Singled out

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 February, 2012, 12:00am

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Wearing a smart business suit, Lin Hsiu-li sips a cappuccino in a Taipei coffee shop. 'I have a good job in the government, I have an apartment and enjoy my life,' she says. 'Raising a child costs at least NT$5 million [HK$1.27 million].

'The men in Taiwan cannot keep up with the women. Why should I marry?'

Lin is one of the more than 7.5 million single people in Taiwan, with singletons accounting for 42 per cent of the over-20 population in 2009. The civil servant's attitude helps explain why the island has the lowest birth rate in the world: 0.9 births per woman, compared with 1.6 in Europe, 1.4 in Japan and the record of 7.7 in the African nation of Niger.

The Council for Economic Planning and Development (CEPD) forecasts that the Taiwanese population will peak at 23.84 million in 2026 and will fall to 20.29 million by 2056.

'The low birth rate is a serious national security threat,' President Ma Ying-jeou said at Taiwan's first children's forum in November.

This decline is all the more astonishing when you consider that, during the 20th century, the island's population rose more than sevenfold, from 3.1 million in 1905 to 22.3 million at the end of 2000. Traditional thinking considers a large family a blessing, with children the insurance for their parents' old age. 'Raise children and they will raise you,' is a popular saying.

During the 1960s, the average number of children per woman in Taiwan was five. From the 70s, it began to fall, reaching the rate of 2.1 per woman in 1984, and has continued to decline since.

Professor Jack Yue, chairman of the Population Association of Taiwan, says the single most important factor for the low birth rate is the education of women.

'They are the best educated women in the world and do better than men in exams, for university and the government,' says Yue. Ninety per cent of women who take the college entrance exam pass, against 20 per cent 20 or 30 years ago. 'There is much less prejudice here against women, compared with India and China,' he adds.

This revolution in the status of women was symbolised during the presidential election campaign last month. The opposition candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, was a single woman, a law professor with three degrees. The other 'first lady' was the wife of Ma, a mother of two with two law degrees and a well-paid job in an international bank. She enjoys substantially higher popularity ratings than her husband, who is the first to admit that he ceases being president when he unlocks the door at home and has to listen to his most trenchant critic.

Yue says that, because women are spending longer in education, they are marrying later, often aged over 30, and so have less time to bear children. Other factors in the low birth rate are a lack of childcare outside the home and the traditional attitude of many men.

'They do not want to do housework. They go home, wait to be fed and watch television. Women see no benefit to marrying if they have to carry all the domestic burden,' Yue says. 'The work must be shared. Women are increasingly selective in choosing a partner. Taiwan men feel inferior because women have higher educational qualifications.'

In 1981, Yue says, there were 414,000 births, more than double the 167,000 in 2010. In 1981, there were 167,500 marriages, compared with 139,000 in 2010. In the same period, the number of divorces nearly quadrupled, from 15,000 to 58,000.

In some countries, having a baby outside wedlock is socially acceptable - in Sweden, the rate is 50 per cent - but not in Taiwan. In 2010, illegitimate children accounted for only 4.5 per cent of total births, compared with 2.3 per cent in 1992. One consequence of the stigma is a high rate of abortion. Terminations are legal in Taiwan, under certain conditions, but Yue says there are no official figures because the government is ashamed of the practice.

'One estimate 10 years ago was that there were as many abortions as births,' he says. 'The number of legal abortions is about 100,000 a year but we do not know how many there are in total.

'Abortion is easy and available, using Western or Chinese medicine. There is a rush of abortions in September, after the summer months, when many students fool around.'

Last July, Lue Hung-chi, a paediatrician at the National Taiwan University College of Medicine, said 300,000 to 500,000 terminations were carried out each year. If this estimate is true, it would be one of the highest per-capita abortion rates in the world.

ASK THE YOUNG women of Taiwan why they have chosen a life so different to those of their mothers and grandmothers and you'll hear a variety of reasons.

'When you have a baby, you have one month of paid maternity leave and have to go back to work,' says Chiu Chien-le, 30, who has two children under the age of six. 'In theory, your employer is supposed to keep your job. This happens in the state sector but not in many private companies. Who will help you care for the children? We do not have the provisions some countries in Europe do, like Sweden. So, in reality, many women have to resign.'

Her friend, Mary Chu, 26, who is single, says: 'In the past, there was great pressure from family and society to marry, but not now. The norm has changed. Do you know what your husband will be like after marriage? Will he share the housework and look after the children? I am in no hurry.'

Liang Hsiao-bao, 24, who works in a bank, says: 'New graduates earn about NT$20,000 a month and cannot buy an apartment, let alone rear a child. Over the past seven years, wages have not risen and the standard of living of many people has fallen. They feel they cannot give security to a child.'

In Taipei, housing prices have more than doubled in the past 10 years but wages have not kept pace and many jobs have moved to the mainland and other low-cost locations. People work in the knowledge that their job may go the same way and have no sense of security.

Huang Mei-chen, 40, who sells perfume in a shopping mall, says many of her female friends are unmarried because they cannot find a suitable partner.

'They are not under pressure to marry as they used to be,' Huang says. 'Many marriages end in divorce, so marriage may not be the most fortunate [move]. Women find they can have a good life on their own.

'Raising children is busy and demanding. Our society is very competitive. You must pay for extra classes, for English, music, art and other things. People want more time for themselves. Before, a roof and a full stomach were enough. Now our material demands have increased - there are so many nice things to buy and eat.'

