Social Class in Taiwan

English-language blogs in Taiwan focus almost exclusively on issues related to politics using a focus that interprets politics largely as an ethnic matter. The only blog that regularly veers from this rule is Keywords by Kerim Friedman, but in all honesty, Kerim was writing Keywords long before he was teaching here. One of the reasons for this, I believe, is the generally poor formation of a description of class in Taiwanese society. Dr. Michael Hsiao of NTU and the Academia Sinica has written on this issue, as has Dr. Robert Marsh at Brown University. I have not been impressed by the developments of either. It almost seems as if they are attempting to reconcile class identification with ethnic issues in a way that replaces it as the main predictor of voting in Taiwan society. For example, I have heard Dr. Marsh speak at NATSA 2003 where he speculated on the emergence of class politics as a determinant of voting patterns in Taiwan. Much of this discussion misses the real issues of class and mobility in Taiwan.

Class is the key force that has shape legitimacy in Taiwan politics. It is so powerful a force that all political parties feel compelled to conform to this construction. The current concept of class was initially constructed by the KMT during martial law. It involves a system that reproduces class utilizing educational qualification and access to schools through paper and pencil examinations. To promote a system that rewarded proficiency in Mandarin and KMT political doctrine, an educational system was constructed in which income was strongly related to success in schools. The kind of social mobility associated with a professional career became impossible through any other means. Taiwan’s position in the emerging global economic order has damaged the ability of the national government to maintain this system. Rather than give up the order through which all professional certification is monitored, a guest worker system has been established that distorts market values for labour and allows the continued reward of professional work and proficiency on paper and pencil examinations.

Foreign Labour in Taiwan

One of the most prominent aspects of work in Taiwan is the large and increasing amount that is done by guest workers. The Council of Labor Affairs (CLA) has approved visas for almost 400,000 foreign workers. In addition, the percentage of foreign workers for each NT$10 billion (US$300.5 million) infrastructure construction project has been adjusted from 20 percent of the total to 40 percent. Policy changes are already underway to make it easier for employers to retain workers in Taiwan for longer periods of time. Despite this, foreign labour from underdeveloped nations are no nearer to attaining the kind of partial citizenship enjoyed by non-professional labour from Anglo-America, Europe, or developed Asian nations.

In this post, one of my commenters, who is a professional civil servant with the Ministry of Agriculture, argued that such an arrangement is necessary. His argument was not, however, an economic one. While he believes that economics plays a part in this, the basis of his argument was that foreign labour allows education to be appropriately rewarded by suppressing the wages of lesser educated individuals.

We have to admit the payment of local labour such as construction worker was too high, at least before we introduced foreign workers. I estimate a construction worker might earn more than NT$60K monthly 10-15 years ago. However, a governmental officer could only earn 30K. Could you imagine that? After the foreign workers coming into the labour market, the reasonable payment has then been rebuilt.

In a sense, Chester’s argument is the teeth of my point. There is much more to the recruitment of foreign labour than just cost savings. The massive recruitment of foreign labour allows for a distortion of market forces and the reproduction of a system of social mobility established decades ago. This system, while developed by the KMT, has become so entrenched in Taiwanese life that it feels to many involved as though it was ancient.

Examination as a Catalyst in the Creation of Class in Taiwan

Examination has been a part of public education in Taiwan for decades. It was introduced as a universal characteristic of education during the Japanese colonial period. The Japanese had developed a system of higher education around which examination served an an entry requirement. During the colonial period, it was used as a barrier to the higher quality education offered in elementary schools (小學校) that educated primarily Japanese children, as opposed to the common schools (公學校) in which Taiwanese children were educated.

Examination was reintroduced by the KMT as part of their nation building program. Their purpose paralleled the use of examination by the Japanese in creating an ethnic order for Taiwan society. As I explained in this post, the examination system that exists in Taiwan was established by the KMT during the 1950’s and 60’s as a procedure to build their version of moral society in Taiwan. In this case, it was to create a Mandarin-speaking version of society in which the KMT interpretation of Chineseness was rewarded.

The Examination Yuan, which had served almost no function at all in Republican China, was developed and expanded to serve this purpose. Instead of the relatively insignificant role it had served for decades, an institution was created that would define who was eligible for practically every aspect of the Taiwan workplace. It would do so by defining what kind of knowledge was necessary for professional qualification and what was to be considered a qualification. As such, the Examination Yuan and its products became the gatekeepers of social mobility in Taiwan.

