Taiwan’s Transition into a Global Economy

Those of you who read my blog regularly will have some idea of how I describe Taiwan’s development. In my most detailed description of this, I depict Taiwan education as the dysfunctional offspring of a century of colonialism, first under the Japanese and later under the KMT. I have stated in other post that the colonial legacy of these regimes has distorted examination, professional practice, and domestic security.

The huge confusion I describe would come as a surprise to the readers of researchers like Alice Amsden. Amsden’s research focuses on the economic development of what she terms ‘late starters’. That is, economies that begin without technological know-how of their own; this would include almost all nations outside of Europe and the United States. Perhaps Amsden’s most complete source on this idea is the classic Asia’s Next Giant (Amsden, 1989), but she has also developed it extensively to discuss Taiwan’s development (Amsden and Chu, 2003; Amsden, 1979).

Alice Amsden on Late Development

Amsden’s position is that the companies can be distinguished depending on when they emerge in the development of a product cycle. In making this distinction, she describes companies as first and second movers. if a company begins just after a product was developed and the idea of the product is still to customers, it is an early mover; if it begins later in the cycle when the products development has matured, it is a late mover. This is important for late starting economies because all products produced in the economies of a late starter by definition came from somewhere else and as such have been developed and matured.

Second mover also exists in advanced economies under the name of ‘late mover’…Second movers from advanced economies tend to compete against first movers on the basis of timing of entry. Second movers from late comer countries compete in world markets on the basis of a lower level of cost and different composition of skills (Amsden, 2003: p. 2).

To recap, her position is that first and second movers are described by fundamentally different characteristics, and this is particularly an issue in late developing economies. She lists these fundamental differences in Amsden (2003).

  1. The basis for their competitiveness differs even in the same industry. The first mover earns technological rents by exploiting its unique, cutting-edge knowledge based assets. The second mover must contend with low margins from producing mature products (p.162).
  2. The structure of leading knowledge enterprises differ…The second mover is more likely to be diversified than the first mover…the second mover’s diversification pattern is likely to be altogether technologically unrelated (p.163).
  3. Sources of knowledge differ….Governments everywhere promote science, but in the upgrading stage of a latecomer such as Taiwan, they incubate star-ups, import substitute high-tech components…create well-paying domestic jobs, and assume the risk for long-term R&D (p.163).
  4. Marketing activity is likely to differ. If a latecomer firm produces for world markets under subcontract to a foreign form because it lacks its own proprietary product design, then investments in its own-brand marketing are restricted to peripheral products…A dependence on foreign brand names and distribution is likely in the absence of the knowledge-based assets that are necessary to create a cutting-edge product, one that commands consumer loyalty and brand-name recognition worldwide (p.164).
  5. Globalization is likely to differ. Initially the lion’s share of a latecomer’s outward foreign direct investments will occur where production costs are lower (poorer countries), whereas those of an advanced economy will occur where demand for new products is greatest (richer countries) (p.164).

The hallmark of Amsden’s reasoning on late development is the role of government in developing industry. Successful development does not occur through the lifting of barriers or the liberalization of an economy (Li, et all; 1995). When economies are weak, they demand protection from more powerful foreign competition. Existing companies also need extensive government assistance, as she states (p.167), “…nationally owned firms in conjunction with government-owned research centers become the pioneers in follower countries of high-tech industries.”

So let’s put this in historical terms. While I have argued that the KMT regulated Taiwan society to assure their continued control, Amsden has profiled a careful nurturing of economic and industrial growth. Put in its strongest terms, without the protection that I decry, the high-tech industry that has resulted in Taiwan’s affluence and strength would not have been possible.

The New Economic Model

But change is afoot in the world. A world economy of sovereign states populated by citizens, protected by impenetrable borders is being reshaped. And along with this, economies and the workplaces are being transformed. But first, let me introduce some terms.

