“Of course, I’m not optimistic,” said the 33-year-old bespectacled farmer, who holds a master’s degree in forestry. “Taiwan produces more fruit than it can eat, that’s why we have to sell overseas,” he said, adding there really isn’t a second export market. for the pomelos. China is the only place where you can hope to sell on a large scale.
On Aug. 3, the day after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) arrived in the self-governing democracy of 23 million people Beijing claims as its own, Chinese orders for Taiwanese pomelos were suddenly canceled. , part of China’s package of military exercises and trade measures aimed at punishing Taipei.
Chinese fighter jets, missiles and warships circled Taiwan to send a threatening message about the Chinese Communist Party’s willingness to invade should Taipei ever formalize independence. Even though the intensity of the drills has waned in recent days, analysts expect Beijing to continue escalating economic coercion as part of an effort to punish President Tsai Ing-wen’s Taiwanese administration. .
Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan ushers in new phase of China’s pressure campaign
In recent years, China has often used its vast market to pressure other governments. When South Korea deployed a US anti-missile system with radar capable of monitoring Chinese launch sites, its businesses in China faced boycotts and sudden inspections. A diplomatic row with Canberra led Beijing to ban Australian coal and impose high tariffs on its imports of wine, among other goods.
This same playbook is used in Taiwan. Citing quality issues, Chinese customs announced it was suspending imports of Taiwanese citrus fruits, two types of fish and hundreds of packaged foods like cookies and instant noodles.
Although agricultural exports represent less than 1% of the overall trade relationship, the ban has an outsized impact on Taiwan’s fishing and farming communities. The Council of Agriculture of Taiwan estimated that just over $20 million in trade would be affected. The pressure is greatest on farmers like Jhan who are scrambling to protect their income.
Securing a good price for seasonal fruits like pomelos is never easy. But China’s ban means supply has exceeded demand for domestic bulk sales, according to Liu Yuan-he, auctioneer at Taipei’s First Wholesale Fruit and Vegetable Market.
At 4 a.m. on a recent day, the 26-year-old veteran stood behind his electronic auction machine rattling off lots of pomelo at a rapid pace. Compared to nearby stalls selling dragon fruit and lemons, the pomelo crowd was small and the bidding moderate. Many lots remained unsold.
“For Hualien, about 70% [of locally grown pomelos] would generally be sold overseas in mainland China. Now they don’t know what to do with that 70%, so most of it will be auctioned off,” he said, referring to the Taiwanese county that includes Ruisui Township. A bigger long-term problem, according to Liu, is that young Taiwanese simply don’t eat pomelo as much as older generations. “They don’t like having to cut them,” he said. “Pomelos will probably die out gradually.”
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The Chinese ban came at the worst time for grapefruit farmers. When grown well with smooth, unblemished skin, the fruit is a popular gift for family and friends on the Mid-Autumn Festival on September 10. Because the feast, determined by the lunar calendar, falls early this year and hot, dry summer weather has delayed the harvest, there is only a short window between ripening and the holidays to sell.
“Taiwan’s fruit exports remain heavily dependent on China, and import bans have caused farmers losses,” said Christina Lai, assistant professor at Academia Sinica, a state-funded research academy. in Taiwan. “It is certainly quite difficult for the Taiwanese government and farmers to immediately diversify tropical fruit exports, which would entail significant logistics and storage costs in identifying new trading partners.”
Democratic nations have increasingly banded together to resist China’s global campaign of economic coercion. Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs this month announced a $6.7 million fund to help diversify trade and expand markets in Japan, Southeast Asia and the United States.
After repeated incidents of Chinese economic coercion, Taiwanese producers “gradually realized that mainland market risks are relatively high,” said Min-Hsien Yang, a professor in the Department of International Business and Trade at Feng Chia University of Taiwan. Taiwan. a meeting.
“What I have never been able to understand is that even though the current cross-Strait relations are not good, [China] does not need to sacrifice the products of farmers and fishermen,” Yang added. From a political point of view, this seems to him to be a losing strategy. As a proportion of total trade, it’s tiny, but it affects a lot of people. China “wants more support, not more hate, right? Yang asked.
US, Taiwan to start formal trade talks amid fallout from Pelosi’s visit
In 2021, China remained the main destination for Taiwanese exports with 19% of the total. The bulk of the trade is in electronics and other tech products, which are unaffected by Beijing’s sanctions.
Chinese imports from Taiwan have continued to rise since Tsai came to power, despite Beijing’s economic moves to punish what it sees as pro-independence policies adopted by the president and the Democratic Progressive Party.
Early in her career, Tsai was often critical of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement with China, which she once called “a sugar-coated poison pill”, but she later softened her stance on international trade. strait. His administration has sought to maintain communication, trade and commerce with China, but on condition that the relationship is mutually beneficial and not used as a tool to benefit China’s economy while undermining Taiwan’s.
Much of the action to solve farmers’ problems takes place at the headquarters of the Ruisui Township Farmers’ Association. In a building that once housed a dinosaur museum, workers field phone calls from frustrated farmers. In order to find other ways to use the excess fruit, the association diversifies into pomelo soap, tea and salt.
Hhung Sheng-Huang, the group’s director, said he was extremely stressed trying to find domestic markets for pomelos that were previously meant to be sold in China.
But he added that government support is already opening up new sales opportunities and that efforts to process grapefruits and automate some aspects of farming are gradually progressing. Earlier this month, they held an event to demonstrate the first automatic pomelo peeling machine developed in Taiwan.
China’s actions somewhat color his view of the country, but Hhung mostly thinks political disputes should stay out of the economy. “I just hope that across the strait can sympathize with the hard work of these farmers and not put political pressure on them,” he said.