Taiwan’s president has upset both business and workers

LIKE a nervous candidate in a job interview, shy yet formal, she fielded questions ranging from how to handle Chinese infiltration to why she always wears trouser suits. Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s usually plain-speaking president, marked her second anniversary in office with a rare live interview with a critical website.

Ms Tsai badly needs to restate her case to the people. In two years her approval ratings have slumped from almost 70% to as low as 26%, according to a broadcaster, TVBS; the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation says 48% of her compatriots disapprove of her performance, against 39% in favour. She has lost ground especially with the young, whom she has eagerly courted.

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Elected in a landslide in 2016, Ms Tsai blazed a trail as the first female leader of a Chinese-speaking country in modern times. Her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) also won a majority in Taiwan’s parliament for the first time, finally ending the grip of the Kuomintang (KMT) that began when Chiang Kai-shek and his forces fled to Taiwan from mainland China in 1949.

But her promise to revive the island’s economy, which used to be tigerish but has grown sluggish, remains unfulfilled. At the same time, tension with China has grown, despite Ms Tsai’s efforts to restrain the more radical wing of the DPP, which wants to declare formal independence, rather than maintain the current fiction that the government of Taiwan notionally represents the whole of China. Such a step, China has said, would be grounds for war.

Ms Tsai has tried to appeal both to business, in the hope of stimulating the economy, and to workers and environmentalists, the bedrock of the centre-left DPP. She has ended up pleasing neither. The DPP has promised to phase out nuclear power, but Ms Tsai allowed two shuttered reactors to restart after a big blackout last year, to the dismay of greens who object to nuclear energy despite its minimal greenhouse-gas emissions. In the name of workers’ rights, she issued new rules on working hours, which companies denounced as unduly rigid. When she modified them somewhat, unions howled.

Pocketbook politics

Wages are barely higher than 15 years ago (see chart), largely because of increasing competition from manufacturers in China and elsewhere, which has left Taiwanese employers with little leeway to increase salaries. Many frustrated young university graduates have left the country in search of better opportunities. Ms Tsai has raised the monthly minimum wage by 10%, to NT$22,000 ($733). This year she also increased civil servants’ pay by 3%. Yet on May 1st thousands of workers took to the streets, waving banners reading “Fight for a higher salary”.

Taiwan has one of the lowest levels of foreign investment in Asia, points out William Foreman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei. Ms Tsai’s government has given tax breaks to angel investors. She has also tried to pare regulation, giving firms more leeway to experiment with financial services, for example. And she has identified five industries in which she thinks Taiwanese firms can compete internationally: defence, biotechnology, clean energy, the internet of things and smart machinery—although only the last of these, notes Stephen Su of the Industrial Technology Research Institute, is currently a significant earner for local businesses.

Economic growth has picked up, from 1% year-on-year in the quarter in which Ms Tsai took office to 3% in the first quarter of this year. But workers are not feeling the benefit. Other reforms, however, have bitten. The government’s (much needed) cuts to pensions for civil servants and teachers prompted big demonstrations. Last month hundreds of veterans scuffled with police and threw smoke-bombs to protest against plans to cut military pensions too.

On social issues Ms Tsai has wobbled. Before she was elected she put out a video supporting gay marriage. But once in power, the DPP backed away and dithered. In the end it was the constitutional court that ruled in favour of gay marriage a year ago, instructing parliament to enact the necessary laws. It has not yet done so. That has left young people disillusioned, says Jason Hsu, a KMT lawmaker, who believes gay marriage was one of the main reasons Ms Tsai captured the youth vote.

Ms Tsai also promised to provide a proper accounting of the human-rights abuses committed during the KMT’s long, harsh dictatorship, and to remove all monuments glorifying this era. But she has appointed a former member of a watchdog agency under the previous KMT administration to head the committee in charge of this project. This has upset some in her own party. Meanwhile, a law that strips the KMT of wealth deemed ill-gotten has infuriated the opposition.

The KMT is still reeling from its defeat in 2016 and the legislative setbacks that followed. Its leadership is weak. But Ms Tsai faces opposition of a different sort. Two ex-presidents (one from the DPP and one from the KMT) and many prominent politicians, especially within the DPP, want her to permit a referendum on independence—something that would provoke a dire response from China. She is resisting, while counting on an economic upturn to bolster her fortunes. “We’ve spent most of my first two years in preparation, including legal preparation, so in my presidency’s next two years we will speed up the pace of implementation,” she said in her online interview. But time flies.