The examinations written by the Examination Yuan were heavily weighted with political information. From their very beginning, all examinations were written in script that could only be read by Mandarin speakers of the Chinese language. While this all seems common sense right now. it was not initially the plan of the KMT to mandate a Mandarin-only society. Initial language policy implemented in 1945 was extremely liberal and called for the introduction of Mandarin through the use of local Chinese languages. Political problems establishing a KMT authority in Taiwan resulted in much stronger pressure for Mandarin language supremacy.

But Mandarin language imperialism of the KMT was not the only way in which testing was politicized. Many tests contained information derived directly from KMT doctrine. Knowledge of the Three Principles of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen was necessary for many examinations even into the 21st century. Examinations I have seen for highway engineers continue to ask for knowledge of characters derived from ancient Chinese. In addition, knowledge of ancient Chinese characters and trivial facts about Republican China during KMT control continue to be necessary.

The significance of this is that the KMT established a system of social mobility that could be actualized only through mastery of examination. They politicized this even more heavily by assuring that only those with extensive political socialization could pass these tests and attain that mobility. This link between mobility and examination was not broken by the lifting of martial law.

Examination in an Age of Democracy

In 1987, martial law in Taiwan was lifted. While it took sometime to legally entrench democratic institutions, by 1996, direct election of the president had been established. The emergence of democracy in Taiwan changed many things. It allowed for an increased role of citizens in politics. It created an environment where free speech was tolerated and even encouraged. It allowed for the emergence of Taiwanese as international citizens who can travel, learn, and speak according to their own will. One thing that democracy did not bring about was the demise of lass mobility guarded by an examination regime.

As I pointed out in this post, some selected skilled tradesmen in Taiwan already have access to surprisingly high pay rates. Nevertheless, it is widely accepted by economists that the effect of education on earning power in Taiwan is extremely powerful. As recently as 1999, the effect of university graduation on monthly income versus graduation even from vocational school or junior college was enormous.

While it is true that the concept of ‘professional’ by its very nature implies distortion of market forms, the reasons for this distortion have varied throughout history and geography. As I have said, the KMT used these forces to institute a ‘Chinese’ society in Taiwan. The current system is being shaped to create predictable social order that follows along the lines drawn by the KMT.  This form of intervention will of course affect the cost of goods and services, but I am not convinced it is the main reason why foreign labour is so widely used. As I pointed out in here, the testimony of every industry official I could find points to a very different explanation for the use of foreign workers. Chester has also raised the issue of another: foreign labour creates the conditions that can reproduce the relationship between social class and professional occupation established during the early period of KMT control.

The answer to maintaining a predictable social order has been to use labour imported through what are fundamentally guest worker programs suppressing the wages of blue-collar workers relative to professionals. Access to this guarded form of employment is regulated almost exclusively through examinations produced through the Examination Yuan.

The Politics of Foreign Labour

No political party, no matter which side of the straits it is aligned has dared to meddle with the issue of imported labour. The unity with which all political parties, even the otherwise anti-immigrant Taiwan Solidarity Union, have stood on the issue indicates a strong sense of identity among the class of people from which Taiwan politicians are drawn from. My guess is that virtually every politician at virtually every level and in every party does not want this system to change noticeably.

This is not because every segment of Taiwan society supports the current organization of blue-collar wage suppression. This is not because there is no alternative. During the fights involving imported labour working that broke out at the construction of the Kaohsiung MRT, the ROC chairman of the Council of Indigenous Peoples stated he hoped more aboriginal people could be hired for this kind of work, rather than foreign workers.

The interpretation of this sentiment is very complex. Regions of Taiwan dominated by aboriginal people, such as Hualien and Taitung, vote primarily for Pan-Blue candidates, and it is widely believed among my ethnic Chinese friends that aborigines support the KMT. Much of this may have little to do with politics in the way that Western people generally conceive of it. In Taiwan, the relationship between voting and support for issues is complex and tied to a confusing historical relationship between ethnic groups. Despite the rhetoric of the current government’s handling of the economy, availability of jobs may not be perceived as a voting issue. I believe this is perceived as a voting issue by a growing number of Taiwanese, and that the unwillingness of political parties to recognize this accounts for the steep drop in turn out for elections that has been occurring since democracy was established. Regardless of my speculation on this, there is no data – or at least none that I know about – addressing this problem. And instead, academic research on class in Taiwan focuses on the issue of class as an emerging predictor of voting behaviour.

But class has always been a political issue in Taiwan. It has not emerged suddenly as a predictor of behaviour only since democracy has been established. It has always been a significant political issue but it has been controlled in subtle ways. Its manipulation has always been paramount to the legitimacy of Taiwan’s ruling party. What has changed has not been its importance, but rather its role in the economy. In the past, it was manipulated as a means of social control. The usefulness of this direction changed not with a change in political rights but with Taiwan’s changing place in the world economy. The system of class allocation established by the KMT had by that time, however, become too entrenched both structurally and ideologically to alter. The class system of Taiwan that allocates professional employment and income based on exam results, suppressing blue-collar wages, remains firmly protected by every political party in the country.

