Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Foreign Brides and Their Influence on Taiwan Society

Foreign brides for Taiwanese men are becoming more common in Taiwan for many reasons. For some, this is a worrisome development; “Another story about those Southeast Asian and Chinese brides!" some exclaim when they see a report about these women on the television news. Others who see these stories express indifference or figure that the government should just keep its nose out of people’s business. (Liu, para 1) Regardless, more and more Southeast Asian and Mainland Chinese women come to Taiwan to marry local men. There are a number of trends which have resulted in this phenomenon.

One is an undeniable demographic trend in Taiwan. Taiwan has more women than men of marriageable age. The reasons for this trend seem pretty clear cut. Women in Taiwan are waiting longer to have children and their husbands are older. Although older men generally donate sperm that results in more female children certain trends have eroded this biological advantage toward female children. The introduction of high-definition low-cost ultrasound technology, the preference for one-child families and male children, and the easy availability of abortion in Taiwan have combined to ensure that men outnumber women here. This trend has been more marked in recent years, and seems likely to accelerate in the future.

Taiwan women wait longer to marry primarily because marriage is such an unattractive option for many Taiwanese women. Irrationally, “the value of Chinese women lies in obedience to fathers, husbands, and their sons.” (Huang) With “obedience” as the prospect awaiting them, many Taiwanese women instead opt for independence and freedom outside of marriage. Taiwanese women are generally better educated that their potential mates and are unwilling to “marry down.” This puts further pressure on Taiwan men, especially those at the lower socioeconomic levels, who find it increasingly difficult to find brides.

Still another trend noted in Taiwan is the abundance of elderly, single men who originally arrived from the Mainland with Gen Chiang Kai Shek (蒋介石)。These men were forbidden to marry while they remained in the barracks, and they were unable to leave the army while the state of war still existed between the Republic of China and the People’s Republic. Consequently, many of these men reached middle and old age still unmarried, and eager for companionship in their declining years. As previously noted, there is a dearth of females in Taiwan, and those who are available are relatively uninterested in marriage. As a consequence of these trends, many of these men have sought brides from Southeast Asia and from Mainland China. These men use marriage brokers. These businesses specialize in finding foreign wives for Taiwanese men. Marriage brokers now charge customer fees ranging from US$6,000 to US$9,000 for Chinese and Southeast Asian brides.

This phenomenon, which was only noticed around 2001, has become so common and so lucrative, that organized criminals on both sides of the Strait have moved to satisfy this demand. Women on the Mainland, mostly from poor and rural areas, have been recruited, coerced by fraudulent promises and in some cases, kidnapped and smuggled to Taiwan. While in Taiwan, these women who are not immediately pressed into arranged marriages are forced to prostitution while their procurers attempt to arrange marriages for them.

The increased prevalence of foreign brides in Taiwan has led to concern among many people here. A recent poll shows that a majority of local Taiwanese is “worried” about the presence of foreign brides and a significant proportion is in favor of “discrimination” against those brides. (Wang)

“Others are concerned that Chinese brides come here as a cover for criminal activity and rabble-rousing. In terms of social security, bogus marriages are often used to smuggle in Chinese, enabling them to engage in various illegal activities in Taiwan. Marriage has become simply a way to smuggle people into the country. In fact, some Chinese brides, under manipulation by some political groups, are used as a means to discredit the government, and to engage in political protests under the pretense of human rights and humanitarianism. This has not only impacted on the stability of the families and created confused values about the marriage institution, but has led to various family disputes and social problems. This is not to mention the social chaos that may result from ethnic rivalries.” (Liberty Times)