While sometimes credited to the Marxism philosopher Antonio Gramsci, the term Fordism dates back to 1910 in describing the mass production techniques pioneered by Henry Ford. Fordism emerged as part of Progressivism and Taylorization. The Internet has a lot of really good stuff dealing with this, so rather than talk at length about it, I’ll refer interested readers to these sites,

Fordism, Post-Fordism and the Flexible System of Production

Taylorism and Fordism

Marxist.org Glossary of terms – Fordism

One of the more interesting aspects of Fordism has been its partnership with the Kenysian state. Named after economist John Maynard Keynes, the idea of a Keynsian economy presumes that the economy does not naturally achieve equilibrium. As a result, state intervention is necessary to achieve stability. The presumption of such a political unit demands large bureaucratic governments that regularly intervene in functional aspects of the economy. The Kenysian State arose at the same time that Fordistm became the dominant way of thinking about industry. The reality and scale of Fordist production has resulted in the two concepts co-evolving together for decades into a single unified conception of political economy. Urban geographer Neil Brenner (2004, p. 60) has used the term, “Fordist-Kensyian regulatory order” to describe this situation.

Brenner has written extensively about the Fordist-Kensyian regulatory order. His 2004 book, New State Spaces is brilliant. It’s hard to get through and the material is quite technical, but it’s well worth the effort if you want the most insightful description available for this form of economic regulation. Brenner’s point is that the Fordist-Kensyian state is in crises. It is disintegrating into not just a new economic order, but an entirely new conception of how space is organized.

Historically, we have thought of the state as a hegemonic entity defined by boundaries that are set and inflexible.  Within these boundaries, the state controls. The geographical area within those boundaries is under the control of the state’s government representatives. The Fordist-Kensyian regulatory order has manifest itself in many different forms. One of the major definitions of a person comes through their relationship with the state. For some, their position within the state grants them the right of being a citizen. But citizenship is binary and within a given state’s boundaries there are others; migrant workers, tourists, illegal aliens, who are not citizens, and their relationship has been changing.

Some have described this change as if the state is disappearing or becoming less relevant as a factor in global identity. It is this interpretation that is typically juxtaposed with state-centered theorists like Amsden. Samy Cohen (2006, p. 7) describes this position as the common description of the academic field of International Relations. This literature, he states…

…is based on the same premise: the end of the Cold War and globalisation have led to the decline of the nation-state, to a considerable loss of its sovereignty and its privileged position at the top of the hierarchy of actors, and the prominence of the economic sphere over the political, of the social over the strategic, of the global over the national.

Brenner’s (2004) position is quite distinct from this.

  • An emphasis on the global spacial scale does not necessarily lead to an overcoming of state-centric epistemologies (p. 52).
  • State-centric conceptions of global mask the national state’s own crucial role as a site and agent of global restructuring process (p. 53).

Quoting Cox (1987) and Cerny (1995), Brenner states (p. 61) that the

…internationalization of the state in which adjustment to global competitiveness has become the new categorical imperative…mobilization of the mobilization of territorial competitiveness policies becomes an increasingly important priority for dominant actors and alliances across the political spectrum. The state itself becomes an agent for the commodification of the collective, situated in a wider market-based playing field. These realignments of state power in turn generate a whipsaw effect in which each level of the state must react to a wide range of competitive forces, political pressures, and institutional constraints operating within and beyond its boundaries.

The result of this has been the demise of the Fordist-Keynesian regulatory order and particularly its manifestation as spatial Keynesianism. Previously, governments ostensibly acted in the interests of both rural and urban citizens, citizens residing in developed regions and in underdeveloped, and the advantaged and disadvantaged within their territorial boundaries. The so-called ‘demise of the state’ has not been the demise of its existence as a political force, but as its enforcer of spatial Keynesianism.

In the place of spatial Keynesianism has emerged the new organizing principle of the entrepreneurial region. Particularly strong has been the shift toward the entrepreneurial city or region that has created urban and regional promotion through their own policies, rather than through centrally steered programs (p. 2). The forces that rescaled Keynesian territorial distribution have been scaled back to expose local economies to the direct effects of global competition. This has resulted in a rearticulation of the capitalist economy from its previous conception as a coherent, self-contained geographical unit into one “permeated by new types of vertical and horizontal linkages among diverse multi-scaled institutional forms” (p. 7).

