Foreign Entrepreneurs Are Coming To Taiwan. Will They Stay After Covid-19?

Foreign Entrepreneurs Are Coming To Taiwan. Will They Stay After Covid-19?
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

What you need to know

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, the Employment Gold Card program has grown into a popular means to move to Taiwan. Will the newcomers stay after the pandemic?

Quentin Brasseur had not expected to stay in Taiwan for more than two months when he arrived in late February last year. 

Brasseur, a Belgian entrepreneur, had visited Taiwan two years ago. He originally planned to return only to lay the groundwork to relocate and start a new business. But as the coronavirus made its way to Europe and most of the world, he extended the trip and then applied for a three-year residence visa for foreign professionals known as the Employment Gold Card.

Since the pandemic began, the Employment Gold Card program has grown into a popular means to move to Taiwan to live a Covid-free life, with many recipients sharing the ins and outs of applying for the visa on social media. Last year, the government issued around 1,400 gold cards, nearly triple the number in 2019.

These new residents often cite a sense of normalcy as a reason to come and work in Taiwan. With Covid-19 under control, music festivals are held, movie theaters are open, and people are still allowed to meet up and socialize.

Jameson Hsu, an American serial entrepreneur, left for Taiwan just several hours after the government shut borders to all foreign travelers. Hsu is one of the very first foreign professionals to obtain the gold card and has been building a venture studio with other gold carders to help aspiring entrepreneurs start companies from the ground up.

He told The News Lens he has seen many entrepreneurs with Taiwanese roots like him return to the island. Government officials expect they will help spur Taiwan’s transition to an innovation based economy, but Hsu also urged them to take aggressive action.

If they don’t “do something to take advantage of the opportunity, move faster to remove...barriers, then once Covid-19 is over, they all are going to leave,” Hsu said.

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Photo Credit: Mia / INSIDE
Steve Chen (left), Kai Huang (center), Jameson Hsu (right) speak at an event.
Business environment

For foreign entrepreneurs, Taiwan may not seem like an easy place to do business. For example, forming a business entity often involves spending three to six months grappling with bureaucracy.

Kai Huang, an American serial entrepreneur who co-created the Guitar Hero video game series, said the pandemic has provided Taiwan with a “window of opportunity” to improve its business environment as other countries slowly recover from the crisis.

An American entrepreneur, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, arrived in Taiwan last year to build a new business. He has found it challenging to lead a Taiwanese team. 

“If I don’t tell them what to do here, they don’t know,” he said. “It’s difficult to run a company if everyone is dependent on one person making the decisions.”

The entrepreneur also observed that Taiwanese workers do not tend to voice their opinions, let alone openly disagreeing with high-level executives.

“I always tell them ‘I’m not the boss,’” he said. “In the company, there’s no zhǎngbèi (senior or elder in Mandarin). Everyone’s opinion is just as important as mine.”

A sense of certainty

In response to the surge in gold card applicants, the government has started to take action to make Taiwan “the second home” for these new expats. 

Last September, the National Development Council (NDC) announced a plan to amend the regulation that authorizes the issuance of gold cards to shorten the time of residence (currently five years) necessary for foreign professionals to apply for permanent residence in Taiwan.

Hasnaa Fatehi, a Morrocan Canadian medtech regulations specialist, believes it will remove the uncertainty for gold carders and allow them to create a long-term plan for their life in Taiwan, without worrying that their new life will come to an end as the three-year visa expires.

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Photo Credit: Bruce Rusk
Hasnaa Fatehi

“In three years, I might not have a new gold card,” she said. “If I...apply for it and it doesn’t go through for whatever reason, or if the criteria changes, then I’m not allowed to stay in Taiwan anymore.” 

Fatehi arrived in Taiwan last January as part of a business trip and applied for the gold card in May. She has opened a branch office for her company in Taiwan, and she said she will be glad to stay if the government allows her to.

But broadly speaking, Fatehi believes Taiwan needs to build a formal structure to receive gold carders, instead of leaving them to navigate the new environment alone. For example, she suggested connecting entrepreneurs to local industry leaders to help them succeed in their career.