No country resorts to IVF more than Japan—or has less success

THE sterile façade of Kato Ladies Clinic gives little hint of the fecundity inside. Nestling among a plantation of high-rises in a business district of Tokyo, the clinic implants fertilised eggs in an average of 75 women a day. That makes it one of the busiest fertility hospitals in the world, says Keiichi Kato, the medical director.

Japan has come a long way since journalists were warned off the taboo story of Princess Masako’s visits to fertility clinics 20 years ago. The wife of the crown prince, then in her late thirties, was being nudged to produce an heir to the throne (in the end, she disappointed traditionalists by having a girl). Today Japan has less than half America’s population, but more than a third more hospitals and clinics that offer fertility treatment. Over 50,000 babies were born last year with the help of in vitro fertilisation (IVF)—5% of all births.

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Nearly a fifth of Japanese couples struggle to have children, says the health ministry. Women are postponing marriage; social pressures mean there are far fewer babies born out of wedlock than in other rich countries. The upshot is that around 40% of Japanese women who undergo IVF do so in their forties, twice as many as in Britain or France.

Partly as a result, annual births have dipped below 1m for the first time since 1899, when the state began compiling statistics. The total fertility rate (the number of children a typical woman is expected to bear over her lifetime) is well below the number needed to keep the population stable. The pledge of Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, to stop the population from falling below 100m still assumes it will slump by a fifth from the present 127m.

In 2004, alarmed by the baby drought, the government began offering subsidies for IVF, which is not available under the public health-care system. The government is mulling extending them to unmarried couples. Recipients get ¥150,000 ($1,362) towards their first attempt and a limited number of follow-ups. But that does not cover the full cost. Women older than 43 and couples earning more than ¥7.3m a year are ineligible. Many would-be parents end up paying ¥300,000-500,000 per attempt, says Akiko Matsumoto of the Fertility Information Network, an NGO.

Most of that is wasted. Fewer than 10% of local IVF treatments succeed, says Yoshimasa Asada, a fertility specialist, and the proportion is falling. “We have the world’s highest IVF numbers and the lowest success rate,” he laments. “It’s an embarrassment.” Hospitals sell rosy expectations to older women, he says, and are happy to take their money for repeat visits. Doctors avoid prescribing the stronger drugs needed to help them conceive, partly because of popular fears about side-effects.

Experts say Japan needs a law to regulate the industry, including a ranking system for hospitals. As it is, couples must rely on word of mouth, says Klaus Jacobsen, president of Origio Japan, a Danish company that sells IVF products. Surrogacy and the donation of eggs and sperm are regulated by the mostly male Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, whose rules are unduly restrictive. Every year hundreds of Japanese end up going abroad to find donors and surrogates. Mr Jacobsen thinks that with better guidelines and more financial aid Japan could produce an extra 300,000 babies a year. That is roughly the number by which deaths currently outstrip births.  

What life is like for ordinary North Koreans

THEY have vanishingly few opportunities to speak to foreigners and, even when they are allowed to, risk landing in a labour camp if caught saying the wrong thing. Yet North Koreans are full of curiosity about the outside world. On a recent visit, your correspondent was asked about the place of civil servants in capitalist society, about how Western manufacturers keep costs down and, inevitably, about Brexit. Any information about foreigners is highly prized. “We want to know how you think,” said one inquisitive local, “so that when things change, we’re ready.”

“Things changing” has seemed like a tantalising possibility ever since Kim Jong Un, the North’s leader, embarked on a diplomatic charm offensive earlier this year. In Pyongyang, where most people can access accounts of the rapprochement with America and South Korea in the state media, some are allowing themselves to dream. One woman said she wanted to go to Britain and South-East Asia. Another asked your correspondent to help her practise her French because she hoped to travel to Paris if the diplomatic efforts paid off.

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Yet hopes that Mr Kim will bring change, which were widespread when he took over from his father in 2011, have so far proved misplaced. Far from liberalising the country, Mr Kim has tightened the shackles, reinforcing the border with China to make it harder for people to escape and cracking down hard on offences such as possessing a flash drive loaded with South Korean soap operas, or owning a Chinese SIM card in order to make international calls near the border. (Ordinary citizens are not allowed to call foreigners within the country, much less anyone abroad.)

