This week my wife called one of relatives who lives across town. This woman, in her early fifties, had been taken to the hospital last week and my wife wanted to know why.
Turns out she had been spitting up blood, on account of the fact that her stomach, completely lacking in food, had developed a mass of ulcers and was more or less digesting itself. She worked as a cook in a kindergarten making $8000 a month for four hours a day cooking for 30 or so children and adults. It was their only income. She has two daughters, the one in a good high school across the city needing $2000 a month for food and travel costs, while the family had to shell out $10,000 a month for rent. To save money she had decided to do without food. They were living -- if you could call it that -- on the charity of neighbors. There's plenty of charity in Taiwanese culture, but it is not the obvious kind of people making ostentatious donations of time and cash to big institutions (we do have that), but rather, charity in Taiwan begins in and around the home....
The reason they were in this state of abject poverty is simple: her husband had gone off to China to work early in the boom and had never returned. Raising a second family there, he had never sent even a single dollar home for his wife and kids in Taiwan. Now the crisis had sent him back home to Taiwan to live with his wife. He brought no money and doesn't work. But he still has to be fed.
This is not an isolated case; it is a common pattern. Among our friends and family I can easily think of a half-dozen similar cases. Several students at my former university came to me for tearful discussions of how they had discovered that their father had a second family across the Strait, complete with half-siblings. And they themselves had no money, because Dad had "invested" it in his second wife. The next time someone tells me what great businessmen Taiwanese are, I'm going to ask him why so many of these "great businessmen" blew so much money on mistresses and other meaningless displays of wealth, instead of reinvesting the cash in their businesses, or in the future of their children.
The "investment" in China has not only pillaged capital that could have gone to develop the island and continue to raise its living standards, but has also imposed enormous costs on a generation of women and children in Taiwan -- its effects are gendered -- patriarchy mediates the linkage between Taiwan and the global economy -- and working mothers, as so often in society, bear the heaviest personal and social costs. These human sacrifices to the God of Competitiveness are hidden costs, hidden in the sense that they are difficult to count and never make headlines, and are paid for in impaired individual health (stoically borne, of course), lowered future prospects, and broken homes whose habits of interaction will now become familial norms reproduced by children and grandchildren for years to come.
In a classic paper from the 1990s, Deorientalizing the Chinese Family Firm, Susan Greenhalgh writes:
"Through close study of Taiwanese businesses, I have suggested that the gains from work in the family enterprise may go disproportionately to males. While men held positions that were economically and professionally rewarding to them as individuals, women worked at dead end jobs that brought little if any material benefit. Although hard work by all increased the "family's" fortunes, close inspection showed that those fortunes belonged not to the family,but to a select subgroup of family members. As in the Japanese family businesses studied by Hamabata (1990:91-104), the cultural ideal of everyone working for the family as a whole served as a convenient idiom to mask the harsh reality of economic inequality among intimates."The China wave has merely served to both reconstruct and intensify those global and local politico-economic pressures that Greenhalgh identifies in a single pithy sentence:
"Taiwanese entrepreneurs adopted the family form of business organization not because they revered Chinese tradition, but because they faced intense pressures, competition in the global economy, exclusionary ethnic politics, and biased state policies that left them few choices but to create their firms out of their families."But when the firms moved to China as the global supply chain shifted, they were no longer able to harvest the cheap labor of local family females; nor were their females able to garner even the inferior fruits of labor in the family firm. Thus, for too many women whose men have gone to China, the economic inequalities that Greenhalgh charts have meant, not lower personal incomes buffered and ensured by links to the males in their family, but stunning poverty as the fathers, brothers, and husbands they had always relied on for income flows and business opportunities disappeared out of their lives.
Hence, the poverty of so many wives and children in the working and middle classes is more than just the consequence of personal misbehavior and patriarchal values on the part of Taiwanese males. It is what happens when entire groups of people are dropped from the global supply chain as it moves on to harvest the labor of other, cheaper, even more marginalized populations.