What's on the minds of the young people who are new entrants to the job market and new voters helping to shape the future of this society?
By Edward Lynch
For Taiwan's twenty-somethings, life is quite different from what their parents experienced at that age. A generation ago, the economy was booming, with growth each year in double digits. Unemployment was practically unheard of, and those who were willing to study hard and work hard -- which seemed to be nearly everyone -- appeared assured of a bright future.
Politically, though Taiwan was still an authoritarian state, the trend toward democracy and greater political participation was clear. The prevailing mood was confidence and optimism. China, beset with its own economic and political problems, seemed like a very distant threat.
Now, for young people, conditions are much more uncertain. The economy has been going through its worst period in decades, and to find stimulating, well-paying jobs, many young men and women have to consider making the move to Shanghai. On the political scene, bitter divisions among the various camps over the best future direction for Taiwan have created an atmosphere of malaise. At the same time, the rapid development now going on in China poses both opportunities and risks.
The generation of students and young professionals in their early to mid twenties is always considered to represent a society's future hope. How does Taiwan's population in this age bracket look at their current environment and longer-range prospects? In an admittedly unscientific survey, TOPICS asked some young people for their opinions about the quality of their educational preparation, national identity issues and relations with China, the state of the economy and the employment outlook, and other issues. Excerpts from their responses (some given originally in English and others translated) follow below.
Debbie Ruan, 23, originally from Chiayi, studied speech communications at Shih Hsin College. She hopes to become a radio talk show host.
I think opening direct links to China is a good idea. We can get in touch with each other more easily, and they can improve their economic activities. In Taiwan we should open our door to welcome any countries. We can't close ourselves off, because it won't be good for our economy.
I'm Taiwanese because I was born in Taiwan. But I don't want Taiwan to be independent, because I like Chinese culture and I think we should be proud of that culture. If we become independent, we lose that culture. But I don't want to completely reunify either. Just keeping things the way they are is probably best.
I wouldn't say that I feel particularly proud to be from Taiwan. There are a lot of good things about Taiwan, but sometimes I'm ashamed of it, because our city is dirty and our politics are too. But most of the people are very friendly, and Taiwan is getting better in some ways.
The educational system here is not very good. When they're very young, a lot of kids are quite outgoing, and they just say whatever they want to say. But when they get to junior high, it's like they've lost all their energy. They have to carry heavy book bags to school and study until late at night. That's not a very good way to spend one's childhood.
Some of my professors tell us that we have to upgrade our abilities, because the young people in mainland China are so capable. They say that especially along the eastern coast of China, more and more people have language skills and computer skills that are even better than ours in Taiwan. And their salary levels are lower than ours, so they will find jobs easier than we can. The professors say it's something we have to pay attention to.
They want to give us a warning, because we spend a lot of time listening to CDs and talking to each other in class. It's not that Taiwanese people my age are lazy -- they're just busy with entertainment. You know, some people refer to us young people as "strawberries," because we look very good on the outside, but the inside is weak -- not easy to take pressure. I think I'm kind of like that (laughing). I'm worried.
Jeremy Huang, 25, studied biomedical engineering at National Taiwan University and now works designing computer hardware
My parents told me that when they were my age, it was a great environment in which to work hard, because there were so many opportunities. If you wanted to do something, you would just go ahead and do it. It was easy to improve your standard of living. But now it's not the same. The situation in Taiwan right now isn't so favorable, since so many companies have gone to China or changed their policies in different ways.
When I'm hanging out with my friends, we often talk about the job scene. We joke that in a few years, maybe we'll all meet in mainland China. I'm not afraid to go to mainland China to work, because I feel it has to happen. Lots of people will have to go. Of course, if I stay in my hometown it'll be more comfortable. But Taiwan is changing. The biggest part of the economy here will be research and design, and the manufacturing will go to mainland China. So I want to study more design, to prepare myself.
From when I was little, all through my school years, our teachers never gave us the feeling that it was an honor to live in Taiwan. So now that we're grown up, when we consider our background, we won't be proud to say we're Taiwanese. But there are a few special things about Taiwan, like our language and the use of traditional Chinese characters. Because they teach simplified Chinese on the Mainland, this is an area where Taiwanese people are stronger.
At college, when I'd get together with my roommates and friends, we'd find that maybe we came from six different places. We had different accents, and maybe he speaks Hakka and I speak Mandarin and she speaks Taiwanese. Perhaps older people were taught to think that Chinese and Taiwanese people are different. These days there is more willingness to be open-minded. You don't have to make such sharp distinctions. Take one of my friends for example. His father is from the mainland but his mother is Taiwanese, so which kind is he? For some people it's not clear, even to themselves, so young people won't make divisions like this.
Maggie Wei, 24, from Miaoli, studied industrial engineering at Lien He College.
Taiwan's technological development has already gone about as far as it can go at this point. From a labor perspective, you need a lot of money to pay workers. The salaries here are very high, which is very different from mainland China. There's a huge wage difference between the two.
In the future, a lot of skills and expertise will be moving to China, but I don't think there will be too much change in the next few years. Even though lots of companies have moved to China, they've mostly been in the area of simple manufacturing and assembly. Right now all of the research and development still takes place in Taiwan.
Sometimes I'm really proud to be Taiwanese, because now you can find everything here. We are really strong in terms of technological development, even better than Japan, because their technology and economy are in decline. So for now, things are great. But I fear we'll wind up like Japan in the future. A lot of money end experience will move to China and it'll be impossible to find a good job in Taiwan.
But sometimes I also feel that Taiwanese people don't have their own personality. It's like we don't have a real culture. I think we did before, but not anymore. Now we can get a lot of things from all over the world, but young people can't even speak their mother tongue. Now children have to study English because the government thinks it's very important, but they don't think our own language is also important. If we don't keep up our language, in time it will disappear. Taiwanese people are smart. We learn everything very fast, but I'm afraid that sometimes we don't think too much.
