"China-bound for jobs? The Influences of Social Connections and Ethnic Politics in Taiwan"

Ming-Chang Tsai and Chin-Fen Chang’s main argument in this article is that social connections and ethnicity related to politics are factors to consider in migration patterns among Taiwanese to work in China. As the authors point out, ethnic backgrounds are important in determining political party affiliations, with “native” Taiwanese (mainly composed of the Hokkien ethnic group who are descendants of migrants from Fujien centuries ago and Hakka who are descendants of later waves of migrants from Guangdong province) identifying as DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) supporters and mainlanders (refugees of the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949) identifying as KMT (Kuomintang Party supporters).

The authors used data from the 2005 Taiwan Social Change Survey (TSCS) given to 2,171 participants living in 36 cities and towns across Taiwan, extracted data from a final sample size of 1,282 employed men and women, and used SPSS to do a multivariate analysis. Independent variables included “will work in China within the next five years”, “will work in China if opportunity arises”, “assessment of work experience in China”, “respondents previously worked in China”, “co-worker(s) worked in China”, “immediate family member(s) worked in China”, “distant relative(s) worked in China”, “mainlander background”, “party preference(s)”. Another variable that should have been in the survey, in my opinion, is a salary indicator. Perhaps some Taiwanese would be enticed to go if the salary was high enough. However, the authors’ main points was that economic motivators should not be overestimated. Coefficients of employment and human capital became smaller after adding social network variables (655). They found that ethnicity played an important role. Also, having coworkers or neighbors who worked in China, a variable which the authors counted as “weaker ties” played a more important role than having immediate family members who worked in China. Mainlanders were more willing to work in China perhaps due to stronger Chinese identity and attachment and greater social networks. Along those lines, “a significant percentage of Hokkien residents of Taiwan continue to view China as a potential enemy, which may discourage a decision to relocate under any circumstances.” Thus, as the authors argue, human capital and economic factors certainly influence Taiwanese people’s decisions to relocate to China to work, but ethnicity and political identity are also salient factors.

I wonder with a quantitative study like this one, whether it is possible to examine the complexities and levels of attachment in people’s political and ethnic identities. For example, even among Mainlanders, how attached are they to China and do they plan on living there or simply working there temporarily? How might their decisions be impacted by the levels of salary and other perks? Also, the study does not separate respondents by the types of industry and labor. Perhaps doing so would shed light on other important factors that might weigh in on their decisions. Also, what I’m very curious about and the article does not explore are the types of “accumulated social networks” that affect the respondents’ job prospects in China. To what extent do these social networks influence their decisions and how might this variable weigh against the political and ethnic identity variables? In other words, would a Hokkien who has these accumulated social networks be as likely to be work in China as a mainlander without those social networks? And if so, what factors contribute to stronger versus weaker social networks?

It’s the chicken and egg question — do ethnic identity and political affiliation automatically predetermine to some extent the nature and strength of social networks among Taiwanese working in China or is it the other way around? Perhaps ethnic identity and political affiliation are strongly influenced by the social networks acquired in China. Of course, Taiwanese politics, though a bit more subdued now than when Chen Shui-Bian was in office, seems to strongly determine who migrates outward to China in the first place. And even among those who are China-bound, how long do they stay? Is their attachment to China simply rhetoric or do they maintain strong connections with the Chinese they work with and with family and colleagues there? This is a question that has come up over and over again during conversations I had with my Chinese friends in Zambia. Finally, I think it would be fascinating to look at migration studies bi-directionally. How can this be compared to Chinese working and living in Taiwan? Since there is constant movement both ways, how does this affect the ethnic identity and political affiliations on both ends? It is difficult at this point to call this “constant movement” migration or globalization or transnationalism or any of these broad catch-all terms. People are in constant flux, some own multiple homes in different locations, and if their work is only a few hours away by plane ride, perhaps perceptions of identity, home, politics, and belonging are in flux and straddling multiple spheres.

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