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Comments

I would recommend adding the excellent anarchy in Taiwan to your blogroll!

I had not read this blog before your comment. Although it has interesting description of foreign labour in Taiwan, its description of English teaching appeals to the stereotypical imagery I have tried to dispel.

Amazing, I mean, the creation of social mobility via examination. I have long been amazed at the test-taking mentality I’ve seen here (and it’s about the most common foreigner-teacher complaint) but now I see how the examination system is co-extensive with social class and social stability (so-called).

Once again, you have helped to clarify something for me.

English-language blogs in Taiwan focus almost exclusively on issues related to politics using a focus that interprets politics largely as an ethnic matter.

The vast majority of English language blogs hardly touch politics, Scott. Those half-dozen of us who do hardly blog on it from “an ethnic matter” since identity politics in Taiwan is not an “ethnic matter.” Only the pan-Blue media think like that.

The interpretation of this sentiment is very complex. Regions of Taiwan dominated by aboriginal people, such as Hualien and Taitung, vote primarily for Pan-Blue candidates, and it is widely believed among my ethnic Chinese friends that aborigines support the KMT.

They probably think that because aborigine support for the KMT is widespread and has deep historical roots.

Much of this may have little to do with politics in the way that Western people generally conceive of it. In Taiwan, the relationship between voting and support for issues is complex and tied to a confusing historical relationship between ethnic groups. Despite the rhetoric of the current government’s handling of the economy, availability of jobs may not be perceived as a voting issue. I believe this is perceived as a voting issue by a growing number of Taiwanese, and that the unwillingness of political parties to recognize this accounts for the steep drop in turn out for elections that has been occurring since democracy was established.

Scott, the economy has been an issue in every campaign. All political parties recognize this. There has been no “steep drop” in turnout — presidential elections: 80% in 2004, 82% in 2000, and 76% in 1996. My math is a bit out of date, but last I checked, 80 is higher than 76. Local elections naturally have lower turnouts, the same in every democracy. In the 12 2006 election, taipei — which had a foregone conclusion, saw 64% turnout, 68% in Kaohsiung (vs 71% in 2002).

There is no steep drop off in turnout.

Regardless of my speculation on this, there is no data – or at least none that I know about – addressesing this problem.

There’s lots of stuff on how the parties view economics and how they expect voters to act. It’s published in the newspapers every day.

And instead, academic research on class in Taiwan focuses on the issue of class as an emerging predictor of voting behaviour.

Probably because class is not as good predictor of voting behavior as political identity, and indeed, is hard to separate from it. That is why those canny politicians from Taiwan focus on political identities and patronage networks and similar — because that’s how to win in Taiwan.

The class system of Taiwan that allocates professional employment and income based on exam results , suppressing blue-collar wages, remains firmly protected by every political party in the country.

Yes, I often use the shorthand “The System” to refer to this confluence of political interests on my blog. Of course, foreign laborers cannot vote and do not stay long enough to become a class with identifiable interests the System would have to serve. Labor agitators can quickly be expelled, meaning that enforcement of authority is easy.

Michael

Your thesis is interesting but I think you are overlooking the way that education and examinations have produced a rather remarkable degree of social mobility. Chen Shui-bian is a dramatic example, but there are many, many others. Examination have, in short, allowed many people to join the magic circle of the traditional middle classes: teachers, civil servants, and military personnel. One of the central political issues in Taiwan today is the extension of benefits enjoyed by those classes to the have-not classes such as farmers. The health care and pension schemes also reflect this important class issue.

I also think you are overlooking the highly disruptive role of Taiwan’s high tech industry. There are many people in that industry–especially people from the vocational/technical system who are bypassing the traditional examination system to make serious money. This is very unsettling to Taiwan’s traditional middle classes as was the high wages of skilled laborers during the boom era.

Another problem is the close association of class-based analysis with Taiwan’s new left–many of who are essentially pan blue in their political outlook.

Some factual issues:

The examinations written by the Examination Yuan were heavily weighted with political information. From their very beginning, all examinations were written in script that could only be read by Mandarin speakers of the Chinese language.

