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Taiwan's Economic Ties with China Complicate Political Relationship - 2004-03-18

China's leaders say they hope rapidly growing economic integration with Taiwan will eventually bring about the island's unification with the mainland.

In the past 15 years, Taiwanese investment in mainland China has skyrocketed to an estimated $100 billion. Taiwan's Commerce Ministry says about one-third of the island's exports go to mainland China.

This rapidly growing economic relationship seems ironic when compared with the political relationship, which has brought Beijing and Taipei to the brink of war on several occasions in the past half century. China claims the island, self-governed since 1949, is a part of its territory and has repeatedly threatened to use force if Taiwan's leaders move toward formal independence.

To many members of Taiwan's business community, the matter of pushing for independence or raising the issue of national identity is best left unmentioned, for now. Many blame the policies of President Chen Shui-bian and his pro-independence Democratic People's Party for failing to lift a 50-year-old ban on direct air links with the mainland.

James Tan, is a vice president of a midsize shipping company at the port of Keelong, outside Taipei. While he does not advocate unification, Mr. Tan says there should be more ties to the mainland. He says having no direct air links is bad for business.

"Having direct air links would reduce our operating costs. They would shorten the time needed to ship, and we could ship more frequently. For us, time is everything," says Mr. Tan. "We could cut shipping times in half so direct links would be a big help. Right now, we have to travel to Hong Kong or Macau first and wait there for three hours before connecting to the mainland. I waste my whole day."

Unemployment has risen under Chen Shui-bian, as Taiwan's relatively high labor costs have pushed manufacturing jobs across the Strait to mainland China.

Tien Fu Hsu, 55, lost his job of 20 years as a forklift operator when container traffic at the port plummeted two years ago. He says he is not sure what Chen Shui-bian did wrong, but Mr. Hsu knows he will not vote for him on Saturday. "Chen does not care about us workers. I think all presidents never really care about their people. He says this and that but I think nothing has changed. If things were in fact better, I would not have been laid off right now," he says. "Even if I lost my job, I could have found one by now."

Many Taiwanese companies have a policy of not hiring anyone above the age of 45, and so Mr. Hsu's chances of finding a similar, well-paying job are slim.

Labor activist Wang Chou Yue, who heads an amalgamation of eight transport unions, accuses the government of doing little to ease the plight of the unemployed. Talking about independence and the Chinese threat, she says, means nothing to those who cannot feed their families. "We care about the economic conditions, if these elections could bring any solutions to the unemployment problem. We have not seen anything from this government," she says. "No adequate measures to solve the problem."

Mr. Chen's supporters hope his campaign will benefit from the latest economic figures, which show the island's economy grew by more than five percent in the last quarter of 2003, while unemployment dropped to its lowest level in three years.