Taiwan is model student in Four Little Dragons school, but at back of class

By Jerry Lai

It is Christmas Eve 2011. The National Concert Hall in Taipei is packed with children ages 4-12 in the company of their parents. Cellist Chang Chen-chieh is giving a Christmas concert, telling stories with his cello. On the program are Schubert’s Ave Maria, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, and Christmas compositions by Bach and Beethoven. Surprisingly, not a single kid leaves his or her seat during the concert, and there are no disturbing noises. There is some excitement, some restlessness, but the children sit through the heart-warming concert that introduces them to profound pieces of classical music in a light manner. For youngsters raised in typical Taiwanese middle-class families, music is a part of everyday life. For these kids, whose parents were born in the 1960s and 1970s when Taiwan experienced its much vaunted “economic miracle,” musical performances and playing an instrument are not a far-fetched dream. Outside the National Concert Hall, a very different kind of performance is unfolding on the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall Plaza. The Greenray Theater Company is performing its long-running play “Human Condition” in a setting that resembles Taiwan’s raucous temple fairs, with round dinner tables and red plastic stools set up around the stage. Under the resounding sound of gongs and drums and the crackling of firecrackers, more than 1,000 people watch the play. Inside the National Concert Hall, classical music tells stories that attract young children. Right at its doorsteps creative forms of outdoor theater equally find an enthusiastic, appreciative audience. That’s Taiwan. Among the Four Little Dragons of East Asia, Taiwan is the most diverse, liberal, democratic and creative place. Pluralism and Liberal Democracy Come at a Price Taiwan was ranked 6th worldwide in the World Competitiveness Yearbook 2011 by the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne, Switzerland. It came in 13th in the Global Competitiveness Report 2011-2012 by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum. Taiwan counts among the world leaders with regard to number of patents granted, industry clusters, financing through the local equity market, enrollment in higher education, and quality of science education. However, it seems that Taiwan has paid a price for being pluralistic, free and democratic. Since the 1990s when Taiwan underwent its democratic transformation, the island’s economic miracle began to lose steam. Taiwan used to sit at the front of the class in the global economy, but in the race among newly industrialized countries to achieve economic transformation, it lags behind in the rear of the pack. While the economy spins its wheels, deep rifts within society have also become apparent.

“Taiwan ranks first in the world in terms of rise in per capita purchasing power between 1950 and today,” notes Chou Ji, economics professor at Shih Hsin University, pointing to statistics documenting Taiwan’s “economic miracle.” Nobel Prize-winning Russian-American economist Simon Kuznets has praised Taiwan for its dramatic achievement in sustaining robust economic growth while narrowing the wealth gap prior to 1990. But if we look at Taiwan’s performance today, a number of figures show that it ranks last in the class among the four “Asian Newly Industrialized Economies” (NIE-4), which also include Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore.