Why China is land of opportunity for young Taiwanese

Protesters held flowers and shouted slogans as over 200,000 people rally on 30 March in Taipei opposing a contentious cross-strait service trade agreement with China. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Many young people joined protests against a trade deal with China

Confident and fluent in English, 24-year-old Nelson Lai would have no trouble finding work in his native Taiwan.

But for his first "real job", he chose to go next door to mainland China.

"I will make $45,000 [US$1,500] a month and get free food and accommodation. The salary is much higher than what I got in my last job in Taiwan," said Mr Lai, who will handle international sales and marketing for a Taiwanese bicycle manufacturer.

But it's not just money that beckons. "Given the drastic changes happening in China, I think it's a good opportunity to learn something about China," he says.

Taiwan's stagnant wages and lacklustre economy are driving an increasing number of its young to look to China for career advancement.

Once shunned as the enemy and looked down upon as backward, the mainland is now increasingly seen as a land of opportunity.

Growing numbers of Taiwanese are going to China to work for multinational companies, teach English, or manage hotels and factories.

Image copyright NELSON LAI
Image caption Mr Lai is one of many young Taiwanese heading to China to work

Their Chinese language skills, loyalty toward their companies, customer service standards and work attitudes make them appealing to employers.

Statistics on how many young Taiwanese have moved to China are not available, but according to a survey of college graduates seeking jobs through Taiwan's 1111 Job Bank in 2010 - 73% of the respondents said they were willing to work in China.

This year a survey showed that among graduates who want to leave Taiwan, more would work in mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau - 52% - than anywhere else.

More Taiwanese study in China than in any other country except the US and increasingly they are looking to work there too these days.

This is despite the high-profile student occupation of Taiwan's parliament in March and large protests against a controversial trade agreement with China, as well as smaller scale protests this week during senior Chinese official Zhang Zhijun's visit to the island,

"It's mainly because it's hard to find jobs in Taiwan and the salary here is not high," said Ethan Tseng Yi-ren, a political science professor from the National Sun Yat-sen University in southern Taiwan.

"College graduates' salaries are the same as 15 years ago. Taiwan's economy is not good, and the highest unemployment rate is among people in their 20s and 30s."

Historical tensions

Taiwanese youngsters weren't always eager to venture next door.

Many were guarded about the mainland given the long-time rivalry between the two sides and China's claims over Taiwan as its province to be taken back one day.

Image copyright CINDY SUI
Image caption Many young Taiwanese are finding that jobs in China can pay better than at home
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Protests erupted in Taipei in March over a trade agreement with China
Image copyright AFP
Image caption The protests saw students occupying Taiwan's parliament for weeks

Taiwanese people, young ones especially, also resent the fact that the island is not recognised as a country in the United Nations because of Beijing's clout.

Taiwan is not allowed to show its national flag or use its official title - Republic of China - or the name "Taiwan" in global events, such as the Olympics. And it can't join many international organisations.

So despite the proximity between the two sides, many Taiwanese have never been to the mainland or have any interest in visiting.

A survey for the United Daily newspaper found that only 44% had visited, although the figure is rising.

It's not hard to find Taiwanese children or young adults who have visited many foreign countries, but not China, because they and their parents often consider China to be dirty, unsafe and unfriendly.

Underlying Taiwanese people's feelings about the mainland is a deep-seated fear that Taiwan might one day be swallowed up by its much larger neighbour.

"What I'm most afraid of is we won't have the freedom and democracy we have now," says Reggie Wang, one of the student demonstrators.

"I'm afraid of living under a communist government."

But in recent years, because of China's growing economic power and also Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou's policy of stepping up engagement with China, tensions have eased and contact between the two sides has increased.

Hundreds of direct flights each week link Taiwanese and Chinese cities, making it easier to visit the mainland.

In Taiwan, there are also more chances to meet Chinese people - from the thousands of tourists who arrive each day to the 3,000 Chinese students who are allowed to study here each year.

Many Taiwanese now also have relatives from mainland China - not just elderly grandparents who fled towards the end of the civil war in the late 1940s, but Chinese women married to Taiwanese men.

Even Chinese TV shows have grown increasingly popular with Taiwanese audiences.

Taiwanese, not Chinese

Yet, this growing interest in China hasn't changed the fact that a large segment of the population increasingly sees Taiwan as an independent country and themselves as Taiwanese, not Chinese.

A survey in June showed that fewer than 50% of Taiwan's people recognise themselves as Chinese, a drop from before. And most people believe Taiwan is a separate country from mainland China.

Those views are especially prevalent among people in their 20s and 30s, even as many of them find themselves wanting to move to China for jobs.

"It's an economic consideration for them," says Professor Tseng.

"Many of my students are active in student movements, but also go to China to work; they come back complaining about corruption in China.

"Taiwanese don't give up their wish for independence just because they make money from China."

But he and others say it's possible that as China's wealth and standard of living rise over time, and if Chinese society becomes more fair and less corrupt, young Taiwanese may choose to stay in China, not just to work there short-term. This may affect how they see China and its relationship with Taiwan.

If that's the case, the argument that time is on China's side regarding the issue of Taiwan's unification with the mainland may hold true.

But Mr Tseng said: "It's too soon to know whether these young people's views on China will change."

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