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    Greater China
     Jul 21, 2011

Time's not ripe for Taiwanese bananas
By Jens Kastner

TAIPEI - For more than half a decade, China has been munching southern Taiwan's bananas and other fruit largely for political consideration - to win the hearts and souls of Taiwanese farmers who are traditionally more supportive of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). But the procurement of fruit, once seen as a particularly crafty item in Beijing's strategy toolbox, failed to advance the prospects of cross-strait unification.
For Taiwanese lawmakers who are on their way to committee meetings and ballot castings, it's a familiar sight: every other week, in the courtyard of the legislature's hong lou, or red mansion, there's a stage set up, decorated with mangoes, papayas, pomelos and the like.

In front of the stage, there are local television camera teams; on

stage, a lone legislator surrounded by bikini-clad girls, vociferously promoting the agricultural goodies of his constituency. If it is all goes according to plan, the rural population will award the lawmaker's dedication in the next elections. For other officials, however, getting rid of what Taiwanese farmers overproduce is a less awkward undertaking: they simply pick up the phone and get in touch with their counterparts in mainland China.

Ever since mainland China in March 2005 passed its infamous Anti-Secession Law, which made bloodshed legally binding in the event of a declaration of Taiwan independence, fruit produced in southern Taiwan has played a crucial role in the "carrot part" of Beijing's "carrot and stick" stratagem.

Southern Taiwan is where people traditionally don't want to hear of the Kuomintang (KMT), let alone its pet project of cross-strait rapprochement, and it's here where the anti-unification DPP gets its votes.

To make clear to southern DPP supporters that Beijing's carrot is much better than the stick - which, understood by all, would come along with an attack carried out by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) - weeks after the passage of the Anti-Secession Law, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the then-opposition KMT reached an inter-party agreement.

Beijing subsequently announced that it had unilaterally granted zero-tariff treatment to 18 Taiwanese fruits, from pineapples and papayas to coconuts and peaches. At that time, political observers were much in awe over Beijing's clever maneuver, especially as almost every year, fruit overproduction causes distress to southern Taiwanese farmers, a severe problem the then ruling DPP government could not fix.

In November 2008, Chen Yunlin, chairman of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS), Beijing's semi-official body responsible for negotiations with Taiwan, visited Taiwan amid protests by DPP supporters. It happened Taiwan was troubled by overproduction of oranges. He promised to help. A month later, a mainland Chinese company placed an import order of 1,200 tonnes. The move won some applause.

Now it is the main season for Taiwan to harvest bananas. As with every year, there are way too many of them. Making matters even more precarious, if they are kept in cold storage, they will turn black in less than a week, and that the Taiwanese tend to prefer other fruit in the summer over bananas doesn't help the farmers either.

When Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT recently traveled to the south, he has therefore almost inevitably confronted by banana farmers. They complained bitterly that prices were too low, with Ma reportedly responding that his government could easily handle the problem by exporting bananas to China.

By the time Ma said this, in Beijing, Wang Yi, director of China's Taiwan Affairs Office, which is the central government department responsible for dealing relations with Taiwan, had already benevolently proclaimed that China was well aware of the problem of a banana surplus in Taiwan and was willing to help Taiwanese banana growers. Another of China's officials in charge of cross-strait issues, ARATS's vice chairman Zheng Lizhong, proclaimed while visiting Taiwan that China was prepared to implement massive long-term fruit procurement programs.

On top of that, Shandong governor Jiang Daming, who happened to be touring Taiwan at the same time, promised that his province alone would purchase 5,000 tonnes of Taiwanese bananas this season.

It's not as if Taiwanese bananas are what China actually is short of. Hainan Island, Guangdong and Guangxi provinces produce bananas, and for a long time China has been importing bananas from the Philippines, where production is significantly cheaper than in southern Taiwan.

On January 1, 2010, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-China Free Trade Area (ACFTA) came into effect, which reduces tariffs on 90% of imported goods to zero. As a result, tropical fruit, especially from Thailand, is now abundant on the mainland market.

As production costs in Taiwan are much higher, China's import of fruits from across the Taiwan strait does not seem a particularly lucrative undertaking. But it has always been Beijing's primary objective to win the hearts and minds of the stubborn southern Taiwanese rather than make money from fruit imports from the island. Buying bananas produced in southern Taiwan could possibly, or in Beijing's calculation, prevent a DPP win in the next legislative and presidential elections to be held in January 2012.

Hence Taiwanese fruit is being shipped across the strait.

However, there are strong indicators that what half a decade ago seemed like one of the most powerful political means Beijing had in its hands to overcome the hurdle of Taiwan's notoriously disobedient democracy has now become a "toothless tiger". Experts interviewed by Asia Times Online in unison dismissed the notion that Beijing's fruit procurements have what it takes to significantly alter electoral behavior in rural Taiwan.

"Of course, it is good for China to change its image if it really keeps its pledge to buy farmers' products. But such a friendly gesture is easily counterbalanced by Beijing's own verbal attacks or even military threats against Taiwan," said Tsai Chia-hung from the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University in Taipei.

"Moreover, as people understand that unemployment is caused by closing local factories and moving them to China, I doubt that people who benefit from China's fruit procurements will change their partisan attitude," Tsai expounded.

Huang Hua-hsi, a legislative aide, pointed out that there are convincing signs that the Chinese fruit campaign is failing. "From last year's elections [held in November in Taiwan's five biggest municipalities], where the DPP won big in the south and lost only by a tiny margin in central Taiwan, we can see that the effect of China's strategy is quite limited," said Huang. "In terms of politics, farmers continue supporting the DPP. In terms of economy, they make deals with mainland China."

In last November's elections that Huang referred to, in two cities near to the areas where fruit for export to China is grown, the DPP decisively defeated the KMT. In Kaohsiung, the DPP won with 52.80% against the KMT's 20.52%, and in Tainan, the south's second biggest city, by 60.41% to 39.59%. In the central municipality of Taichung, a traditional KMT stronghold where agriculture also plays a role, the DPP lost by a much smaller than expected margin of 48.88% to the KMT's 51.12%.

Tsai Ming-Yen, chairman of the Graduate Institute of International Politics at National Chung Hsing University, echoed Huang's assessment.

"They want to change southern citizens' attitude towards China. But in last year's elections it became obvious that it doesn't work. Of course, the farmers hope they can export to China, however that doesn't mean at all that they vote for the KMT," said Tsai.

Huang Kwei-Bo, an associate professor at National Chengchi University's Department of Diplomacy, addressed widespread worries that have the potential to develop into an immensely detrimental factor for the DPP, namely that a DPP win in January could make China suddenly halt fruit imports, thereby bringing misery to southern farmers and rural Taiwan per se.

In the first 11 months of 2010, Taiwan's fruit exports to China amounted to US$9.741 million, up 129.5% from the year before. At the end of June, Taiwan's Council of Agriculture (COA) announced that agricultural exports to China had risen by 44% this year - China is currently the third-largest consumer of Taiwanese products, after Japan (49%) and the United States (16%).

"If the DPP wins, mainland China will continue to adopt its fruit procurement strategy, but in the political realm it will listen to the words of Tsai Ing-wen [who then, as the DPP's current presidential candidate, will be the president] and watch her deeds with great caution. What Beijing might do is severing cross-strait governmental exchanges temporarily", Huang predicted.

Kou Chien-wen, a professor at the same university's Department of Political Science, said the DPP not only doesn't need to be overly worried but even could turn the cross-strait banana procurements into a useful tool to meet its own political ends.

"The DPP can opt for a strategy of separating politics and economics," he recommended. "Along the lines: Earn money from China but vote for us."

Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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