Perhaps the most public effect of this has been the emergence of the global city and its transnational workforce (Sassen; 1991, 2006). The transnational workforce is one of the hot topics of social sciences such as Anthropology, Sociology, and Geography. There is a vast literature grappling with understanding the forces and experiences of workers displaced through the implementation of these reorganizing principles. It is this phenomena that I was referring to when I discussed the migration of English teachers. For a more influential description of this movement of workers, I strongly recommend Parrenas (2001) and Sorensen & Olwig (2002).

But it is not this aspect of the transnational workforce that concerns me. Rather, my focus is on the emergence of a transnational professional class and the influence of this class on policy.

The Emergence of a Transnational Workplace

The formation of a new relationship between elements of the state has created emerged a new kind of workforce. As I stated above, much of this workforce is involved in the tedious work of transnationalism, such as childcare, telemarketing, or factory work. At the other end of the continuum are the transnational professionals who control this system.

In a sense, this is nothing new to most of us. Probably everyone here talks about the ‘international businessman’. While this term is generally vague, we all know it in some sense to refer to the man or woman who works for an international company, whose job holds the promise of movement between offices in different countries, and even in his or her home country has a job that brings them into contact with peoples of different nationalities and cultures.

Most of my readers come from a class that has very close contact with the transnational professional class. For foreign residents of Taiwan, whether they are or are not wealthy elites, friendships with transnational professionals are considered natural. But the reality is that this class constitutes a tiny fraction of the workforce here. In fact, it is only a tiny fraction of the professional workforce of Taiwan. Significantly, almost all of it is situated in Taipei, and it is this large number of ‘international businessmen’ working within an infrastructure permitting virtually instantaneous contact with similar professionals worldwide that makes Taipei what Sassen (1991) refers to as a global city.

It is at the so-called ‘international businessman’ that researchers like Paul Kennedy (2004) and others (Sklair & Robbins, 2002; Robinson, 2004, Palan, 2003) are directing their work. Kennedy and those who work in this area are focused much more on groups such as architects and managers. But in addition to this group, there is a vast and growing membership from other professional groups. These jobs are characterized not just by their cosmopolitan nature, but also by their high level of income and autonomy. These are interesting, lucrative jobs. They are the kind of jobs people want for themselves and for their children. They are the kind of jobs that economies are competing to generate for their citizens. They are kind of jobs that loser nations in the new global economic order will be unable to create. In a way, it is this race to create such jobs that is considered the competition of globalization.

The workplace of the national economy was once dominated by production and elite jobs in the top manufacturing companies. The transnational professional is employed in a workplace dominated by global services centered on global control. Sassen (2000, 2002) talks about the dominance of financial institutions and professionals working in the major firms of this industry, but also of the highly specialized accountants, lawyers, marketing agents and other other professionals without whom finance as we know it could not operate. Kris Olds (2007) and others (Olds et al, 2001) discuss the role of consultants and the graduates of elite MBA schools.

One key aspect of the emerging transnational professional class is the issue of language. In a paper read at Ming Chuan University last year, Zoltan Dornyei (2007) discussed the idea that English has transcended its role as a symbol of the United States of America. Discussing the yet to be published results of his work on Eastern Europeans, he pointed to the growing demand for English in regions of the world that have historically been dominated by German or French as their international lingua franca. Dr. Dornyei stated that English is no longer thought of as just a language to use when doing business with the Americans or the British. Incorrectly citing Bonnie Norton (2003), he concluded that English is now a language that binds together the “imagined community” of those who work in and aspire to the emerging globalized workplace (the correct citation would be Anderson, 1983).

We can thank the Taiwan media for endlessly reminding us that English is an international language and that it is impossible to function in the international business world without access to it. While there is still plenty of money to be made from local consumers and regionally in the so-called Greater China, even here English can play a key role. A Mandarin-unilingual Taiwanese civil engineer working in China once told me  he was educating his children in English so they could work for foreign companies in China. His reasoning was that foreign companies in China are more competitive.

The Transnational Professional in Taiwan

So far I have said that

  • Strong government intervention in the economy and society have been key elements in Taiwan’s transition in to a major economy.
  • The emergence of a transnational economy has exposed elements of Taiwan to a kind of economic competition that it was previously shielded
  • This created a class of transnational professional workers based primarily in Taipei who hac\ve access to this economy.
  • This transnational economy is dominated by the use of English as it lingua franca.