Sometimes I think we are not that different from mainland Chinese. They will get rich one day, just like we have. The main difference is that we have freedom and they don't.
Ralph Ho, 25, is a study-skills consultant for an educational organization. He studied business administration at Taipei University.
I think of myself as Taiwanese. But in my opinion there isn't a big difference between Chinese and Taiwanese people. We have different political positions, but we stem from the same ancestry.
I was a business administration major. I think that in this society, if I have the ability to manage my budget and lead my team well, I'll have a good success in life.
Although some people say that the unemployment rate is very high, actually I think it's not involuntary unemployment. Some people just want to hold out for a better job, but their ability isn't suitable for that level of job. If you really want to find work, I don't think it's that difficult.
I think the educational system in Taiwan is very bad. Very, very bad. Many children in Taiwan are miserable because they have so much pressure in school. I think most children in the United States or in Europe have a happier childhood. But in Taiwan many parents constantly push their children to do better -- to get higher grades, to get a good job. They have unrealistic expectations toward their children and put them in a tough position. That's why I teach study methods. I believe that if children in Taiwan learn how to study properly, they'll be happier.
Our children in Taiwan don't have enough creative ability. They don't have much ability to imagine things. All they know is how to memorize. They are very good at tests, especially in mathematics. But we need to do a better job of showing them that creativity and imagination are more important than memorizing some words or equations. Because rules and equations can always be looked up in a textbook, but imagination and creativity are hard to develop.
Maybe Taiwan's economy will continue to grow, but not as fast as it did in the last 10 years. China will grow faster than Taiwan, because mainland China has started to be more open, like allowing foreign investment to come in. This situation didn't happen before. If they keep getting access to more information as more businessmen invest in China, that will also open their minds faster. A lot of people here want to work in China. Me too, maybe after my MBA, to get some different experience.
The Three Links will pose some dangers. Not obvious dangers, but it could hurt Taiwan. If China wants to have political talks or show they are friendly toward us, it'll be fine. But though the Three Links are very important for us economically, militarily they might give China a chance to attack Taiwan. Because the distance between Taiwan and China is very small, it would be dangerous. I was a professional soldier before this job, so I have a very strong opinion about the Three Links.
Serena Wang, 24, from Taipei, studied applied English at Minchuan University
I always talk about politics and the economy with my friends. I think our government should take responsibility for our economy, especially our president. I don't trust the people in government at all. People who live in Taiwan feel upset with them, because they always talk about their private matters in public, and they always focus on some trivial things. But there's nothing we can do about it.
My dad always tells me there's no future in Taiwan, and he asked me to find a job in mainland China or somewhere else in Asia. Because I just came back from America, I just want to study a little bit, and I didn't get much feeling about the economy. So maybe I will have to go, because people around me always tell me the economy is really poor.
I studied in a business program [in Vancouver]. After studying overseas, I really want to go back to school someday, but I should get some money first. I'd like to get a Master's, but I haven't decided which subject I should study. Right now I want to find a job I really like. That's the most important thing I care about. I don't want to work somewhere just for the money.
My dad is from mainland China. When I studied in Vancouver and people asked me where I was from, I said Taiwan, so they thought I'm Taiwanese. Actually I don't think Taiwanese are different from Chinese. But if you ask me whether I'm Taiwanese or Chinese, I will say I'm Chinese. I wouldn't say I'm proud of coming from Taiwan, but I don't feel ashamed of it either. I think of Taiwan as my home. My parents can speak Taiwanese, and I can understand it and also speak a little bit, but not that well.
Vicky Zhang, 24, comes from Taichung. She studied journalism as an undergraduate at Shih Hsin University.
I don't think Taiwan will grow as quickly in the next ten years as it did in the past. If we have more open connections with mainland China, lots of people from there might come here to get new jobs. But they'll ask for less pay than we do, and I'm just afraid that their attitudes are totally different from ours.
I think moving factories to China must hurt Taiwan, because they'll learn technologies from Taiwanese companies. But you can't avoid it because the costs are so much lower than they are here.
More cross-strait connections at first must hurt Taiwan. Because we've never been in that situation before, it'll take some time to adjust. The WTO will also change things a lot. Take wheat for example. In America they can grow so much, and use different ways to keep their costs low. So for the farmers especially, they can't compete against some other countries. But I've heard that many farmers have changed their crops. They stopped growing rice because of the international competition, and started growing more specialized crops. So I think at first it will hurt, but eventually people will find a way to change and find a livelihood.
The international economy is very important to Taiwan's success. Exports are very important for us because Taiwan is so small, and the market here is so small. But we can produce some unique products, things that other countries need. More connections will help us sell things to more countries.
Sometimes I think politics is boring. It seems like politicians just argue for the sake of arguing. I know some politicians work very hard for the Taiwanese people, but I think there are only a few people like that. Still I have some hope that maybe someone can improve this. If they can, it will be better for Taiwan.
The worst thing about the country is the environment. The rivers, the air pollution, the trash, and noise pollution. I think it could be made better, but most people don't care. Or if they care, they can't do anything about it. So I think it'll get worse.
I studied journalism because I want to travel. In university we learned about theory, not about what you actually do at work, so I guess it was just slightly useful. I would take a job for less pay if I could gain some good experience. A lot of young people with degrees can find jobs okay, but some of them feel that the salary is too low. If you're willing to take a little less pay, then it's not too hard to find a job.
I lot of people I know have thought about moving to China to find work. But of course we don't want to go because our friends and our families are here. If you go there it will be very lonely. I think if I had family there, I would go. But some of my friends say it's unavoidable. As long as it's only for a couple of years, it would be okay.