What concrete policies are advocated to further this desired discrimination is unclear, but it seems that many Taiwanese would be in favor of forced repatriation or restraints on marriage to foreigners. While these negative attitudes seem to be a visceral reaction against foreigners, there are more worrisome trends to consider.
At present, foreign brides do not appear to have proportionately more children than Taiwanese women although this interpretation of the data is open to dispute. Liu argues that “According to data published by the Ministry of the Interior this June, some 100,000 Southeast Asian and 168,000 Chinese immigrant spouses currently reside in Taiwan, 90 percent of whom are female. Together, they constitute about 1 percent of the island's population of 23 million. Although that figure may seem insignificant, a major worry of policy-makers is the fact that, presently, about 8 percent of Taiwan's newborn are mothered by Southeast Asian wives and 4 percent by Chinese wives.” However, according to 2000 population figures from the US government, the female population of Taiwan for 15-64 year olds was 7,629,195. (CIA Factbook)

Assuming an even distribution across this range of ages and assuming that the birthrate of women under 17 and over 40 is statistically insignificant, the number of women in the prime of their fertility is around three million. Of these, approximately 300,000 are foreign brides, or 10% of women in the prime of their fertility. If we further assume that the figures from the Ministry of the Interior are correct, then foreign-born women, who represent 10% of the fertile women in Taiwan are having 12% of the babies. While the number of babies they are having is disproportionately large, the figure is only marginally disproportionate. However, as trend seems to be for more and more foreign brides entering Taiwan, even this small statistical anomaly portends a much more disproportionate number of children born to these foreign women.

Additionally, evidence suggests that these foreign-born women are younger than and more willing to have more children than Taiwan-born brides. Younger, or older but more willing Mainland mothers will produce more children during their child-birthing years than older, less willing Taiwan mothers. In the last 15 years, the average age of all first time brides in Taiwan has increased 1½ years to 22.7 whereas the age of college educated brides has increased to 26.48. (Ministry of the Interior, 2001) Meanwhile, Southeastern Asia brides are on the average 23 years old, while the Mainland brides are 30. (Taipei Times, 16 Dec 03)

Although the Mainland Chinese average age seems high, the average is skewed by the presence of many women who have been in Taiwan for many years and have had multiple marriages. “Statistics have shown that two Chinese brides topped the number of marriages with nine each, followed by three Chinese brides who have married eight times. …There are 491 who have married four times and 3,000 who have married three times.” (Chang)

In the future, we can expect to see increasing birthrate of these women compared to Taiwan mothers. Foreign brides are recruited from impoverished areas, and mostly lack basic skills or literacy. They are brought over to be wives and mothers, so are likely to fill that role more or less exclusively unless they turn to the sex trade. And without traditional economic means upon which to fall back, the likelihood is that these foreign brides will produce additional offspring. Additional children in these families means there will be an ever-larger proportion of children living in Taiwan who are born to a mother who has recently arrived from the Mainland or Southeast Asia.

In some ways, the increased birthrate will have the effect of invigorating the Taiwanese population. Without the Mainland wives and their children, the population of Taiwan will age more rapidly. According to US Census data for Taiwan, unless Taiwan makes policy changes, in 20 years, there will be a large population bulge of those in middle age and relatively few of the younger generation to replace them. The Population Reference Bureau defines “replacement level fertility” as that situation “when couples have just enough children to replace themselves as adults in a population.” Statistically, in developed countries like Taiwan, replacement level fertility is 2.1 children per couple. The most recent figures for Taiwan show the fertility rate at 1.76 children per couple. At that rate of fertility, Taiwan’s population will age, as seen in the chart, and eventually, lose population. Unless Taiwan can increase the fertility rate against the resistance of the native born women, the government must relax restrictions on immigration. Otherwise, an aging population, an expanding welfare safety net and lack of workers will doom the Taiwan economy.

Easing the ability of foreign-born wives and their children to enjoy full rights as citizens is a good step in the direction of a sensible immigration policy for Taiwan. Currently, it takes eight years of continuous residence in Taiwan for a foreign bride to receive citizenship. Proposals in front of the Legislative Yuan would extend the waiting period to eleven years, but remove the continuous residency requirement. (BBC) There are also restrictions on the type of work that these women can do. Changes in this antiquated policy should aim to provide additional workers now, and to provide replacement workers in the future. More women coming to Taiwan to have children will result in a younger population of workers contributing to the economy that will mend and repair the fraying social welfare safety net.

However, there are other long-term implications for Taiwan for allowing foreign-born women and their children to assume more rights. Fifteen to twenty years in the future, these children will constitute a substantial voting bloc. This bloc would feature voters who have grown up with a Mainland Chinese mother, who probably stayed in the home because she lacked skills to work in Taiwan’s economy, and probably never fully assimilated into Taiwan’s society. She probably did not speak Taiwanese language, and she was always looked upon as a foreigner. She also likely pined to return to China, and always looked to China as her home. Also, because her husband was more likely of lower income, and from central and southern Taiwan, these children also will have grown up in DPP strongholds. It is likely that these new voters will demand increasing accommodation with China which would be all the more important because they would be from constituencies that are traditionally more confrontational with China.

Of course, there are sociological counter-forces at work as well. There is a chance that these Mainland women would assimilate into Taiwan and become patriotic citizens with voting patterns that mimic those of their neighbors. However, the patriotic infusion seems unlikely unless some current educational and outreach missions are successful. New organizations are starting to ensure foreign brides have full access to rights and services in Taiwan. One such organization is the Transnational Sisters Association, a support group for immigrant brides. This organization’s “aim is to create a network of resources in Taiwan to address the issues of ethnic equality, social welfare, education and the extension of basic human rights to foreign spouses in Taiwan.” Further, the TSA hopes their efforts “will help foreign wives integrate into their new communities and foster the creation of society-wide ethnic harmony in Taiwan, in which these new immigrants are accepted and treated with dignity and equality.” The fact that groups like the TSA see the need to promote “society-wide harmony” shows that there is a negative perception in Taiwan regarding immigrants. (Fanchiang)

There is another troublesome aspect of this migration of women from the Mainland. Currently, the Mainland has approximately 25 million more men than women of marriageable age. There are more than three Taiwan’s worth of men in China without mates, yet there are still seem to be more than enough Mainland women for Taiwan men. What could account for this? Are Taiwan men in the lower economic strata more desirable than China men in the same strata? Or is there something more sinister at work?

Examine the numbers. It is true that Taiwan’s economic situation is better than that of the vast majority of China. The city of Shanghai has a per capita GDP of around USD$4000, while Taiwan’s is about USD$12000. The cost of living in Shanghai is only a fraction of that in Taiwan. The possibility for a destitute woman to improve her standard of living is about the same in Taipei and Shanghai. However, the absolute cost of getting to Taiwan is quite high, compared to entering Shanghai. Yet, there are still many women entering Taiwan from China. The reason these women are still making their way to Taiwan is because they have assistance from the Chinese government.

It is not a coincidence that the Mainland smugglers are often found to have ties with local governments. There is also some question about the background of the “hostesses” who are ubiquitous at functions attended by Taiwanese businessmen on the Mainland. There is no doubt that the PRC has taken the “long view” regarding Taiwan reunification. It is certainly within the realm of possibility that China is using one of its’ most precious resources, its scarce marriageable women, to facilitate reunification.

There are also other implications. If Taiwan’s government and society eventually decide that these women and their children are as “Taiwanese” as anyone else born here, there will be more pressure to recognize other nation’s wives and children as “Taiwanese.” And if it is possible to be accepted as “Taiwanese” by marriage, it is a short intellectual step to accept any long-term immigrant from anywhere as “Taiwanese.” At that point, being “Taiwanese” would be divorced from racial identification, much as the term “American” has become. Taiwan and the “Taiwanese” would truly pass from being a part of China to being a modern Western-style state, something unique in Asia. It is ironic that such a result might be brought about by some nefarious PRC plan. The trend of increasing numbers of Mainland brides in Taiwan presents Taiwan with some interesting challenges. The initial opposition to these brides seems to be based on visceral opposition to these women because of national origin or language. However, even if you ignore these parts of the opposition to Mainland brides, there are still reasons to be worried about the presence of so many foreigners from a hostile neighbor. There are also implications for the concept of being “Taiwanese.” The trend bears careful scrutiny.

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