In her small basement office, business is depressingly brisk for C.C. Shih.
A gritty middle-aged woman with fire in her eyes, Shih has run a nonprofit center for divorced women in central Taipei for more than a decade. But the jump in Taiwanese seeking jobs in mainland China has landed her at ground zero of what is fast becoming a social epidemic.
Together with two branches in other cities, her center’s caseload has doubled to 10,000 in the last five years. The increase has been generated mainly by Taiwanese men taking second families on the mainland, then, all too often, abandoning the wives and children left behind. It’s gotten so bad that Shih earlier this year set up a separate group within the center to better deal with the issue.
She named it the First Wives’ Club.
“We’re the only business expanding in Taiwan,” she quipped.
Taiwan’s second-wife phenomenon is one of the problems linked to the migration of Taiwanese to mainland China, a movement that for some people has caused anguish, emptiness and social upheaval.
“We don’t know how to handle this issue,” said Wu Rong-I, president of Taiwan’s Institute for Economic Research. “The government has no effective instrument to control the flow.”
For the likes of Shih, that’s an understatement.
Two sparsely furnished rooms at her center handle twice-daily group therapy sessions for women trying to cope with abandonment. A larger classroom is used to educate women on their rights. Shih has also assembled a stable of 10 lawyers who volunteer their time to try to amend Taiwan’s family laws.
According to these laws, property in a marriage belongs to the husband, which allows many Taiwanese men to sell the family dwelling out from under the wife and children in order to support a new family on the mainland.
Traditionally, men also have had first claim on custody of children, and only in recent years has wife beating become a crime, Shih said.
“There’s a history of serious discrimination here,” she said.
With Taiwan’s economy in a trough, finding work is hard for single mothers. Even if they do find jobs, child-care costs can be prohibitive.
“Basically, they are trapped,” Shih said.
To protect against the danger that children from a second, mainland relationship will stake a claim to the father’s wealth, Shih says, she urges Taiwanese women to press their mainland-bound men to undergo vasectomies.
If the numbers at Taipei’s prestigious Yin Shu-tien Hospital are any indicator, they are listening. The number of vasectomies performed there jumped 25% during the last year and is more than 10 times higher than seven years ago.
The migration has also brought other social strains, including the arrival of an entirely new minority in Taiwanese society: the mainland bride. Social scientists estimate that there are now about 100,000 mainland women who have legally married Taiwanese men. Those who have come to Taiwan find the adjustment difficult.
National Taiwan University sociologist Yen-Fen Tseng says that Taiwan’s inherent suspicion of those coming from the Communist-controlled mainland makes the adjustment especially hard.
The Taiwanese government grants permanent residence to only 3,600 mainland nationals per year, a number that makes the waiting list for entry six to seven years long.
Despite the hardship, government officials defend the quota.
“There’s a genuine security concern,” said Chong-Pin Lin, vice chairman of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council.
Tseng argues that the migration trend works against professional women in stable marriages. Family obligations make them less likely to take, or even be offered, the chance for mainland experience that is now viewed as a definite plus on a Taiwanese corporate resume.
Social scientists also worry that the composition of the migration could further broaden the existing divide between Taiwan’s two distinct communities: the majority whose island roots go back generations and the powerful minority of mainland Chinese who fled to here half a century ago and have dominated the island for decades.
Although many senior-level Taiwanese government policymakers remain deeply worried about the growing economic and social links with the mainland, there are signs that they have begun to bow to forces beyond their control.
The quota of mainland nationals allowed into Taiwan, although still small, is double the figure of two years ago. The government is also expected to announce measures soon that would enable capital to flow more easily in both directions across the Taiwan Strait. In an interview, Lin said policymakers in Taipei are now searching for ways to allow mainland scientists and technicians into Taiwan to work.
Lin suggests that the flow of Taiwanese money and talent to the mainland might eventually work to the island’s advantage.
Greater economic interdependence could, over time, erode Beijing’s aggressive stance toward Taiwan, he said. And those Taiwanese now living on the mainland could be a vanguard for liberalization there.
“In the long run, they could be the seeds of democracy,” he said. “Seeds of free thinking, sown on the mainland.”