Taiwan-mainland relations began to thaw in the first decade of the millennium and accelerated still further following the election of the Nationalist Party’s Ma Ying-jeou as president of the island. Economic ties across the straits have now deepened considerably between two polities whose primary medium of exchange was, until relatively recently, explosive artillery. Today the two sides are more integrated than ever.
This year also saw the stirrings of unease at these closer ties, though, as well as a resounding defeat for the pro-business, pro-mainland Nationalist Party in the island’s latest round of mayoral elections. Still, for one young man from Taiwan working to get his start-up off the ground in Shanghai, the mainland is first and foremost a place for doing business. He spoke with us about his schooling in Taiwan, compulsory military service, start-ups past and present, life on the mainland and the latest election.
I attended TamKang High School, the school where they filmed “The Girl We Both Chased After”. I think Taiwan’s high schools and mainland high schools are hugely different. Taiwan’s high schools really support students joining activity clubs, which doesn’t just teach them creativity; it also gives them the ability to lead. I think that’s something you don’t come into contact with much in China.
In college there were all kinds of different campus activities, like in high school. But where they differed was that high school was run by the school, and once we’d made it to college we could be more independent. We didn’t really put a lot of stock in our class rank or what our grades were, which I think you see in a lot of Taiwan’s universities. With the people I know, what matters isn’t necessarily that you test into a good university but that you have creative ability and individual skills that allow you to really develop.
Right now I’m in the middle of headhunting for my start-up, and in the course of doing that I’ve come into contact with a lot of people and have found that very few Chinese people have a lot of creativity, or I should say, I’ve seen a lot of so-called “creativity”. It’s all stuff they saw overseas and brought back to serve as “innovation”. I think it’s got a lot to do with the national conditions of China; there’s not really any way to let these students say what they truly want to say.
After college, in the armed forces, I was a sergeant for the coast guard, a sentry. I did port safety checks, inspections, routine security checks, kept watch for smugglers… and other stuff, like we had to rescue any fishermen sinking off the coast, too. One thing that has really stuck with me, though, happened three days after I’d been placed with my division after completing basic training, when I wasn’t familiar with the work environment at the port or how things worked. That’s when I got told to go fish for a corpse.
My commanding officer told me a man had been swept out while splashing around on the beach in the middle of a typhoon, so we had to go look for his body. We looked around in the rocky crevices along the beach, since the body might’ve got gotten stuck inside; later someone spotted it floating around in the ocean, so we took a speedboat out and dragged the body back. Back onshore, I got put in charge of watching the corpse. I saw for myself that the body still had a head left on it, but fish had eaten half the neck away and you could see right inside his chest cavity.
A lot of older men had told me before I served that [service] was “part of becoming a man.” Of course, a lot of people will reject that [kind of thinking] outright at the start, and it was the same for me, because my life was getting twisted around 180 degrees. [Military life] was totally different; nothing was the same. But what I learned were rules, discipline and, most importantly, how to work as part of a team. What I hated most, though, were the shifts. Our sleeping hours were different day to day, never set: We’d have to get up before dawn at 2 am, then sleep from six in the morning to noon. Then sometimes we had to sleep from twelve at night till six in the morning.
After the armed forces I’d planned to go to Europe for work, but my family wanted me to go study abroad, to get out and see a bit more of the world. They wanted me to go to the States, but I was thinking of a stint in Europe. I didn’t want to go study English, though, so I went to Germany to study language there. But I didn’t just go to Germany purely to study, I wanted to experience more of life in other countries, meet more people, and generate a little income while I was at it.
As soon as I’d arrived I was on the lookout for a chance to do business. It just happened that my roommate, who was Swiss, well, we got to talking this one time and he mentioned that Switzerland had some red wine vineyards—and did I want to go see them for myself? So I said “sure,” and off I went to Switzerland to visit a few châteaux.
When I’d finished the trip I decided [the vineyards] weren’t half bad, so I found a friend of mine from when we were both soldiers and who happened to be in Shanghai, and we talked about opening a business. Right now that’s more of a side business because, frankly, we’re a small company. We don’t have the kind of capital you’d need to really compete with anyone. See I came to Shanghai for my girlfriend, for the most part. The other reason was well, I figured Shanghai has a lot of Taiwanese people and Taiwanese companies’ branch offices. I think it’s… yeah, I think Shanghai’s a city with more opportunities, greater competition.
My current company is run by a group of guys I partnered with in the wine business. They thought I was capable enough, so they let me join their start-up. The company builds on top of the foundation of a traditional head-hunting company by using big data to implement employment matchups. We focus on high-end talent, and what sets us apart from traditional head-hunting outfits is we serve the talent; we help them find a suitable company.
Naturally I run into trouble at work on account of where I’m from—my job requires me to call up clients all the time, and they think the words I use and my tones, everything I say, it’s all pretty different. Also, I have to take care on the phone because you can’t call a woman “sis” (xiǎojiě, mainland slang for a prostitute). Here, you’ve got to use “miss” (nǚshì).
But what’s really different about working in China is that, for people here, there aren’t really any rules. For example when you take the subway, it’s different from what you see in Taipei or other places. Here everybody will rush to squeeze into the train the second the door opens without letting the people inside get off first.
And people here, they can be pretty slapdash about their work. Like the guy renovating the place whre I live now, he’ll just daub some paint here and smear some over there, he doesn’t care at all about what he’s doing. Just look on Taobao—even though you can find stuff easily, the quality’s substandard. With Germans, well, they’re incredibly slow to complete a task, but they’re able to ensure the quality. With Chinese people, I don’t know if it’s because the competition is just too much or what, but they only ever want to finish a job a little bit quicker so they can get paid.
I think the most disappointing thin
g for me in China is just that there’s so much you can’t say. No sooner do you post something [online] that this country doesn’t want to see than you’re banned from posting. Actually some of these things, these articles that come out, not all of them are saying how bad the country is. These are just problems that need to be brought to light in order to make the country better. It’s only that “criticism cuts deep as one’s love.”
Now the elections in Taiwan, there I’ve got some insight for you. I don’t think I really fall into either the Blue [pro-status quo, pro-mainland] or Green [critical, often pro-independence] camp. I want everyone to be able to support their own political goals. But me? I didn’t want to see [Nationalist Party scion] Lian Sheng-wen as mayor of Taipei, because I kind of hate elites. The most important thing is that most people from Taiwan are hoping we can maintain our current, stable development, but the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT) really are a bit too friendly with China.
Honestly, to tell the truth, the KMT being friendly with China isn’t all that beneficial for ordinary people in Taiwan because, you see, a lot of the people making money from that are the ones who’ve already got power. Like say you’re opening a restaurant, and you know some people in the [mainland] government. That means you can pull in some business from mainland tourist groups visiting Taiwan.
I think Taipei’s mayoral election is what you call real democracy. Democracy isn’t necessarily picking a party, because in Taiwan, with the greens’ and blues’ annual shouting matches making such a din, nobody has the will to bicker any more. So now unaffiliated people can run for office, and really, to tell the truth it’s fine whoever wins, just so long as they don’t argue late into the night and they really want to work for the people’s sake, not just for their own benefit. ♦
Authors: Milo Zhang, Hudson Lockett
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