Pyongyang welcomes visitors with a relentless onslaught of murals, monuments and portraits of Mr Kim and his father and grandfather, who ran the country before him. Primary-school children decked out in traditional costumes sing songs about their glory. “Let us accomplish the programmatic task our dearest supreme leader Kim Jong Un proposed in his New Year address” runs one catchy slogan. Drivers have to slow down when they pass enormous bronze statues of the dead deities. Out-of-towners are compelled to wash their cars before crossing the city limits, lest they mar the capital’s aesthetic.

That aesthetic involves pastel-coloured apartment blocks, pretty flower-shaped streetlights and pleasant parks kept impeccably clean by residents. Work crews of middle-aged women dressed in bright orange can be seen at all hours planting flowers and ripping out weeds on the grassy verges around town. To those who can pay, the city affords a measure of material comfort, despite the recent tightening of sanctions. Restaurants offer pizza, pasta and sushi as well as semi-Western entertainment. At one restaurant the staff band performs stirring renditions of “Arirang”, a traditional Korean tune, and “Can you feel the love tonight?”, a schmaltzy duet from a Disney movie. Petrol and diesel prices have fallen by almost 20% after a spike in April, suggesting that China has relaxed its enforcement of the international sanctions that restrict North Korea’s oil imports.

Yet there are signs that even the showcase capital is struggling. Long-term foreign residents note that fancier restaurants and coffee shops look less busy than they did. (By contrast, grimy city-centre bars serving beer and cheap spirits are crammed even on weekday evenings.) Buses and trams, though gleaming, operate several times over capacity, with people hanging out of the windows and enormous queues at stops. In many buildings the lifts are mostly out of service and corridors remain dark, hinting at a less-than-perfect electricity supply (though some of the capital’s well-to-do get around the problem by installing solar panels on their balconies).

North Koreans are compelled to spend six days a week working for the state for meagre wages. Most get little choice in what they do, causing well-qualified people to complain of mind-numbing work with no prospects. “My job is just a dull waste of time,” says one woman in her 20s who works for a state-run firm. Asked about quitting, she demurs: “It’s not easy.”

Patriotic brick-laying

Young men have to spend years doing military service, which mostly amounts to hard labour on construction sites. Many young women work in factories far from home, where they live crammed into spartan dormitories. The only day off—Sunday—features group discussions about how output can be improved.

The workers in factories on the outskirts of Pyongyang are also permitted to visit the city on Sundays, in the hope of finding a local husband. (North Korean women are encouraged to marry young, often to a husband selected by their family, and are derided as “rotten fish” if they remain single in their late 20s.) But on the whole, personal life is restricted. Beyond contact with one’s family and colleagues, socialising is discouraged.

Only those deemed loyal to the regime are allowed to live in the capital. Life outside is far worse. The WHO says that 40% of the population is malnourished. Electricity and proper plumbing are rarities. Unlike in Pyongyang, people have fewer ways of getting around sanctions, which are starting to cause shortages of fuel and fertiliser, according to NGOs that work in the country. Agricultural technology remains primitive. Visiting experts say they still encounter farming equipment from the 1950s. Just beyond the city limits of Pyongyang, farmers are still ploughing fields with oxen; women carry big bundles of firewood on their backs. On the hills, anti-aircraft guns tower over the squat one-storey villages. News of the outside world comes mainly in the form of a weekly briefing from a party official.

And even in Pyongyang, Western and South Korean pressure groups attest, the deadening totalitarian system is as intrusive as ever. People are encouraged to keep an eye on the political reliability of friends, family and co-workers, and are rewarded for reporting misdeeds. Even minor infringements, such as perusing smuggled religious pamphlets, can result in severe punishment. Unguarded remarks about the leader or one of his predecessors may lead to banishment from Pyongyang or, in more egregious cases, being carted off to a prison camp—sometimes with one’s family in tow. The UN estimated in 2014 that between 80,000 and 120,000 people were held in such camps, where torture, indiscriminate beatings and starvation are commonplace. The number seems to have stayed roughly constant since then. No wonder North Koreans are curious about different ways of doing things.

A series of reversals forces India’s newest chief minister from office

LITTLE did B.S. Yeddyurappa know when he was sworn in as chief minister of the Indian state of Karnataka on May 17th, but his tenure was destined to be brief. Two days later he resigned. The reversal was a humiliation for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose local branch he heads but which also runs India’s central government. For beleaguered opposition parties, it was a rare moment of hope.

