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China’s new pitch to win over Taiwan: Our jobs are better

China’s new pitch to win over Taiwan: Our jobs are better
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen (Chiang Ying-ying / Associated Press)

Blacky Su said she was working as a senior bartender at an international hotel in Taiwan when a friend suggested she go to mainland China to help at a cocktail lounge in Shanghai.

The move three years ago meant she would ultimately get paid triple the monthly $1,303 she earned in Taipei, with time left for food-and-beverage consulting work on the side.

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"It was a way for me to go out and see more," she said. "You can decide here what you really want to do. I've met a lot of people who teach me a lot and improve my skills."

China, analysts say, is using its ever-growing $11.2-trillion-plus economy, the world's second largest, to attract Taiwanese who feel constrained looking for work at home. China has leveraged its economic might before to boost infrastructure, trade and investment offshore, sometimes rewarding Beijing-friendly governments, but has not aggressively invited people from outside the mainland to come work.

The timing is right for Beijing, which claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan and aims for unification, as it runs out of other means to persuade Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen's government to meet for talks, said Lin Chong-pin, a strategic studies professor retired from Tamkang University in Taiwan. Most Taiwanese prefer their autonomy, government surveys show.

To pressure the island into a dialogue about their political future, China has also flown military aircraft around the island and curbed Taiwanese participation in United Nations agencies — with little effect.

"What they're doing, and it's very clear, is they're trying to tell Taiwanese that you should vote with your feet," said Joanna Lei, chief executive officer of the Chunghua 21st Century think tank in Taiwan. "So, they're attracting young professionals to have their careers set in Chinese companies and for businesses to explore that market."

China, which has a population of about 1.37 billion, and Taiwan, with about 23 million people, have been separately ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s.

About 420,000 Taiwanese people, 58% of those employed off the island, worked in China as of 2015, the most recent year available from the Taiwan government's statistics office. They joined an estimated 1 million Taiwanese investors and their families, who have lived in China 30 years or more to manage factories.

More people from Taiwan have reached China for work since 2015, said Joan Yeh, dispatch general manager with the Taipei office of the American employment consultancy ManpowerGroup. They earn 1.2 to 1.3 times more money on average than in Taiwan, she said.

In Taiwan, many workers who have recently graduated from college complain that starting monthly pay of less than $1,000 restricts their lifestyle, including prospects for marriage and raising children. Employers often hold wages down for an advanced economy to keep prices competitive on exports from personal computers to plastics.

Low-paid workers rely on overtime to shore up their pay, making it hard to find a work-life balance, said Wu Chia-hung, secretary of the Taoyuan City Federation of Industrial Unions in Taiwan.

"China will definitely think of new ways to attract Taiwanese people," said Gratiana Jung, senior political researcher with the Yuanta-Polaris Research Institute think tank in Taipei. "The level of satisfaction isn't too high [in Taiwan], so the population is going overseas."

Yeh said Taiwanese find China an easy fit because large multinational employers may consider them more "internationalized" than mainland Chinese nationals. Professionals such as engineers and financiers also handily get work, while people in any field will find more "business opportunities" given China's market size compared with Taiwan's, she said.

The Chinese province of Fujian, the one geographically closest to Taiwan, has pledged to hire 1,000 Taiwanese by 2020 to teach in higher education, the Xiamen Daily newspaper reported in October. Six Chinese provinces also began last year allowing government-run institutions to hire Taiwanese citizens.

Taiwanese are allowed into China with a simple travel document rather than the permits that foreign passport holders need before working there, Yeh said.

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"They have a softer hand. They can let people know they're treated as if they're from the same country," said Andy Chang, China studies professor at Tamkang University.

China is "offering certain subsidies, advantages and lifestyle conveniences to attract Taiwanese citizens," especially to younger people, the government's Mainland Affairs Council said in a statement.

It also offers experiences unavailable in the smaller Taiwan job field.

Lee Chung-hung, 54, moved to the interior Chinese province of Hunan four years ago to teach children in grades 4 through 6 how to play baseball, extending work he had done in Taiwan. Baseball is a national sport in Taiwan but less familiar in China.

"I had always thought baseball was a very interesting sport, because it's collective and tests your own thinking ability," said Lee, who moved when a friend told him a Taiwanese investor was sponsoring the elementary school where he now teaches.

"I can see different kinds of people and settings here, and that's experience, that's learning for me," he said.

Still, Wu said many Taiwanese prefer to work on the island if job prospects are equal. "There are people who want to go abroad for a challenge, but most would rather stay in Taiwan as they're more familiar with the environment here," he said.

The government in Taipei cautions about risks while working in China due to differences in the political and legal systems.

"This kind of 'hit with one hand and pull with the other' dual approach cannot obtain Taiwanese people's approval," the Mainland Affairs Council said.

Su, the bartender, 28, has learned from the internationalized club scene in Shanghai how people with money show off with cocktails and cigars in hand for social media photos. She plans to return to Taiwan, where she worked 10 months in the hotel, after three more years in China.

Chen Yan-hong, a 25-year-old business management major from Taiwan, decided against a move to China because he found work locally in December at a printed circuit board firm. Friends and family are here, he said, but China's still on his mind as a place to "see more of the world." Pay would be higher, too, he expects.

"I found a job here, so I must stay in Taiwan," Chen said. "But I still don't want to rule it out."

Jennings is a special correspondent.

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