Taiwan shows how it's done

The UK could learn a great deal about being a tiger economy from Asia's one crisis-free zone. Peter Koenig reports from Taipei

IT WAS a hokey version of the Brit Awards: dry ice on stage, air- kissing telly presenters, slinky models in slit-silk dresses parading on stage with winners' trophies. But there were no singers - instead, businessmen. The man dominating the evening was Stan Shih, Taiwan's answer to Bill Gates. At 53 Mr Shih is a national hero in Taiwan for having sold duck eggs on street corners as a boy before founding Acer in 1976 and building it into the third largest personal computer manufacturer in the world.

The ceremony at which he shone is one held in Taipei annually to honour the country's best new products. It is government-sponsored and designed to promote the country's products in international markets, while spurring future innovations in computers, precision machinery, satellite receivers, and other high-added-value sectors. At the event two weeks ago, Acer carried off three prizes.

"Alone among the Asian tigers Taiwan has escaped the Asian financial crisis," said Bob Wallace, chief executive of Hongkong Bank in Taipei. "Its model of growth through government-sponsored support for entrepreneurial small- and medium- sized companies is unique. And yet hardly anyone ever thinks about it. It is tertiary in people's minds after the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong."

To raise its international profile Taiwan this year invited foreign journalists to attend the National Awards of Excellence ceremony. In visits beforehand to companies making silicon chips in clean rooms operated by workers in space gear, Taiwan plc sought to present itself as a thrusting force in global markets.

The spectre of the country's diplomatic isolation and unresolved relations with Peking aside, the country teemed with evidence that it is becoming a rich nation. Mercedes outlets and jewellery stores lined the downtown area that is host to Japanese department stores Sogo and Mitsokoshi. Bi- cultural Asian-Americans checked out the scene at the Utopia Bar attached to the hot local art gallery. This wealth may, indeed, be the key to future relations with Peking. Taiwan has more invested in the mainland than any other country.

Meanwhile, it serves as a laboratory for the economic phenomena wrapped up in the great buzzwords and phrases of the day - "globalisation," "the Asian financial crisis," and "the information age". In Taiwan, "globalisation" is a given. It means look outward. Develop national resources in accord with a proper analysis of the structure of the world economy.

Taiwan does not pick national champions. It identifies fast-growing sectors of the world economy in which it believes it can compete internationally. The government establishes a framework of support - tax breaks, trade- promotion assistance, research institutes - available to any company wishing to concentrate in the earmarked sectors.

In Taiwan the "Asian financial crisis" is as unreal as the "Asian economic miracle" that preceded it. The issue for government officials and businessmen is cross-border financial flows. "In the face of these flows, other nations have opted for scale," said Chi Fu Den, president of the National Chiao Tung University. "Japan has its kereitsu. Korea its chaebol. Taiwan has opted for speed and mobility."

"We can change our product line in a week if market conditions change," said Matthew Miau, chairman of Mitac Computers Group, Taiwan's second largest computer company.

This speed and manoeuvrability is possible because most of Taiwan's most profitable companies have annual turnovers under pounds 1bn. Yet their products meet the keenest international standards. "One in every six people you meet on the street in Taipei is a company chairman," Acer's Mr Shih said.

In the face of volatile cross-border financial flows Taiwan has also kept a lid on debt. While other Asian tigers are being bailed out by the International Monetary Fund, Taiwan is sitting pretty on $83bn (pounds 50bn) in central bank reserves. Meanwhile, the capital structures of average companies have a proportion of equity approaching twice the average for British companies.

Taiwan has thus been all but impervious to the "Asian financial crisis" just as it took nearly half a century to achieve its version of the "Asian economic miracle". It has quietly devalued its currency, the new Taiwan dollar, by 15 per cent to remain competitive with its Asian rivals in global markets. It understands the "Asian financial crisis" is now political, and all eyes in the government are focused on Japan. "[Prime minister Ryutaro] Hashimoto must restore confidence or he will have to go," said PK Chiang, chairman of the Council of Economic Planning and Development in a statement characteristic of the bluntness of senior Taiwan officials.

The last of the three great buzzphrases of the day, "the information age", also has a particular meaning in Taiwan. It relates less specifically to a hot industrial sector there than in the City. In Taiwan "the information age" is shorthand for saying that economic power is being redefined.

Classic definitions of economic power are tied to the size of a nation's economy, the rate of growth, and factors like debt levels and exports. But the early Nineties definition of economic power in Taiwan related to the number of personal computers per household. Now the definition of economic power in Taiwan is tied to "bandwidth" - the degree to which competing nations take their PCs, link them via the Internet, and create capacity through which data can be moved.

In Taiwan bandwidth is a metaphor. As the Taiwanese see it, the world economy is becoming so integrated that PC "connectivity" must be mirrored with increased linkages between companies themselves. "All but the very biggest companies need strategic alliances now," Acer's Mr Shih said. "The world economy is too big for companies to operate alone. We want people from different companies to exploit networks and share knowledge."

Adapting Taiwan's perspective on the world economy will not be easy for Prime Minister Tony Blair and other new Labourites. Yet this is precisely what the Government is struggling to do. The only point that is clear is that Taiwan deserves more attention than it has yet received. To date, the emphasis has been on attracting inward investment from the island. Currently, there are 13 Taiwanese companies with UK operations, according to the British Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan.

The country's Institute for Information Industry estimates that Taiwan's computer and related hardware manufacturers had $13.8bn invested in the UK at the end of last year. This put the UK at the top of the European league for Taiwanese investment.

But the UK will have to work to protect this position. Despite the compliments heaped upon Silicon Glen as an assembly point for computers, Taiwan's high-tech industry is looking at the continent. Two weeks ago Acer announced a strategic alliance with Siemens, the German electronics giant.

Later this month Gordon Brown will convene a panel of industrialists to discuss how Britain can raise its game in the global economy. These industrialists might want to look, in particular, at Taiwan's approach to risk. "The country has no safety net," said Hongkong Bank's Mr Wallace. "It is diplomatically isolated. It is not a member of the IMF."

Rather than making the country risk-averse, however, this predicament has taught the country's 21 million citizens to be astute judges of risk. "Almost everyone in Taiwan belongs to a wei," said Jeannette Chiang, the China Times' London bureau chief. "Weis are like investment clubs, but the money pooled often is used to invest in members' businesses."

Hongkong Bank's Mr Wallace compares Taiwan's economic rise over the past half century with Britain's economic decline. "The Taiwanese know that risk is something that can't be avoided," he said. "It is something to be faced - to be handled well or badly."

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