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.
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"
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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%.
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.
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.
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.
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."
Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.
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