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Taiwan economy: no longer superior to China's?

Controversial Chinese philanthropist visits Taiwan, highlighting wealth gap and "new poor."

Twelve percent of the workforce now earns less than $700 per month, and average monthly wages are at 1998 levels, according to labor groups.

Meanwhile, highly-skilled workers in the technology and other sectors pull in ever-fatter paychecks, sharpening inequality between the haves and have-nots. "Taiwan's social welfare system cannot solve the problem of the gap between the rich and the poor — especially the 'new poor,'" said Chiu.

For its part, China is seeing a burst of newly-minted millionaires and even billionaires, as a lucky few strike it rich amid the rising power's go-go economy. There, too, inequality has spiked sharply, with the most noticeable chasm between the urban elite and the vast ranks of the rural poor. The top 10 percent now earns 23 times what the bottom 10 percent makes, compared to just a seven-fold gap in 1998. The Gini coefficient is now 0.47.

"In China now, some people can get very rich in a very short time because of China's growing, but unbalanced economy," said Chiu. "The large cities are developing so fast — they can accumulate wealth quickly."

One of those lucky few is Chen, who made his fortune recycling material from the construction industry after growing up poor in the boonies, according to a BBC profile. (In that interview, he also confirmed that he had vowed never again to give money to his sister, who works as a hotel dishwasher, or his brother, who works as a security guard, because they squandered his money in the past.)

He's exactly the type of swaggering, nouveau riche Chinese businessman who rubs some Taiwanese the wrong way. For others, though, all the criticism over Chen's visit is just sniping. One 67-year-old woman waited all night outside his Taipei hotel after he arrived, then hit the jackpot by nabbing Chen's first red envelope.

Amid a swarm of Taiwanese TV cameras, the woman explained that she wanted to take care of her 88-year-old mother, who has lost her eye-sight.

“I’ve never touched so much money in all my life," she told reporters after receiving about $2,300 from Chen. “I’m very thankful. He is a very generous man."