Lin says Taiwan's uncertain political status also plays on people's minds: 'We may have a conflict with China; that is why many families have emigrated to the United States. And we do not know what our identity is. A Frenchman knows he is French and a Briton that he is British. But what are we? Are we Taiwanese or Chinese?

'Then the future of the planet is uncertain. Our environment is deteriorating and we are running out of materials. What kind of future will our children have?'

Wang Kuo-ming, an economics professor, says that, with a divorce rate approaching 50 per cent, parents tell their daughters it is better to have no husband than a bad one.

'Social norms have changed,' he says. 'In the past, we expected our children to look after us, but not now. You do not know if they will care for you. It is better to insure yourself than have a child.'

This liberation of women has had an effect on the number of Buddhist nuns; Taiwan has the most, as a proportion of the population, in the world. Many are highly educated, working in education, medicine, publishing, social welfare and charities and enjoy a high social status.

As the number of children has fallen, so the pet population has exploded. According to the Council of Agriculture, Taiwan has at least two million pet dogs and 200,000 pet cats, with annual spending of NT$2.3 billion on pet food, veterinary and grooming services and various accessories.

ANOTHER SIDE EFFECT of female emancipation is that many men are being forced to look abroad for a bride. The most popular source has been the mainland, followed by Hong Kong and Macau, Vietnam and other countries in Southeast Asia. Brokers arrange group tours, during which men choose their brides after a brief acquaintance.

Official statistics show there were 10,454 international marriages in 1998, rising to a peak of 20,338 in 2004 and falling to 8,169 in 2010. More than 80 per cent are Taiwanese men marrying foreign women. (In 2008, Vietnam banned its women from marrying Taiwanese men because of irregularities in the business and maltreatment of its nationals. In the same year, Taiwan banned for-profit brokers, after some were caught trafficking women to brothels, and the approval process became longer and more complicated.)

Official figures for 2010 show as many as two-thirds of these marriages fail, mainly because of the prejudice the couples face. Many people consider the husband inadequate, for not having been able to find a spouse at home, and his partner 'a mail-order bride' who was bought rather than courted.

From the point of view of the birth rate, however, overseas wives have made a contribution, because they have more children than Taiwanese women.

During the administration of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) president Chen Shui-bian, from 2000 to 2008, Taiwan's 200,000 mainland wives faced even more discrimination than other non-domestic wives. They had to wait longer to obtain work permits and Taiwanese passports because the Sino-phobic DPP wanted to encourage people to marry non-mainlanders.

'Once we took office in 2008, we corrected this issue very quickly, since it is a humanitarian issue,' says Chao Chien-min, deputy minister of the Mainland Affairs Council. 'They can stay and become [Taiwan] citizens in six years, like other spouses. They can get a work permit almost at once and have the same rights as other spouses.'

State agencies and civic associations help foreign wives with legal rights, accessing public services and learning Putonghua.

IF THE BIRTH RATE continues to fall, the financial consequences for the government and society could be disastrous. Forecasts by the CEPD show that, by 2025, 20 per cent of the population will be more than 65 years old and only 69 per cent will be of working age (between 15 and 64 years old). By 2060, the proportion of over-65s will reach 42 per cent and that of working people 49 per cent. The number of those aged less than 14 will fall to 9 per cent from 11 per cent in 2025.

Thanks in part to universal medical insurance, the people of Taiwan have one of the longest lifespans in the world - 76 for men and 82 for women.

'One old person requires five times more medical treatment than a young person,' Yue says. 'Our rate of dialysis treatment is the highest in the world. It is very expensive. Our national health system is good but loses money. In the future, this debt will become unbearable.

'This is an issue of national security,' he says.

Lin Chuan, a professor of economics at National Taiwan University, says the government currently spends NT$600 billion a year, one-third of its budget, on pensions and care for the elderly. 'Over the next 15 years, the number of old people compared to the number of working people will double. Government finances cannot support this.'

The change in the population structure is already being felt. Taiwan's hi-tech science parks, vital for the competitiveness of the economy, cannot find enough qualified staff. In the island's nearly 200 colleges and universities, faculties have closed and merged and laid off staff.

An ageing society is also problematic for the military. In the 50s and 60s, Chiang Kai-shek encouraged large families because he needed soldiers 'to recapture the mainland'. To help maintain numbers, Taiwan still has conscripted military service, which is a 24-month obligation for men.

Such is the seriousness of the situation that the birth rate has risen rapidly up the government's policy agenda. Last November, it convened the first children's forum, with the aim of discussing measures to reverse the decline. Ma told the forum that the government had implemented policies such as maternity leave subsidies and financial support for pre-school education for five-year-olds.

Last year, the government budgeted NT$2.44 billion for subsidies aimed at young married couples, including tax reductions, cash gifts and financial help with childcare and fertility treatment. On December 4, Ma announced NT$500 million would be earmarked to provide 24-hour mother-and-child emergency services in at least one hospital in each district of Taiwan. Also in December, Vice-President Vincent Siew Wan-chang urged the younger generation to marry and have children earlier on in their lives.

The good news is that the number of children did rise last year, to 190,000 from 160,000. It will most likely rise again this year, because many women have chosen to give birth in the auspicious Year of the Dragon. But Yue is not optimistic that the government incentives will work in the long run.

'The causes are more deep-rooted. Money is only one of the concerns. Family values and childcare are the two other major causes.'

'The answers run deeper than the government paying subsidies,' says Lin Hsiu-li. 'Subsidies are short-term. Will it pay for your child to go to university?'