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Frustrated Taiwanese rage against rising prices

Consumers heckle govt leaders over economic hardship as elections loom


TAIPEI – THE stout man in a blue apron was busy handing out discounted fried dough stuffed with minced green scallions to Taiwanese office workers in a back alley lined with low-priced eateries.


‘Prices of everything from soybean oil to flour to scallions have skyrocketed,’ said Mr Tsai Hui-ming yesterday. ‘I have to offer discounts because many customers complain they haven’t had a pay raise for years and can hardly afford the bare necessities.’


Inflation – fanned by soaring prices for fuel and other commodities – has become a hot political issue in Taiwan as the island moves towards legislative elections in January next year and a presidential poll two months later.


The situation has become so bad that a number of disgruntled consumers have taken their complaints directly to President Chen Shui-bian.


Last week, an unemployed man interrupted Mr Chen while he was making a speech at the opening of a trade show in Taipei. The man, identifying himself only as Charlie, shouted: ‘People can hardly make a living!’


He sparked what the media has dubbed the ‘Charlie syndrome’, a reference to people who are typically reserved and respectful towards their government leaders but are now so disgruntled that they are lashing out at them.

 Later the same day, a meat vendor complained about her lagging business when Vice-President Annette Lu toured a market in the southern city of Kaohsiung to check on prices.

Several others yelled at leaders elsewhere over the weekend; in the southern city of Tainan, Mr Chen’s bodyguards had to shield him from a gaggle of protesters.


Taiwan‘s inflation rate rose to a 13-year high of 5.34 per cent last month, boosted by rising fuel prices and typhoon-induced destruction of large swathes of vegetable gardens and other agricultural lands.


Although prices on the island of 23 million people are still low compared with many parts of Asia, years of sluggish economic growth have made inflationary pressures bite, particularly among poorer Taiwanese families, said economist Liang Chi-yuan.


Citing government figures, he said that over the past seven years, disposable household income rose at an average annual rate of 0.4 per cent, while annual expenses grew by 1.2 per cent.


In Taipei, dough vendor Tsai has joined a number of bakeries and restaurants handing out discount coupons. Consumers have been seen lining up for hours for such coupons. The main opposition Kuomintang party has fastened on the economy in the run-up to elections, noting that the number of households falling under the poverty threshold has risen from 30,000 to 80,000 in the past few years.

 It has also used its website to feature a 14-year-old boy reduced to shucking oysters to pay for his English tutor.

Still, Taiwan‘s booming high-technology exports fuelled a respectable economic growth rate of 4.6 per cent last year, with a similar figure expected for this year. At a meeting with farmers last Saturday, a visibly annoyed Mr Chen said people complaining about

economic hardships should move to China. ‘You could swim over there, and don’t come back after you do,’ he said.


Economist Wu Hui-lin of Taipei‘s Chunghua Institute for Economic Research said Taiwan‘s economy remains generally sound.


‘The government should…leave inflation for the market to check,’ he said. That may not be far off. A central bank official told a news conference yesterday that inflation would likely ease this month, though it would probably remain above 2 per cent.

Source: ASSOCIATED PRESS, REUTERS (The Straits Times 16 Nov 07)


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