Another way to support gold carders is to address the longstanding issue of low wages. Fatehi described expats to be living “in a different economy” and tend to incur much more expenses than local Taiwanese. She added if they do not adequately sustain themselves financially, staying for a long time will not be an option.

A leap of faith

The government is keen to help gold carders to stay, but it also requires an extra leap of faith to settle down in a new country that is, for many, not only far but also culturally different. 

To call a place home, Huang told The News Lens, a person needs to know how to re-establish the life they are used to and have people to connect with.

Marco Mirabella, an Italian executive of a Taiwan-based software company who has been living in the country throughout the pandemic, said foreigners would be more likely to stay if they can be with their family. Currently, the Gold Card program allows spouses and children to apply for residency, but their parents are only eligible for a one-year visa.

As parents, many potential gold carders around him hesitate sending their children to public schools in Taiwan. He said, “Taiwan’s education system is strict and that’s very different from what we have in Europe,” adding that the government should let parents know they can choose to enroll in international schools.

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Photo Credit: Marco Mirabella
Marco Mirabella

To move to Taiwan, tax is another problem that concerns many expats. Mirabella suggested that the government make the tax regime more foreigner-friendly. Gold carders often have various sources of income and it becomes a trouble when they file taxes, he said.

Mirabella also pointed out that allowing foreigners to purchase property more easily in Taiwan will encourage them to stay. He added that on social media groups, gold carders are having discussions about investing in the country’s east coast.

A new ecosystem

Thanks to the Gold Card program, Taiwan has been building up a community of foreign professionals with a wide range of cultural and professional backgrounds. Foreigners now can apply under eight categories: Science & Technology, Economy, Finance, Education, Culture & Arts, Sports, Law, and Architectural Design.

Huang said he has noticed the process and believes it drives newcomers to settle down. “Connecting people is a good first step,” he added.

While lawmakers believe that the arrival of gold carders creates job opportunities and promotes industry developments, Huang advised against putting all the hope on them. “Taiwan should leverage on gold carders, but cannot rely on them,” he said.

Instead of coming up with ways to retain gold carders, Patrick Lee believes the focus should be on building an ecosystem around the next big industry — after hardware manufacturing — for the country. 

“Now, only Taiwanese people are coming back to help,” he said. “But if you have an ecosystem, everyone comes here for it.”

Lee, an American entrepreneur known for co-founding the movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, took Hollywood as an example. With the best ecosystem for the entertainment industry, it naturally attracts talent and capital, he explained. 

Asked about the industry he has in mind, Lee said it makes the most sense for Taiwan to build a metaverse industry, citing its hardware reputation, the rise of 5G technology adoption, and the fact that many Bay Area entrepreneurs now living in Taiwan have a background in gaming, including Kai Huang and Jameson Hsu, who sold his game advertising platform in 2014.

Kung Ming-hsin, NDC Minister, said in addition to salary and the quality of living, expats often choose to move to a new country for new opportunities. 

“There are many opportunities to develop one’s career in Taiwan, with the government’s 5+2 Industrial Innovation Plan, off-shore wind power projects, and the development of Six Core Strategic Industries.”

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Photo Credit: CNA
NDC Minister Kung Ming-hsin 

President Tsai laid out the plan to promote five key sectors as a basis of Taiwan’s industrial transformation during her presidential campaign in 2016: the Internet of Things, biomedical, green energy, smart machinery, and defense. It was later expanded to include new agriculture and the circular economy. The Six Core Strategic Industries are a continuation of such a plan.

Despite government efforts, Brasseur said Taiwan’s affordable cost of living and world-renowned healthcare system, among other pull factors, are already attracting expats.

For two years in a row, Taipei was ranked as the best city to live and work abroad for overall quality of life. In InterNations’s Expat City Ranking 2019, a vast majority of Taipei expats reported satisfaction with the availability of healthcare services and local transportation systems.

But Brasseur believes expats who came to Taiwan during the pandemic may leave for any reason. In the end, he said that it does not matter whether they stay or not. 

After living in the country for a couple of months, they “will be ‘de facto ambassadors’ of Taiwan.”


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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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