A woman introduces job openings in Fujian province during a jobs fair in Taipei. (Sam Yeh / AFP)
TAIPEI (AFP) – Taiwan has long seen its international allies switching allegiance to an ascendant Beijing, but now there are also fears of a brain drain of the island’s youth as they pursue careers in rival China.
Cross-strait tensions have soared since China-sceptic Tsai Ing-wen took power last year, with Beijing cutting all official communication.
China still sees the self-ruling island as part of its territory to be reunified, but young people in particular have increasingly developed a sense of pride in their Taiwanese identity.
They have been at the forefront of anti-Beijing sentiment in recent years, famously occupying Taiwan’s parliament in protest at trade deals with China in the Sunflower Movement of 2014.
However, with monthly starting salaries for college graduates unchanged at below Tw$30,000 ($1,000) since the 1990s and property and consumer prices spiralling upwards, some are now taking a more pragmatic approach.
China is also wooing young Taiwanese talent in what analysts say is a “soft power” push to sway political sentiment.
Katherine Wang, 33, quit kindergarten teaching in Taipei and co-launched a business in May offering a variety of courses for young Chinese women in southeastern Xiamen city, saying she feels “hopeless” about Taiwan’s economy.
“I see a ray of hope in Xiamen and working there makes me happy. I want to make a name for myself and my partners and hopefully expand our business to all over China,” she explained.
Wang receives free housing and office space as an incentive from the Xiamen city government, an example of the perks offered by provincial authorities, which also include generous grants.
According to China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), over 6,000 Taiwanese young people are working or interning at more than 50 youth start-up bases launched since 2015.
Top Chinese political and business leaders, including Premier Li Keqiang and Alibaba founder Jack Ma, have also encouraged Taiwanese youth to chase careers in China.
While Wang says she has no strong political views, others who do are putting them to one side for jobs.
One twenty-something has opted to work in China even though he supports Taiwanese independence — a concept intolerable to Beijing.
“I just focus on how to do my job well,” the young worker told AFP on condition of anonymity, saying he hoped it would be a stepping stone to an international career.
“My Chinese colleagues sometimes say things like ‘Taiwan is a part of China’ but that’s their freedom of speech,” he said.
Despite being a fully fledged democracy, Taiwan has never announced a formal split from China. Beijing has threatened military action if it ever did.
‘Carrots’ for youth
There are already well-established business links between China and Taiwan.
Taiwanese manufacturers flocked to the mainland to take advantage of its resources and cheaper labour after restrictions were lifted in the late 1980s.
China is also Taiwan’s biggest trade partner and market, with exports there totalling $112 billion — 40 percent of last year’s total.
But the youth links have an extra dimension, says Shih Cheng-feng, a political analyst at National Dong Hwa University.
“China realises that it needs to take a soft approach and use ‘carrots’ to attract (young people) in the hope that they will have some impact at critical time, such as the presidential election,” Shih told AFP.
“Young people may not actively support Beijing’s agenda, but their hostilities can be reduced and that for Beijing is a worthwhile investment,” he explained.
There is no official data in Taiwan on the number of youngsters currently working in China.
However, a survey released by the Taipei-based Global Views magazine in March showed that nearly 60 percent of respondents aged 20-29 years old were willing to work there.
Interest was reflected in a recent recruitment drive by China’s Hainan Airlines, with more than 1,500 Taiwanese applicants applying for 80 jobs based in Beijing, according to Chinese state media.
Some say such cross-strait exchanges are a good alternative way to promote stability as official ties worsen, but others fear a brain drain that will hurt Taiwan’s competitiveness.
A commentary in Taiwan’s Liberty Times this month accused China of trying to divide the island and draw young people away from their political ideals.
“If young generations can’t see hope in Taiwan and feel pessimistic about the future, and if poverty becomes a fact, how can they feel the obligation to insist on democracy and defend ideals?” it said.