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China creates Taiwan's 'democracy fish'

China's attempts to harm Taiwan through product bans is vengeful and capricious, and usually backfires

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In this undated photo provided by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is a goliath grouper. Florida is lifting its three-decade ban on c...

In this undated photo provided by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is a goliath grouper. Florida is lifting its three-decade ban on c...

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — Remember the economic boom times brought on by former President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) 633 promises? The 6% annual GDP growth, per capita gross domestic product of NT$891,000 (US$30,000), and unemployment of less than 3%, all brought on by the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) his government signed with China?

Of course not, the Ma administration didn’t even get close to meeting those goals, and the expected economic boom of tying Taiwan’s economy to China didn’t materialize. This year, as the anniversary of the Sunflower Movement rolled up, the usual round of articles came out reflecting on how it changed Taiwan’s politics.

Commentator Michael Turton pointed out the movement's most important legacy was in stopping the services version of ECFA passing, which would have increased Taiwan’s dependency on China. It would have risked hollowing out Taiwan’s economy as Chinese companies took over everything from internet services to barber shops.

While there is no doubting the important impact of the Sunflower Movement on local politics, Turton’s insight was correct. Had the services version of ECFA passed, China’s integration with — and thereby leverage over — Taiwan’s economy would have increased dramatically.

Taiwan’s ability to maintain the independence it enjoys would have been imperiled. It would have severely constrained the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) administration’s room to maneuver.

That was the intent of Beijing and former President Ma, to lay the groundwork for eventual unification. The Sunflower protestors effectively blocked a key component of that plan.

Capricious and cunning

The products version of ECFA that did pass, and is still in effect, accelerated Taiwan’s reliance on the Chinese market, and for years China became Taiwan’s largest market. Recently, however, the United States has once more surpassed China as Taiwan’s biggest market, though that may be due to China’s zero-COVID policy.

In some ways, the products version of ECFA was helpful and did produce some economic benefits. Even when China was Taiwan’s biggest export market, much of those exports were components to Taiwanese companies in China for assembly and re-export to other markets.

But as a trade partner, China is capricious, cunning and vindictive. Such as when Australia had the temerity to suggest an investigation into the origins of the pandemic.

When it comes to Taiwan, however, the reasons for China banning certain products are for more reasons than just punishment for upsetting Beijing, though that is one of the reasons.

The banning of certain products even began during the Ma administration, though in that case for the probably legitimate reason of foot-and-mouth disease. In almost all other cases, the reasons are political and vengeful, and done in a way that is arbitrary and final.

In the case of sharply cutting tourism from China into Taiwan it was clearly political, possibly because of the Tsai administration’s refusal to accept the 1992 Consensus, her support for the Hong Kong protestors at the time, or to interfere with the 2020 election. Probably all three, as Chinese tourism started dropping off after Tsai’s election in 2016 and continued to plunge through all of those events.

COVID packaging

With agricultural products, they usually come up with a “reason” unsupported by any proof or evidence, and cut off all imports permanently as a result. Some of the reasons are spurious, such as the recent banning of horse mackerel for allegedly testing positive for COVID-19 on the packaging.

With other countries, normally only a single shipment will be barred, or a short-term ban imposed and imports re-allowed when the problem is solved, such as with the presence of pesticides. That’s how the process works between Taiwan and other trading partners.

The “COVID on the packaging” case may be in part for domestic audiences, as Beijing has accused New Zealand, the U.S. and Canada of exporting the pandemic via the alleged presence of the virus on packaging (which isn’t how the disease spreads).

In other cases, it is widely suspected that once China gets its hands on Taiwan's agricultural technology and variants, they create a domestic industry and then shut out Taiwanese competition. In other cases, it may be that they are attempting to influence voting behaviour.

Recently, China has banned pineapple, atemoyas, wax apples and grouper. Typically, it follows a standard pattern.

China bans the product without any evidence or proof, and refuses to negotiate with Taiwan. Taiwan then threatens to take action at the World Trade Organization (WTO), but that can take years.

The government then starts a promotional campaign to boost domestic consumption, and local firms often step up with bulk buying. Sometimes with catchy names, like “freedom pineapple” or “democracy fish” for the grouper.

Moves are made to diversify export markets, with Japan usually being the biggest supporter, but also with countries like the U.S., Canada, Singapore and even China’s territory of Hong Kong. Often, these moves are highly successful, and not only are all the goods sold, new markets are created in the process.

So ultimately, it appears that China’s bans only have the end result of diversifying Taiwan’s export markets, which continue to grow in spite of China.

Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT FM100 Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report (report.tw) and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce.