Taiwan’s brain drain

This outbreak is not only testing the island’s ability to reign in the virus, but also to retain foreign talent and contend with long-term economic and political woes predating the pandemic. As of late last month, visa processing, including for the final stage of gold card visas, is temporarily suspended. But the flight of the techies is a “symptom of a larger problem, ” says Chen Wenhui, an informatics professor at Ming Chuan University, referring to Taiwan’s broader socioeconomic woes, including despondency among many young people that they can’t have a bright future if they remain on this “ghost island.”

“If they want a high salary, they go overseas to work,” said Chen.

Meanwhile, China looms large both for its aggressive territorial claims on Taiwan, although the Communist Party has never governed there—and as the logical choice for overseas investors and skilled professionals. China’s economic rise has been complicated for Taiwan, with many skilled Taiwanese going to China, lured by hefty financial incentives, as a new generation of tech giants began forming there. Taiwanese entrepreneurs such as Foxconn billionaire Terry Gou are deeply invested there. Uncertainty about Taiwan’s place in the world, as China has more aggressively sought in recent years to isolate the island internationally, doesn’t help.

The war for skilled tech workers has been particularly fierce in the semiconductor field, in which China is trying to develop tech know-how as US regulatory moves and sanctions limited access to high-tech chips. The departures have created so much concern, Taiwan in April reportedly banned recruitment for tech jobs in China in a bid to help stem the leak of talent.

At the same time, it’s been difficult for a young generation of entrepreneurs to create new global-facing startups due to a lack of access to foreign capital, while in other cases high-skilled workers point to onerous regulations. The talent shortage will only be exacerbated over time by the fact that Taiwan has one of the world’s lowest birth rates—last year, its population shrank for the first time.

“The latter tells the people that they have lost confidence in the future,” said Chen.

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