The drama began on May 15th, when the results of the recent state election were declared. Three competing parties had each won a sizeable share of seats in the assembly, leaving a hung parliament. The BJP emerged as the biggest single party, with 104 seats, but fell short of the 113 needed for a majority. The party’s only national rival, Congress, which came in second place, immediately locked arms with the third force, a regional outfit called the Janata Dal-Secular (JDS). Together they commanded 116 seats. The pairing of Congress and JDS thus claimed the right to form the state’s next government, with the son of the founder of JDS to replace the incumbent from Congress as chief minister.

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The BJP, however, declared that it should have the right to form a government, as the biggest individual party. Its bosses secured an appointment with the state’s governor, whose job it is to designate the chief minister, half an hour before the Congress-JDS crew were due to show up. Few saw this fortuitous timing as a coincidence. The governor, Vajubhai Vala, although nominally above party politics, is a former member of the RSS, a sister organisation of the BJP, and an associate of its leader, Narendra Modi, the prime minister.

Mr Vala decided that the BJP should indeed have the first go at proving a majority in the state assembly, despite the apparently insuperable arithmetic. What is more, he gave the BJP 15 days to come up with the goods—an invitation, Congress and JDS argued, for the BJP to attempt to suborn their newly elected legislators.

Congress and JDS rushed to the Supreme Court in Delhi, where their lawyers argued at a special hearing lasting till 5am on the morning of May 17th, that Mr Yeddyurappa’s swearing-in, scheduled for 9am, must be called off. Meanwhile, the caucuses of Congress and JDS were being shuttled from one locked-down luxury resort to another. Eventually they were ferried by coach to the neighbouring state of Telangana, the better to protect them from bribery and threats that might persuade them to defect to the BJP. Two Congress members, missing in action, were reputed to have been kidnapped by the BJP and held in yet another luxury hotel.

In theory, “horse-trading”, as the Indian press politely terms efforts to build a legislative majority by hook or crook, is illegal. Congress and JDS both released audio recordings that purported to capture allies of Mr Yeddyurappa offering places in his cabinet or even cash to his adversaries in exchange for their support in a floor vote. (The BJP say these were faked.) What is more, Mr Vala’s decision to give the BJP a shot at forming a government looked biased given that, at recent elections in other states, Congress had been in the BJP’s position but had not got a look-in.

In the end, the Supreme Court allowed the swearing-in to go ahead, but gave Mr Yeddyurappa just two days to prove his majority. When he could not, he was left with no choice but to announce his own resignation. The son of the JDS leader, H.D. Kumaraswamy, will take his place on May 21st; Congress will appoint a deputy chief minister.

There are at least two lessons from this saga for next year’s national election. The first is that Congress and the regional parties are ready for alliance—and that alliances can win. In Karnataka, as in India as a whole, the BJP tends to command a reliable 30-35% of the popular vote. India’s first-past-the-post electoral system can easily turn such a plurality into a big majority, if the opposition is divided. Sizeable regional parties, having digested this lesson, are queuing up to strike pacts with Congress.

The focus of attention is India’s supposedly neutral institutions, which have come under tremendous pressure as Mr Modi’s dominion over politics has grown. Just weeks ago Congress moved to impeach the chief justice of the Supreme Court, convinced that he was skewing the judiciary in favour of the BJP. There have also been complaints about the attorney-general, the federal police and other supposedly neutral agencies.

Arun Shourie, a disaffected former minister from the BJP, accuses Mr Modi of pursuing the “Indirafication” of politics, a reference to Indira Gandhi, a former prime minister who awarded herself sweeping emergency powers. The fact that the Supreme Court overruled Mr Vala has provided a degree of reassurance. But his decision suggests there is reason to worry. The to-do in Karnataka, in short, is probably just a taste of the excitement to come.

Surging numbers of Chinese people going abroad should be welcomed

IN 1979 America’s then president, Jimmy Carter, met Deng Xiaoping in Washington for talks about how to restore normal diplomatic relations between their two countries, which had been frozen since the Communist takeover of China 30 years earlier. Dutifully, Carter raised a human-rights concern. He asked that China lift its virtual ban on people going abroad. “How many Chinese nationals do you want?” Deng is said to have quipped. “Ten million? Twenty million? Thirty million?”

Deng knew that he could play on American fears of a tidal wave of Chinese immigrants. He was ready to open China’s doors, but only gradually—the Communist Party was still afraid of letting its people see the West’s prosperity, and democracy’s success, for themselves. What a different world it is today, and what a different China. Last year the country recorded 130m exits by its citizens from the Chinese mainland. By the end of the decade the number is expected to exceed 200m. Around 600,000 Chinese are studying abroad, mostly at Western universities, more than four times as many as a decade ago.

