Taiwan's ailing economy major challenge for leadership hopefuls

[TAIPEI] As baker Lin Hsiao-an sits hoping for more customers to save her beloved but shrinking business she rails against Taiwan's leaders for the slowing economy that has turned many angry voters against the government ahead of presidential elections.

Lin, 36, opened her Taipei cake shop 10 years ago with high hopes for her creative designs. But after a promising start she was forced to lay off four staff and relocate to her apartment to save on rent. Now she bakes to order from home.

"My business is getting worse each year. In the past people didn't hesitate to order a cake that cost Tw$2,000 (US$64) or more, but now most people order a cake under Tw$1,000 and they want discounts." Voters are bitterly disappointed that the economic prosperity promised by President Ma Ying-jeou when he took office in 2008 has not materialised.

A stagnant economy, as well as fears over China's growing influence, a string of food scandals and soaring housing prices saw the ruling Kuomintang party routed in local elections last month seen as a barometer for the 2016 presidential race.

Ma had pledged that improved links with China would spur growth, but many feel that new trade deals have only served big business, with ordinary citizens left out of pocket.

"I'm going to close my business because it is getting worse and I can barely make ends meet," said Lin.

"It's a pity that I have to give up something I've worked 10 years for, but I just have to be realistic. I have to change career while I still can." Lin blames the government for her woes, as a lack of disposable income, rising prices of raw ingredients and food safety crises have left her business reeling.

The health minister resigned in September after tonnes of food products made with tainted cooking oil had to be pulled from shop shelves.

With political parties formulating their campaigns ahead of the vote resurrecting the hope of prosperity is key.

Taiwan was once one of the most dynamic economies in Asia but its power has largely been absorbed by rival China, which still claims the island as part of its territory.

Since the 1980s, Taiwanese companies have channelled more than US$200 billion into the mainland, cashing in on cheaper labour and land despite Beijing's lingering hostilities.

This has led to the weakening of Taiwan's domestic manufacturing sector, previously a mainstay of the economy.

"As the manufacturing sector hollowed out and service industries have failed to provide as many job opportunities, lots of people found it difficult to find jobs," said Gordon Sun, director of the Macroeconomic Forecasting Center at the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research.

GDP growth has languished below four percent in recent years, and is predicted at 3.43 per cent for 2014 - an improvement on last year's 2.23 per cent, but still not enough to instill optimism.

Resentment among younger Taiwanese is high, with fewer job opportunities and little chance of owning their own home.

"I live with my parents and it would never cross my mind that I could buy a house in the future because it's just impossible with my monthly wage of Tw$23,000," said 26-year-old office worker Lucy Liang.

"Most of my friends think the same way as I do - some are still trying to pay off student loans." Youth anger exploded in March when student-led demonstrators occupied parliament for three weeks in protest against a contentious trade pact with China.

Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba, encouraged young Taiwanese entrepreneurs to set up in China during a cross-Strait business summit Monday.

But protests by pro-independence activists outside the meeting, which was attended by senior Chinese envoy Chen Deming, highlighted the sensitivity of trade relations with the mainland.

While there is acceptance among voters that trade with China is a fact of life, there is a push for Taiwan to stand on its own two feet once more.

"Taiwan can't avoid doing business with China, but Taiwan has to enhance its capabilities and competitiveness," said Taipei shopkeeper Tracy Hsueh.

Persuading voters that the economy can be fixed while maintaining Taiwan's integrity will be an uphill struggle for presidential candidates.

"This is a structural problem - many of the laws are outdated and restrictive. What has made it worse is an inefficient parliament that has frequently been paralysed by intense political wrangles," said Sun.

"Taiwan's next leadership needs to adopt a new economic strategy ... but the challenges are severe."


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