Despite Hong Kong’s per capita GDP exceeding US$30,000, an analysis by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service last year showed that the poverty rate was approximately 17.9 percent and that 1.236 million people in poor households with low incomes live below the poverty line.Taiwan's worsening income inequality has been the subject of much discussion in recent years. Though the Beautiful Island is nowhere near the stratospheric levels of the US or China, it is a key social issue with powerful political effects -- stagnant incomes were a major factor in public subscription to the KMT propaganda claim in the second term of Chen Shui-bian that the economy was getting worse when in fact growth was rising rapidly. Because the fruits of growth largely didn't reach the working and middle classes, they experienced stagnant incomes amid rising prices. Now that the KMT is power, Ma & Co. are the targets of middle and working class discontent over rising living costs and stagnant incomes.
The latest statistics show that Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient — a measure of wealth distribution where 0 describes perfect equality and 1 describes perfect inequality — has reached 0.533, the widest income gap among all developed economies.
Looking at Taiwan, Chiu Hei-yuan (瞿海源), an Academia Sinica research fellow, says that if Taiwan does not handle its cross-strait and industrial policies cautiously, the income gap is likely to be even worse than that in the next two or three years.
An ECFA is essentially the same as the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) China signed with Hong Kong, as they are both free-trade agreements with “Chinese characteristics.”
That also means the approach to informing the WTO is handled with “Chinese characteristics” — that is, Taiwan’s leaders lean toward China. Putting aside any sovereignty concerns, an ECFA will mean increased social contradictions as the rich get richer the poor get poorer.
Gini coefficient is a commonly used measure of inequality -- the higher the number, the worse the income inequality. As the table (source) above shows, the Gini coefficient (the table renders it as an index percent) in Taiwan has been worsening during the last two decades; in reality, since the 1980s when it was in the 20s. The bump in 2001 was due to the nasty recession that year. As the table shows, the Gini has risen despite increased social welfare spending.
There is much debate as to the exact cause of the widening income gap. Is it rising demand for skilled workers in the knowledge-intensive industries leaving out the working class? How could inequality be growing if more and more people are attending college? I suspect that one cause of inequality is the increasing financialization, corporatization, and formalization of the economy. These have shrunk the proportion of income that individuals are able to hide and that is off the books, meaning that informal economy is shrinking in proportion to the economy as a whole: alternative incomes are smaller, an effect felt in many families. Another effect, not often mentioned in studies of inequality, is the problem of the way income is redistributed from rest of Taiwan to keep Taipei living well. This means that the income boosts from public spending are lower in the central and southern areas because less public money is spent there.
The effects of ECFA on the distribution of income in Taiwan will likely be negative, as the author of the commentary observes. Traditional industries are likely to be hard hit, as they have been in places like Indonesia and Thailand, meaning that individuals already experiencing growing inequality will find things even harder, while rewards will go largely to giant firms, financial companies, and similar, who already have money. The inconsistent correlation between social spending and income inequality in Taiwan shown in that paper above suggests that Ma's program of compensating individuals in hard-hit industries, even if sincerely meant and competently executed, may not have much tangible effect.
ECFA effects, aging population, industries leaving for China... it's going to take a lot of imagination and foresight to steer the nation through the next couple of decades.
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