Taishang in 2012: Still “business is business”?

Taiwanese businessmen (Taishang) have been investing in China for more than three decades. If you talk to any Taishang in China about their political identity (as I’ve been doing for the last 8 years of my research), most probably their response will be that “Business is business, politics is politics. We are businessmen and we don’t talk about politics”. However, can they really isolate themselves from politics?

Actually Taishang are one of the groups that will have a determining influence on the outcome of the presidential election. For the Taiwanese government’s concerns, Taishang and their families are a fundamental source of votes. Estimates vary wildly (from several hundred thousand to more than a million), but without doubt there are a substantial number of Taishang with families in China. Taishang supported the KMT policy from December 2008 to open the three direct links (trade, transport and postal service), which shortened the time of processing and saved some capital for production. Most importantly, the opening of transportation links cut down on the time it took Taishang to go home. However, with the global economic recession starting in 2009, most small and medium sized (SMEs) Taishang (which comprise the majority of Taishang in China) hoped the next government would establish a more solid economic agreement with China.

ECFA (Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement) obviously springs to mind when we talk about economic agreement. ECFA was signed in China in June 2010, and aimed to strengthen cross-Strait economic and industrial cooperation by waiving unnecessary custom fees and also many other detailed cooperation across the Strait, including agricultural production. Nevertheless, according to the Taishang I have interviewed, they don’t quite understand the meaning of ECFA and most importantly, when they are crying out for help to solve their tough situation in China, ECFA does not seem to do much for them.

Most Taishang expect the government to negotiate with the Chinese government a better deal for them in more practical terms. For instance, in acquiring loans from local Chinese banks. This kind of practical issue certainly was not included in the grand framework of ECFA, and yet it is greatly needed for most Taishang in China. For the presidential election in 2012, Taishang will vote not for the colour of a party, but for the party which can address their problems.

Chun-Yi Lee is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, where she works on Chinese labour issues and (separately) Taishang.