Taiwan Journal, Vol. XXV No. 51 December 26, 2008
Publication Date：12/26/2008 Section：Panorama
Taiwan’s renowned economist Wu Chung-chi will be remembered as a person with high professional and moral integrity. (Courtesy of Wu Wen-chu 吳文琚)
Being an economist in Taiwan during martial-law rule was a tricky proposition at the best of times, especially if one saw things from the perspective of the working class. In recent years, however, the challenge has become one of remaining professional and offering sound policy advice while avoiding being labeled with a political affiliation. In the eyes of his students and colleagues, the late Wu Chung-chi (吳忠吉)excelled as an economist throughout both periods.
Wu’s passing Oct. 30 comes at time when Taiwan is facing one of its toughest economic challenges in an environment of global recession. Although his death did not draw as much attention as tycoon Wang Yung-ching(王永慶), who died one week before Wu, the renowned thinker leaves behind a legacy worth preserving for those who care about Taiwan’s society and how politics can help improve it as a whole.
Born in 1946 into a poor butcher’s family in Taipei, Wu pulled himself up by the bootstraps to become a university professor. A graduate of the Department of Economics at National Taiwan University, Wu’s academic talent was confirmed after being offered a faculty position upon completion of his studies. He taught at the university until the last months of his life and during the 1990s was chairman and board member of the nonprofit Consumers’ Foundation(消費者文教基金會). Wu was also an advisor to the Cabinet-level Council of Labor Affair (行政院勞委會)for the past 20 years, and worked with Kuomintang and Democratic Progressive Party think tanks from 1996 to 2000.
According to C.S. Stone Shih(石計生), a sociology professor at Taipei’s Soochow University, Wu’s humble background was probably the reason why he became one of the few economists in Taiwan able to generate solutions that took the needs of the common people into consideration. Shih explained that while most economists analyze problems from the perspective of a capitalist, Wu took a different path.
“Real economics exists only in the political economy,” Shih said, quoting what his professor Wu told him in the 1980s as the then student struggled to understand textbook economic modeling. Wu elucidated by discussing the theories of Adam Smith and Karl Marx–taboo names in any discussion on the island that considered itself one of the staunchest bastions against communism and socialism.
“Wu believed economic study should respond to contemporary problems, and that political structures and social changes have to be taken into consideration in order to form solutions,” Shih said. “I was so enlightened by his words as they differed greatly from mainstream economic theories.”
For example, Wu argued excess profit should be equally divided between workers and investors. Fair distribution of these profits, which also means sharing risks, could prevent disputes between labor and capital from erupting, Shih said.
On the issue of foreign workers, which Taiwan started to utilize in the early 1990s, Wu stated that they should not be regarded as “apple snails,” a common type of gastropod that easily adapts to foreign conditions. “Wu believed that policies and laws should be created so as to boost the productivity of various groups of working people,” Shih said. “He was good at using simple language or images to get to the heart of the matter. Moreover, though his ideas were sometimes radical, they were always feasible.”
Wu’s life-long efforts in helping protect workers’ legal rights impressed academia, unions and government. CLA Deputy Minister Pan Shih-wei (潘世偉)remembered Wu’s grand vision for Taiwan’s labor policies and his tireless efforts to implement it over the past two decades. “He helped set up references and discourses on minimum wages and issues concerning workers,” Pan stated. “His death is a loss for the working class in Taiwan.”
According to Li Shen-yi(李伸一), an honorary chairman of the Consumers’ Foundation, Wu defied industry heavyweights in the struggle to defend consumers’ interests and rights. He also foresaw the dangers of credit consumption as early as the 1990s, and helped draw up standard contract formats and dispute resolution procedures, Li stated.
While nearly all of these efforts were almost invisible, they carried enormous benefits for everyday people. The same could be said of what Wu viewed as small deeds in his profession as an educator. He was an NTU administrator in 1986 when student protests against the political interference of academics and threat to free speech swept the campus. Shih explained a student arrest list, said to have come from Wang Sheng(王昇), then political warfare director at the Ministry of National Defense, was given to Wu naming those “suspected of collaborating with communists and Taiwan independence advocates.”
Shih stated that Wu probably saved the students from incarceration after advising then NTU President Sun Chen (孫震)to ignore the order as the protests and government allegations were unconnected. “He rarely spoke of this episode to other people,” Shih said. “Behind his pragmatic and low-profile way of dealing with these kinds of issues was always the greater cause for justice. This had an enormous influence on me, as well as many more of his students in different fields of study.”