term view and underfunding that currently plague, oftentimes abort, Taiwanese programs. Public diplomacy by fits and starts, promising research initiatives that collapse after a few months or years, are not an option for Taiwan in the current global environment.
Taiwan has been far too complacent in addressing issues such as those discussed above. While passivity seemed acceptable when China was lying low, Beijing’s new assertiveness under President Xi Jinping makes it clear that a much more proactive, creative and long-term strategy is needed if Taiwan is to survive the next phase in the battle over its future. Much of the reform that is necessary to increase Taiwan’s prospects is within reach, but implementation will require politicians who are willing to face off with highly conservative and self-interested forces within the system, even if doing so comes at a price to their political careers. Taiwan can greatly improve its chances of maintaining its sovereignty if its tackles the public-diplomacy-on-the-cheap, short-termism and myopic focus on the next elections that characterizes much of its politics today.
This article was updated on 2018.03.15; 15:18: paragraph on foreign nationals and teaching positions at national universities.