“Of course I’m not optimistic,” said the 33-year-old bespectacled farmer, who has a master’s degree in forestry. “Taiwan grows more fruit than it can eat, so that’s why we have to sell abroad,” he said, adding that there really isn’t a No. 2 export market for pomelos. China is the only place where one can sell on a large scale.
On August 3, the day after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) landed in the $23 million self-governing democracy Beijing claims as its own, China’s orders for Taiwan’s pomelos were suddenly canceled, part of China’s package of military exercises and trade measures to punish Taipei.
Chinese fighter jets, missiles and warships surrounded Taiwan to send a threatening message about the willingness of the Chinese Communist Party to invade if Taipei ever formalizes its independence. Although the intensity of the exercises has waned in recent days, analysts expect Beijing to continue with escalated economic coercion as part of an effort to punish the Taiwanese government of President Tsai Ing-wen.
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In recent years, China has often used its huge market to pressure other governments. When South Korea deployed a US anti-missile defense system with radar that could track Chinese launch sites, its companies in China faced boycotts and sudden inspections. A diplomatic spat with Canberra led Beijing to ban Australian coal and impose high tariffs on wine imports, among other things.
The same script is used on Taiwan. Citing quality issues, China’s customs authorities announced it is suspending imports of Taiwanese citrus fruits, two types of fish and hundreds of packaged foods such as biscuits and instant noodles.
Although agricultural exports represent less than 1 percent of the total trade relationship, the ban is having too much of an impact on Taiwan’s fishing and farming communities. Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture estimated that just over $20 million in trade would be affected. The pressure is greatest on farmers like Jhan who are making an effort to protect their income.
Guaranteeing a good price for seasonal fruits such as pomelos is never easy. But China’s ban means supply exceeds demand for domestic bulk sales, according to Liu Yuan-he, an auctioneer at the Taipei First Fruit and Vegetable Wholesale Market.
At 4 a.m. on a recent day, the 26-year-old veteran stood behind his electronic auction machine with a quick clip clattering through pomelo lots. Compared to nearby stalls selling dragon fruit and lemons, the number of pomelos was small and the bids subdued. Many lots have remained unsold.
“For Hualien, about 70 percent [of locally grown pomelos] would usually be sold overseas to mainland China. Now they don’t know what to do with that 70 percent, so most of it will be auctioned,” he said, referring to the Taiwanese province that also includes Ruisui Municipality. A bigger long-term problem, Liu says, is that young Taiwanese simply don’t eat as much pomelo as the older generations. “They don’t like to cut them up,” he said. “Pomelos are likely to gradually become extinct.”
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China’s ban came at the worst time for pomelo growers. When grown properly with a smooth and unblemished skin, the fruit is a popular gift for family and friends during the Mid-Autumn Festival on September 10. Because the holiday, determined by the lunar calendar, falls early this year and a hot, dry summer has delayed the harvest, there is only a short period of time between ripening and the holiday to sell.
“Taiwan’s fruit exports remain highly dependent on China and the import bans have resulted in losses for farmers,” said Christina Lai, an assistant professor at Academia Sinica, a state-established research academy in Taiwan. “It is certainly quite difficult for the Taiwanese government and growers to immediately diversify tropical fruit exports, which would entail significant costs, from logistics and warehousing to identifying new business partners.”
Democratic countries have increasingly united to resist China’s global campaign of economic coercion. Taiwan’s Ministry of Economy announced a $6.7 million fund this month to help diversify trade and grow markets in Japan, Southeast Asia and the United States.
After repeated incidents of Chinese economic coercion, Taiwanese producers have “gradually come to realize that the risks posed by the mainland market are relatively high,” said Min-Hsien Yang, a professor in Taiwan’s Department of International Business and Trade. Feng Chia University, in a statement. an interview.
“What I have never been able to understand is that even if the current relations between the straits are not good, [China] does not have to sacrifice products from farmers and fishermen,” Yang added. From a political perspective, it seems like a lost strategy to him. As a percentage of total trade, it is small, but it affects many people. China “wants more support, not more hate, right?” asked Yang.
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In 2021, China remained the largest destination for Taiwanese exports with 19 percent of the total. Most of the trade is in electronics and other technology products, which remain unaffected by Beijing’s sanctions.
Chinese imports from Taiwan have continued to rise since Tsai took office, despite Beijing’s economic measures to punish the independence policies adopted by the president and the Democratic Progressive Party.
Early in her career, Tsai was often critical of the framework economic cooperation agreement with China, which she once called a “sugar-coated poison pill,” but later softened her stance on trade in the strait. Her government has sought to maintain communications, exchanges and trade with China, but on the condition that the relationship must be mutually beneficial and not be used as a tool to benefit China’s economy and that of Taiwan. undermine.
Much of the action to solve farmers’ problems is taking place at the headquarters of the Ruisui Township Farmers’ Association. In a building that once housed a dinosaur museum, workers answer phone calls from frustrated farmers. In an effort to find other ways to use up excess fruit, the association branched out into pomeloosep, tea, and salt.
Hhung Sheng-Huang, the group’s director, said he is greatly stressed trying to find domestic markets for pomelos previously expected to be sold to China.
But he added that government support is already opening up new sales opportunities, and efforts to process pomelos and automate aspects of farming are progressing gradually. Earlier this month, they held an event to demonstrate Taiwan’s first automatic pomelo peeling machine.
China’s actions somewhat color how he sees the country, but Hhung mainly believes that political disputes should remain outside the economy. “I just hope that the other side of the strait can sympathize with the hard work of these farmers and not put political pressure on them,” he said.