Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Pingtung: Betting the sun will shine (Taiwan Review)

In the final phase of a business career that led to long periods in the United States and mainland China, Adam Lu and his wife decided they would move back to his hometown in the southern county of Pingtung when he retired. Lu had lived in the rural Pingtung township of Wandan until he was 15 years old, when he moved away to continue his education. His wife grew up in Yanpu, another of the county’s small towns. “I’ve always known Pingtung isn’t a very good place to pursue a career, but I did think it would be a great place to retire to—good weather, a stress-free environment,” Lu says.

Almost three years after hanging up his suits, however, the couple is enjoying life not in the town of his birth, but in a condominium in Kaohsiung City’s Sanmin District. “Access to hospitals and shops is important,” says Lu, whose wife is diabetic. “Also, we were attracted by Kaohsiung’s public transportation. We’re near a KMRT station. Plus, our daughter lives in Kaohsiung.”

Many other Pingtung natives have decided their future lies outside the county’s 2,776 square kilometers. Between 1997 and the end of 2010, the population shrank almost 5 percent to 873,509. During the same period, Taiwan’s population grew more than 6 percent.

Pingtung has substantial aboriginal and Hakka minorities, but in other respects data compiled by the Ministry of the Interior’s Department of Household Registration suggests Pingtung folk are not very different from their compatriots in other parts of Taiwan. The county is not a black spot for social problems like divorce, nor for health issues like infant mortality. The population is somewhat older than the national average, though, with 12.49 percent of county residents being aged 65 or over compared with 10.63 percent nationwide.

Economic issues were not a factor in the Lus’ decision to live in Kaohsiung, but are undoubtedly a major issue for many of those who leave Pingtung. The government’s 2009 Survey of Family Income and Expenditure found that while the average number of employed persons per household in the county precisely matches the national average, household incomes are almost a fifth lower.

According to Pingtung County Magistrate Tsao Chi-hung, the county’s people have “a sense of relative deprivation,” which results from decades of the central government and private investors favoring the north over the south, and urban areas over the countryside.

Some investors have steered clear of Pingtung because of transportation difficulties. Until 2004, the county did not have any freeways or expressways. It remains the only part of western Taiwan to lack a high-speed railway station and have no prospect of getting one. While visitors to Pingtung often adore the slow pace of life, residents bemoan the impact this has on the county’s development. This sentiment is reflected in a local idiom, zhan wei bao shuai, which means, “At the end of the line, all is languid.” 

Tsao, a member of the Democratic Progressive Party who was elected to a second term in 2009, thinks two ongoing infrastructure projects will give the county a major boost. One is the building of a world-class auditorium in Pingtung City, the budget for which is NT$11 billion (US$380 million). The auditorium is scheduled to open in mid-2013. The other is the conversion of Taiwan Railway Administration’s Pingtung-to-Chaozhou railroad into a rapid-transit line at a cost of NT$25 billion (US$862 million). “Twenty-four level crossings will be eliminated, meaning road travel will become safer and smoother,” says Tsao, who stresses that the project, due to be completed in 2013, goes beyond cutting travel times, elevating the tracks and remaking the stations. “It’s a good opportunity to adjust surrounding roads, add bicycle paths and reconstruct urban areas,” the county magistrate says. 

“There can be no doubt that tourism and high-value agriculture are crucial development directions for Pingtung,” Tsao says. “We should also make good use of our abundant sunshine, which is an advantage when developing green energy and encouraging the public to use solar power...”

The entire article appears in the August issue of Taiwan Review, the Government Information Office's monthly magazine. The interview with the chief magistrate of Pingtung was done by email; the interviews of businesspeople were all done face to face.

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