The government’s atrocious handling of the expansion of US beef imports — opaque, peremptory and confused, regardless of the merits of the products — is becoming a real cause for concern in terms of the bigger picture: cross-strait detente, and particularly a proposed economic pact with China.
On Tuesday, Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) Secretary-General Kao Koong-lian (高孔廉) met with Zheng Lizhong (鄭立中), deputy chairman of China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, in Taipei and settled on four issues that SEF Chairman Chiang Pin-kung (江丙坤) and his Chinese counterpart Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) will discuss in their meeting in Taichung next month.
While the government’s proposed economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with Beijing will not be on the agenda, SEF spokesman Maa Shaw-chang (馬紹章) said both sides would “exchange opinions” on the matter nonetheless.
One legacy of the US beef controversy is that many more people have little or no confidence in the government’s ability to negotiate with China without jeopardizing Taiwan’s interests.
Case in point No. 1: Department of Health Minister Yaung Chih-liang (楊志良) had promised that only US bone-in beef would be allowed into the country. But it turned out the protocol with the US also allowed ground beef, intestines, brains and spinal cords.
Similarly, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has time and again promised that the government will not open the market to Chinese agricultural products or labor if an ECFA is signed. Given the inability of the government to coordinate and deliver a consistent message on something as concrete as a protocol with the US, promises along these lines do not convince.
In an attempt to ease anger at the relaxation of US beef imports, the government said it would implement strict safety checks to ensure that imports are not contaminated. This rather tricky — not to mention ad hoc — approach to administrative duties can only prompt doubts as to whether an ECFA would trigger a range of policy U-turns and last-minute, superficial customs-control measures — and all in the absence of adequate information for the public, let alone a public consensus.
Case in point No. 2: Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) said the signing of any cross-strait agreements, including an ECFA, would respect the need for public support and legislative oversight. But if the government can act in obvious defiance of a legislative resolution passed in 2006 that required the Department of Health to report in detail to the legislature before lifting bans on US beef, what is to be made of such commitments from the premier?
On Oct. 23, the department announced that Taiwan had signed an accord with the US agreeing to relax curbs on US bone-in beef and cow organs. Yet, as of yesterday, a majority of the public is being kept in the dark on the details of the protocol because the government has not issued a Chinese translation. Once again, this cavalier attitude toward ordinary people only raises suspicion as to how open and trustworthy any agreements between this China-friendly government and Beijing will be.
The government set a precedent of obliviousness by suddenly easing bans on US beef imports without due preparation and public consultation. This sorry episode is now signaling the need to place sustained pressure on the government to keep its ECFA dealings transparent. Otherwise, the next sudden announcement from the government might be a very destructive one, indeed.