All of this brings me to the point of how this creation of a transnational professional class has affected education in Taiwan. The governance of KMT colonialism was effective in the development of a national economy capable of competing in a world of borders and states. It was extremely effective in defining and controlling the education necessary for professional success inside that economy. In many ways, it is still effective at creating jobs and competing against similar economies. But from the point of view of citizens who aspire to membership in the transnational professional class, there is a growing perception that the old system is weak and that the national system of education can not train people to compete for entry into the transnational workplace.

Taiwanese must now compete for entry in to the transnational workplace against Americans, British, French, Germans, and Japanese who have the advantage of citizenship in nation states where most transnational corporations are headquartered. Taiwanese must also compete for these positions against Koreans, Brazilians, and increasingly Indians, and Chinese from Hong Kong and Singapore. Success in entry to these jobs demands the acquisition of a great many skills and much cultural capital. And while luck plays a big role in all of this, much of the initial stage for the development of these skills comes through formal education in schools.

Taiwanese schools have been celebrated by foreign educators for their role in the economic miracle Alice Amsden wrote about. It is true they have played a key role in educating citizens for their place in the national economy. This was possible primarily because virtually all students found work within the Taiwan economy. While it is true that Taiwan in some ways made the Computer Age possible, its direct role in employment is not as dramatic. In fact, probably the major employer in Taiwan until the lifting of martial law has been the government and the KMT (Matsumoto, 2002). Even those who worked for foreign companies in Taiwan had little contact with the transnational functions of these companies and instead worked in menial positions returning to lives that occupied space pretty much only in the geographical region of the ROC.

But these new developments in the global economy have revealed professional education and certification as what they were really are – as part of the KMT’s national organization of the economy. While the KMT controlled the workplace that aspiring professionals had to enter, their prescribed pathway was paramount. In the transnational economy of our future, they yield less and less control over what is and is not considered proper preparation. Instead, what is and isn’t needed for success is increasingly defined by the transnational corporations themselves through formal hiring policies and through the informal definitions that professional groups use to define membership. Definitions developed by the KMT during martial law for their own social control purposes are not necessarily the same or even compatible with those being used in a transnational world dominated by companies and professionals from the Europe, Japan, and the Anglo-Americas.

One key aspect of this difference between KMT definitions of adequate knowledge involves the lingua franca of the transnational economy – English – and the definition developed by the agents of this economy. We all know they are not the same. Ability to pass the kind of measures of English skill used in Taiwan schools and organizations has little to do with what is considered important in the transnational workplace. Even students who have graduated from Taiwan’s most elite institutions and have received unimaginable scores on their measures of English are capable of no demonstration of English skill other than obtaining high scores on this measure. As I have pointed out elsewhere, even the reading contained on domestic measures of English skill are poor assessments of the kind of reading skill needed to join the transnational professional class.

Of course there are Taiwanese who have developed high levels of proficiency. Some of them are naturally gifted in this respect. A more common source of this ability is overseas education supplemented by the huge amount of instruction that goes on in the commercial language industry. The current government push to include communicative language skills alongside English taught for examination purposes has failed almost completely. It certainly has left no impact on proficiency at the national level. ‘Examination English’ continues to be the overwhelming form of English taught and tested for in Taiwan schools.

It may even be that typical parents in Taiwan continue to want their children taught ‘Examination English’, as it is the most likely form of English they will encounter in the current economy. It is not the form of English used by those working in the transnational economy nor is it the form that educational and business elites want their children taught. And without options in the public school system, these Taiwanese elites have been busy creating a system that meets their demand. Elites in the ROC have long been providing their children with overseas educations. This practice continues with the added alternative now that well-positioned Taiwanese parents can enroll their children in the growing number of English-medium international schools.

And Then What…?

