Interview with Chih-jen Hsu, Chairman of Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA) and Chairman of the World Trade Centre Taipei

Founded in 1970 to help promote foreign trade, the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA) is the foremost non-profit trade promotion organization in Taiwan. Jointly sponsored by the government, industry associations and several commercial organizations, TAITRA assists Taiwan businesses and manufacturers with reinforcing their international competitiveness and in coping with the challenges they face on foreign markets.
TAITRA boasts a well-coordinated trade promotion and information network of over 600 trained specialists stationed at its Taipei headquarters, in four local branch offices and over forty-eight overseas branch offices worldwide. Together with its sister organizations, Taiwan Trade Center, Inc., Far East Trade Services, Inc. (FETS) and Taipei World Trade Center (TWTC), TAITRA has created a wealth of trade opportunities through effective promotion strategies. In 2006 Taiwan’s trade reached US$426.7 billion, an increase of 12% over 2005. Of the total, exports grew 12.9% (US$224 billion), while imports rose 11% (US$202.7 billion). Under the guidance of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and with TAITRA’s collaboration, exports for key target markets, such as the Republic of Korea, Brazil, Russia, Vietnam, Argentina and Thailand, achieved over 10% growth. We had the chance of meeting Mr Hsu, the Chairman of TAITRA, during a recent visit to Taipei.
Q: What exactly do you do to promote trade and peace?
We are able to promote peace through trade, but it is a hard job –– it’s not easy. Trade embargos and trade wars all make it trying, but with hard work peaceful trade is possible. I believe trade can make peace in many different ways. Our ultimate goal through trade is that it will not only help Taiwan, but the global community as well. We hope we can achieve global peace through this conscientious approach to trade. My goal is that Taiwan will import products from many foreign countries. We have trade missions all over –– from the USA to El Salvador. We establish these contacts in the hope of balancing growing trade deficits and building strong relationships around the world. Peace: that is the ultimate goal.
Q: Do you think that being Taiwanese makes it difficult to be accepted?
Any discrimination makes it difficult, but I do not feel it. For example, last year our total exports were equal to US$22 billion, that is a 12% increase over previous years. For imports, we improved trade by 8% compared to the previous year. As far as trade is concerned, we feel we are in a good position to promote peace through our culture of fair trade with other countries.
Q: Does trade opens doors?
Yes, for everything, including peace. In Taiwan we use trade to live peacefully.
Q: What about trade and Africa?
That is a problem for Taiwan. Africa is accessible in the market place and they are willing to buy our merchandise and other imports. But China can outsell us. This is about the only problem for Taiwan. For example, in 1995 Taiwan exported US$6 billion products to Africa; China US$9 billion. Last year we exported about US$2.6 billion to Africa; China exported more than $20 billion! They have a lot more control over their exports.
We have always sought strong relations with African nations, and not just Africa. In addition to Kenya, we seek strong trade relations with the Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania Italy and even Burma. With all these countries we trade for peace.
Q: Some people say that the economy is not doing very well in Taiwan these days. Do you agree?
I would say that this is because of the political situation, but imports are doing well. From a statistical point of view, Taiwan is comparable to Singapore –– always criticized. But Taiwan’s bullet train, among other factors, has contributed greatly to our continued growth. Japan is also doing well. We are keeping pace with other countries.
Q: What do you think will happen in the next couple of years?
In Japan and China the world economy is in a good situation. Taiwan will grow with them. The global economy is generally good as well. It is a good situation. I think that, once the American presidential election campaign is over, the weakening stock market will rebound, as will many other markets around the world.
The Olympic Games coming to China is good for all Asian countries. It is a good time. The momentum is to our advantage in Taiwan.
Q: We have also heard that businessmen are moving back from mainland China and the Koreans are doing the same—do you want them back in Taiwan?
We would first need to ask, what kind of industry or what kind of enterprise will they bring back to Taiwan? In the twentieth century, it was America or Japan or Singapore that was investing heavily. We compare ourselves to the situation in China now. Another factor is the challenge of dealing with other growing economies in the region. India is proving to be a continued challenge. We don’t want to experience the same difficulties with India that we had earlier with China. People take their business to China and the situation becomes difficult because they can’t move out again. You are obliged to stay. We want enterprises to come back to Taiwan and those that are here not to leave, such as technologically advanced industries. We know what kind of enterprise we are looking for.
Q: I know that the Taiwanese businessmen are very clever –– 75% of all shoes are made in Taiwan. You are also strong on computers and cycles—what else?
The government must continue to play a very important role in the economy.
Television manufacturing, research in biotechnology and an increase in public education will all play a role in the expansion of the economy. The energy-saving and high-tech development industries are now settled in Taiwan and are showing that they can do well. But Taiwan’s future growth depends on our ability to pick up new industries.
One thing I want to mention is that research in communications technologies is growing in Taiwan. We hope that it will prove to be a vital Taiwanese industry, more so than it is already. To help with this, we always welcome assistance from abroad.
Q: Now Taiwan is promoting hospital services and receiving patients from abroad?
We helped 3,045 people receive attention from our medical specialists. It is a kind of tourist innovation. We arrange for them to receive excellent medical care and people continue to flood in. It is very successful. This is contributing to help Taiwan’s trade grow.
Q: We often hear about the evolution of democracy. Could you explain about the miracle of Taiwan?
Taiwan, of course, has no military resources. We work very hard, using trade in materials and exports to maintain peace. Since the 1970s we began producing many things and changed from an importing country to an exporting country. I know about the cyclical nature of the economy; I know how products can become exorbitant when you see them in the store. Taiwan is a very big country and people can meet and converse and together work on ways to expand the economy. We apply this same model to other poor South Asian countries.
The world economy is changing very fast. America and Europe are eager to continue trading with other countries. These things have been the key to our success.
Q: Do you have a special message for the international community?
We must work together and go hand in hand with a desire to trade for the benefit of all, working diligently to create global peace. Taiwan will trade with everybody without any hesitation or perceptions. This is a global ability and we hope that other countries around the world will learn from what Taiwan is doing.