This is inaccurate. Non-Mandarin speakers can easily read and write
in the formalized modern Chinese used in examinations. Many mainlanders were not fluent in Mandarin yet could pass the exams. The problem was that Taiwan’s elite was educated in Japanese, not Chinese. But yes, they were used to install the KMT’s China-centric view of the world and Taiwan. This is precisely why the DPP takes control over the educational system and examination system so seriously and has placed such key people (Tu Cheng-sheng and Yao Chia-wen) in the top positions.
Examinations I have seen for highway engineers continue to ask for knowledge of characters derived from ancient Chinese. In addition, knowledge of ancient Chinese characters and trivial facts about Republican China during KMT control continue to be necessary.

Scott, almost all characters are derived from ancient Chinese. The issue is not the characters but the use of literary Chinese (wenyanwen) in examinations. But the presence of wenyanwen and Chinese history in examinations is widely seen as a relic of the bad old days that the DPP is trying very hard to change.

Regions of Taiwan dominated by aboriginal people, such as Hualien and Taitung, vote primarily for Pan-Blue candidates, and it is widely believed among my ethnic Chinese friends that aborigines support the KMT.

Hualien and Taitung are hardly dominated by aboriginal Taiwanese. Hualien is about 25% aboriginal and Taitung is 33% aboriginal. The politics of both counties are dominated by Han Chinese. The state sector dominates the economy in these areas, and aborigines (or at least their leadership) correctly see the KMT as the party that created and is most likely to maintain the patronage system that benefits aboriginal communities at home where it counts.

Michael,
I’m a little confused about the direction for your comment. Other than pointing out occasional disagreements with me, what is your main point? In fact, I think to some degree we must be saying the same thing. I agree completely with your statement that, “…class is not as good predictor of voting behavior as political identity, and indeed, is hard to separate from it. That is why those canny politicians from Taiwan focus on political identities and patronage networks and similar — because that’s how to win in Taiwan.” My intention is to explain nothing more than how this was done.

I agree that I have overstated the point about the Green leaning of English-language blogs. In a numerical sense, of course, the vast majority of blogs in Taiwan appear to be written by missionaries who don’t even seem to know who the president is, much less what the party system in Taiwan means. I suppose a better way to put it would have been that whenever the issue comes up, it’s clear which side of straits the bloggers you have listed on your your ‘Taiwan Blogs’ list really fall.

Election turnout. The presidential election in Taiwan is an anomaly. It is the cleanest, most important election in the country. Some (but not me) might say, it is the only one that really matters. I agree that expected voter turnout for local elections will be lower than for national elections. However, there are other levels of government in our adopted homeland. The decline in turnout in elections for the Legislative Yuan has long been the object of comments from foreign observers of Taiwan.
http://www.asiafoundation.com/pdf/TW_Legislative_Yuan.pdf

Ferian,

Let me start by saying I agree that politics in aboriginal regions of Taiwan is dominated by the status quo. But I think, as in Michael’s comment, this misses what I hope to achieve with this post. I don’t think I disagree with anything substantial you have to say, and I very much appreciate the factual clarification about the Chinese language that you bring. The significance of this post is that it describes how class and ethnicity have been combined in a fashion making them indistinguishable when voters get to the ballot box.

No doubt examination has produced mobility. Whether “extraordinary” is an accurate word to describe it is another matter. I’m not sure we really have numbers on this matter. Am I wrong? Regardless, this is certainly the rhetorical position taken by many in the ROC government and education. On the other hand, there is very little written about the limitations of this system are. If you’re meaning to say the often stated rhetorical point that the “KMT did a whole lot of good to Taiwan”, that’s a whole different matter and beyond the scope of what I wish to discuss here – although it’s not as clear to me as it is to some.

Thank you for clarifying my point about the readability of Mandarin by non-Mandarin speakers of Chinese. I am talking about Taiwan here and I think it’s fair to say that while there are non-Mandarin speakers of Chinese who can read this script, very few lived in Taiwan. You are better situated to describe the way in which ancient Chinese is perceived by speakers of modern Chinese. I agree you have put it more clearly than I, and I thank you for doing so.

It’s interesting how you are developing your ideas on social class in Taiwan Scott. I feel your analysis is correct. Exams have always been a fiddle–they benefit those who know how, in Bourdieu’s words, to “play the game.” The game varies from country to country, but it is still a (win/lose) game. But in the mass era, how are we to decide who gets what? Is social class inevitable?

The purpose of examination is to sort people. In a sense, it is to give value to people based on what they know. In a market based society, there is a connection between this and economic sorting, which I suppose means class.

Examination isn’t ‘wrong’ per say. The problem is that within a society, function can not separated from structure. Examination in Taiwan is structured for a particular purpose. And I doubt the structure of Taiwan’s exam system can sustained the emerging pressures of globalization.

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