The point of this post has been to explain why despite decades of strong growth, Taiwan is not prepared for the current changes its economy faces from globalization. One of the major problems is that the education system controlled by the central government is under attack from the segment of society whose support it needs to maintain social credibility. Every single resident of Taiwan who aspires to professional work in the transnational economy for themselves or their children knows this system is not capable of delivering an adequate education if only because in it it is impossible to attain the English-language proficiency demanded by such work. Vast numbers of this group have chosen alternatives overseas or banded together to form the kind of schools they need.

Taiwanese professional education is not ‘bad’ in any real sense. It has been very successful at training a core of professionals highly proficient at running the government and economy of a tightly controlled state with powerful ideological concerns. This was a satisfactory answer as long as the KMT government was able to control the economy and deliver on its promise of affluence for those who mastered their politically charged body of knowledge. But the central government no longer has a monopoly on what skills are considered important in this quest.

There are many ways that Taiwanese speak about success. Parents might speak about wanting opportunity for their children. Foreign teachers sometimes perceive this as an obsession with money or a demand for qualifications and diplomas. But all of this comes down to a desire for membership in the transnational professional class and the inability of the government in Taiwan to provide this kind of preparation within the public education system for even its most elite members.


Amsden, Alice and Wan-Wen Chu. (2003). Beyond Late Development: Taiwan’s upgrading policies. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Amsden, Alice. (1989). Asia’s Next Giant: South Korea and late industrialization. Oxford University Press, New York.

Amsden, Alice. (1979). “Taiwan’s Economic History: A case of etatisme and a challenge to dependency theory.” Modern China. vol. 5, no. 3, pp. 341-380.

Anderson, Benedict. (1983). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Schocken Books.

Brenner, Neil. (2004). New State Spaces: Urban governance and the rescaling of statehood. Oxford Univerity Press, New York.

Cohen, Samy (2006). The Resilience of the State: Democracy and the challenge of globalisation. Hurst & Company, London.

Kanno, Y., & Norton, B. (Eds.) (2003). Imagined communities and educational possibilities [Special Issue]. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, vol. 2, no. 4.

Kennedy, P. (2004). Making Global Society: Friendship networks among transnational professionals in the building design industry. Global Networks. vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 157-179.

Li, Ting-Kuo, Gustav Ranis, & John Fei. (1995). The Evolution of Policy Behind Taiwan’s Development Success. Singapore: World Scientific.

Matsumoto, Mitsutoyo. (2002). Political democratization and KMT-party-owned enterprises in Taiwan. Developing Economies. vol 60, no. 3, pp. 359-380. http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1746-1049.2002.tb00919.x?cookieSet=1

Olds, Kris. (2007). ‘Global assemblage: Singapore, foreign universities, and the construction of a global education hub’, World Development. vol. 35, no 6. pp. 959-975.

Old, Kris, P. Dicken, P. F. Kelly, L. Kong, & H. W. C. Yeung (eds). (2001). Globalisation and the Asia-Pacific: Contested territories. New York: Routledge.

Palan, R. (2003). The Offshore World: Sovereign markets, virtual places, and nomad millionaires. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Parrenas, Rhacel Salazar. (2001). Servants of Globalization: Women, migration, and domestic work. Stanfrod University Press.

Robinson, William. (2004). A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, class, and state in a transnational world. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Sassen, Sakia (2006). Territory, Authority, Rights: From medieval to global assemblages. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sassen, Sakia (ed). (2002). Global Networks: Linked Cities. New York: Routledge.

Sassen, Sakia (2000). Cities in a World Economy. London: Sage Publishing.

Sassen, Sakia. (1991). The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sklair, L. & P. T. Robbins. (2002). Global Capitalism and Major Corporations from the Third World. Third World Quarterly. vol 23. no 1. pp. 81-100.

Sorensen, Ninna Nyberg. & Karen Fog Olwig (eds). (2002). Work and Migration: Life and livelihoods in a globalizing world. New York: Routledge.


Nice post, much going on. One nit: Amsden rose to prominence a decade early with her 1979 paper on Taiwan’s growth that sparked the debates on the state’s role in Asia’s growth, not with Asia’s Next Giant.