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This huge movement of people has been a boon for the rest of the world (see our special report in this week’s issue). Producers of luxury goods would be lost without Chinese travellers: their total annual spend abroad is twice that of Americans. The giants of Silicon Valley would not be as successful without Chinese talent, often educated at Western universities. And as for those universities, where would many of them be without Chinese students’ fees? How would their scientific research fare without the Chinese PhD students who are so numerous in their laboratories?

In China, officials’ worries about letting people go abroad have largely faded (except when it comes to Tibetans and Uighurs, who, they fear, might link up with separatist or terrorist movements). Yet in the West the kind of anxieties that Deng pulled Carter’s leg about are widespread. Migrants are often blamed for stealing jobs and pushing up house prices. Students are often portrayed by the media and politicians as stooges of their government, bent on curbing academic freedom. The director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, recently shocked Chinese-Americans by referring to a “whole-of-society threat” posed by China to his country, requiring a “whole-of-society response”. Some of his concerns are justified. Such sweeping language is not.

The Chinese are coming
The world has seen this kind of racially tinged fear before in the face of a rising power. In the 1980s it was Japan that scared Americans. Japanese companies were buying up trophy assets from New York to Los Angeles. Japanese cars were everywhere (prompting Henry Ford, of the motor company of that name, to warn of an “economic Pearl Harbour”). In 1989 this newspaper decried what it called an “anti-Japanese wind” that was “howling through the corridors of power” in Washington. The American establishment, it said, was “itching to reinvent the yellow peril”. So too were members of the public. Asian-American groups complained of rising hostility targeted at ethnic Japanese (as well as others of East-Asian ethnicity, by mistake).

Some of the language of that period, before Japan’s economy slumped in the 1990s, is being revived today in descriptions of Asia’s new economic giant, China. This is not only happening in America. In recent months a new book in Australia has fuelled debate about the Chinese government’s covert efforts to wield influence there, partly by manipulating members of the large and growing Chinese diaspora. Its title conveys a febrile mood: “Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia”. In March some of Australia’s most noted scholars of China wrote an open letter in which they accused their government of overreacting to anxieties by introducing new legislation to counter foreign interference. Australia, they said, was “witnessing the creation of a racialised narrative of a vast official Chinese conspiracy”.

At least in the 1980s it was easy to spot the problem. It was reasonable to criticise Japan for its mercantilism, but clearly wrong to portray a democracy and an American ally as a threat to America’s way of life. With China the picture is more complex. The Communist Party does act abroad in ways that violate democratic principles. It threatens critics and even sends agents to haul them back to China. And when Westerners protest about China’s thuggish efforts to exert influence abroad (and, yes, to persuade members of the diaspora to act as the party’s cheerleaders), it accuses them of racism. What better way of silencing liberals than to threaten them with that label?

But China may sometimes have a point. There is a real danger that careless rhetoric such as Mr Wray’s will ignite the same kind of bigotry that was once targeted at Japan and serve only to confuse a vital debate about China’s global behaviour. Anti-Chinese racism, after all, has a long history in the West. American laws dating back to the 19th century barred ethnic Chinese from gaining American citizenship and Chinese labourers from entering the country. Canada followed with its own restrictions on Chinese immigration (in 1923 it almost entirely banned Chinese from entering). When Australia became independent in 1901 it adopted a “White Australia” approach to immigration that limited entry by migrants of colour. The main point was to prevent an influx of Chinese. America and Canada did not scrap their Chinese exclusion laws until the 1940s. White Australia remained the policy until the 1970s.

Across the West ethnic Chinese suffer discrimination. A study in 2009 by academics from the universities of Hull and Leeds as well as Nottingham Trent University found that Chinese in Britain were exposed to “higher levels of racism” than many other minority groups. Also in 2009 voters in Prato, a city in northern Italy, elected a mayor who had campaigned on a platform of repelling a “Chinese invasion”. He was referring to the migrants (many of them illegal) working in Prato’s clothing factories. In 2016 thousands of Chinese took to the streets in Paris following a spate of violent attacks on their ethnic kin, which they accused the police of ignoring.

There is a problem with the behaviour of the Chinese state in the world, but not with the presence abroad of so many of its people. Western politicians and media must be careful to stress this. Most Chinese who go abroad sooner or later will return; graduates are doing so in record numbers. If their experience in the West was unpleasant, they are hardly likely to champion its liberal values back home. 

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