Taiwan's "plastics king," Wang Yung-ching, is 89 years old. Whether this is something for shareholders in his vast conglomerate of companies to be worried about is an open question -- Wang's mother died in 1995 at age 108! But the news, in a short Bloomberg report, that the tycoon, one of the world's richest businessmen, has still not named a successor to run his Formosa Plastics network of companies, struck me with unexpected frisson. Want to understand the past and future of Taiwanese (and Chinese) economic development? Start with the life story of Wang Yung-ching.
Wang didn't need anyone to tell him that "there is a great future in plastics." Wang defined that future. A former tea farmer, he started his first polyvinyl chloride (PVC) factory in Taiwan in 1954. He then founded two other companies to make products from the materials produced by his first company. It is no exaggeration to say that Taiwan's "miracle" economic growth of the 1960s and 1970s was largely built on the export of cheap plastic products of every description. "Made in Taiwan," more often than not, meant "made of plastic by Wang Yung-ching's companies."
As Taiwan moved from producing cheap toys and textiles to semiconductors and computers, so did Formosa Plastics. Two of his daughters run Taiwanese computer manufacturers, and his other subsidiaries produce a stream of materials for the high-tech industrial sector. When Taiwanese companies started moving their own manufacturing processes to mainland China, Formosa Plastics led the way. Nothing better symbolizes the connections between Taiwan and China than the fact that Wang's estranged son Winston co-founded a semiconductor company in mainland China with the son of China's former premier, Jiang Zemin.
But you can go even deeper. Economic growth in Taiwan was accompanied by the emergence of a civil society and increasing levels of democracy. Petrochemical plastics processing brings with it pollution of the worst kind; Taiwan's environmental movement has long focused on resisting the endless expansion plans of Wang Yung-ching. Will the mainland's ongoing boom result in the same process?
In 1954, when Wang was 37 and just getting his plastics business started, Taiwan was poor, overwhelmingly rural, ruled by an authoritarian regime that brutally oppressed large sectors of its population, and of little concern to anyone in world affairs outside of the U.S. relationship with Communist China. Today it is a thriving democracy, one of the most successful trading nations in the world, and an ongoing hot topic in economic development circles. Everyone wants to know, can the Taiwanese model be duplicated in the rest of the world? How did Taiwan manage the double whammy of hitting it big, first in plastics, and then in computer technology? And will China follow Taiwan's path to both affluence and democracy?