Great post. One thing I think you overlooked, however, are numerous studies which show that much of the so-called “globalization” is actually regionalization. While China, India and Brazil might stand out as truly global trading partners for Europe and America, most of the increased trade in recent decades is actually between regional players. Mexico and Canada for the US, the European Union for Europe, etc. China recently surpassed the US as Taiwan’s largest trading partner. In many ways the world was actually more “global” during the height of 19th century imperialism than it is now.

Given this regionalization, it would be a mistake to overstate the importance of English. Yes, for Europe English has displaced French and German as the lingua franca; however, I am not so sure this is true of other regions, such as East Asia, where China’s influence is still quite strong. Perhaps the election of a Chinese speaking prime minister in Australia is no coincidence …

But without even going that far, one could at least argue for a multi-tiered language hierarchy with regional languages still maintaining an important role between local and global languages.

Kerim, thank you for the comments. Keep in mind that this is not a theory of globalization. My point is that it is the emergence of a transnational professional class and the career opportunities this provides that motivates a small group of affluent parents to make the educational choices that they make.
While China may be perceived as a growing economic power, I don’t see Mandarin becoming a lingua franca in the world or even in the East Asia region. At least I see no convincing evidence that anywhere near the number of people or dollars are involved in CFL education. Or that any CFL that you do see now isn’t a passing fad the same way studying Japanese was during the 1990’s.
On the other hand, I don’t mean to disagree that the picture may be more complex than I describe and that there may exist a “multi-tiered language hierarchy with regional languages still maintaining an important role between local and global languages.” In fact, I don’t see this as inconsistent with my position. No matter what else, there will continue to be an economy within Taiwan’s political boundary that uses Hoklo, Mandarin, Hakka, etc as its language of commerce. There no doubt will be trade between Taiwan and parts of Asia conducted in these languages. But the idea that commerce between non-Chinese citizens of Taiwan, Korea, the Philippines, etc will be conducted in a Chinese language – and not English – seems to me to have little likelihood.

Kerim, I don’t think “overstating the importance of English”, even between certain regions, is a mistake.

English has not become lingua franca because of mere globalization. Neither would Mandarin take over because of economic considerations.

We tend only to remember how other languages have borrowed words from English. But many of the world’s languages had already loaned words to English before English became lingua franca. Prominent linguist John Swales once described English as “a language let loose in the world to gobble up other languages and their cultures.” And English could never have done so were it not for the twofold linguistic Trojan horse phenomenon (English/language x assimilation) that started over two centuries ago. It will therefore continue to adapt because of the energy needed to drive any would-be lingua franca: people longing, not only to exchange goods, but above all IDEAS. To accept that future ideas would be driven by economic forces-only (i.e. people switching to languages because of trade) would be sad, wouldn’t it? Yet, with an overdose of pragmatism, such scenario would not be impossible.

Still, with or without the US and superpower, a language that is most flexible linguistically to assimilate and be assimilated by most other languages will most likely be and stay the world’s lingua franca. The promotion of the French language by its government (19th and first half of 20th century) failed, even in contacts with its closest trading partners (African, South Asian and Canadian), because of the inability of the French language to undergo assimilation with the languages spoken by those regions. If the promotion of Mandarin is merely a government-driven one (as it is in China) or one given by economic considerations (as it is for non-Chinese outside China), I doubt Mandarin has what it takes to become lingua franca – even in East Asia.

“I doubt Mandarin has what it takes to become lingua franca”

I’m all for speaking Taiwanese, but this seems to fly in the face of reality. Mandarin doesn’t need to “become” a lingua franca because it already is one. It may not be the dominant one (English is), but that’s my point.

“Mandarin doesn’t need to “become” a lingua franca because it already is one.”

I have to agree with Kerim. Just look at the statistics on Internet surfing and the Canadian census results, Chinese is growing by sheer numbers. Chinese is the third largest language group in Canada right behind two official languages, English and French. Mandarin is the dominant dialect in this language group.

Julie, I don’t think that’s what Kerim means. Mandarin is spoken in Canada because there has been large-scale migration of ethnic Chinese to Canada. I think I am safe in saying that there is no one – not one person – speaking Mandarin in Canada who is not Chinese who learned it as an adult and then uses it to speak to other non-Chinese.

Kerim means, for example, that Mandarin is a lingua franca in Taiwan because it is not the mother language of most Taiwanese yet they have learned it as part of a state-sponsored program to make it the general language of communication. The same wold be true in China. In fact, Mandarin is the mother tongue of only a minority of ethnic Chinese and is only widely spoken because the PRC and the KMT adopted it as the national languages and mandated its instruction in schools.


Maybe I misread Kerim’s reply to Johan’s message. (??)

My view was that not only is China trying to promote her image with the strong economic power but also strategically pumping money through her embassies worldwide to set up and promote Confucius Institutes. LOL, this was the country that once destroyed much of the Confucius doctrine during the Revolution, but now they are promoting the language and culture overseas along with the strong trade power.

Your “safe” statement is no longer safe after all. For the last 18 years in Ontario, I have seen a few non-ethnic Chinese (black and Caucasian) elementary students learn Mandarin at a local public school. These students may be unique because they have no ties with any Chinese ethnicity. It was not a large group of students but the number has been slowly increasing over the years. The language program is set up by each local public school board and available to all school-aged children. Recently, the city of Hamilton’s Board of Education has established their first public funded Chinese Immersion School. Many families who adopted Chinese children are also forming a unique language and culture group.

Maybe Mandarin has not seen her debut on the world stage as a lingua franca yet but, sadly, the day may be coming sooner than you think.


Julie, I haven’t spoken with Kerim about this, but my reading of his post reflects a standard linguistic interpretation of Mandarin in what is referred to as Greater China. And if I read your reports about Chinese education in Ontario correctly, there is still no reason to believe Mandarin has any status as a lingua franca. You have pointed to the development of a successful CFL program (Chinese as a Second Language), but such programs have always existed, even if the students you’re talking about are younger than is usually the case.

The situation that Kerim is pointing to is fundamentally different. There are relatively few people for whom Mandarin is a native language and all of them are ethnic Chinese. In both the ROC and the PRC, Mandarin functions as the national language, but it is the mother tongue of relatively few of those people. For example, my wife is ethnic Taiwanese and her first language is Hoklo – Taiwanese. She learned Mandarin from her parents, but primarily at school. She uses it to speak to other Taiwanese and ethnic Chinese whose mother tongue is a non-Mandarin Chinese language.

In fact, there are large numbers of citizens in both these countries who do not speak Mandarin at all. But even for most Mandarin speaking people, Mandarin acts as a national level lingua franca and not as their mother tongue.

While the children you refer to may be an interesting example of the spread of Mandarin language education, they are not an example of non-ethnic Chinese using Mandarin as a lingua franca. In all likelihood, they will speak Mandarin either to other students or to ethnic Chinese. I can’t imagine any of them speaking to a Quebecois in Mandarin rather than French.

In addition, the long-term results of such programs remain to be seen. I have lived through the fad of Japanese in the 1990’s that had the numbers of students majoring in Japanese skyrocketing and the same talk of Japanese language for the future. Little of this hysteria remains today. I have no reason to doubt that Mandarin will see a similar demise.

Hey Scott,

I understand and agree with you fully about taiwan’s trouble transitioning into “transnationalism”.

However, what I don’t understand is you listed Japan as a nation who has already reached such status. But if you look closely into the Japanese education, it seems their english comprehension and communication is even less successful than that in Taiwan.

How have they done this without proper support from their educational system? Could Japan serve as a model for Taiwan’s transition?


I don’t know much about it, but I have often read in passing that widespread post-war adoption of the management ideas of W. Edwards Deming was key to Japan’s success in industrializing and that Deming’s ideas remain alive today in Japan. Thus, though Japan had and has no English-skills advantage over Taiwan, its companies have long had a considerable advantage through their use of a powerful set of comprehensive organization/management tools.

There are many explanations for why Japan’s economy has succeeded. In comparing Japan with other Asian states, it should be kept in mind that Japan is only state in Asia that has not been damaged severely by foreign colonization or occupation. Despite the rhetoric about growth in China, Japan is by far the largest economy in Asia. It is capable of handling inefficiency in a way that smaller economies are not.

But I do agree that the situation in Japan has moved far more strongly in this direction.


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