President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) recently announced that the government-designated purchasing price for rice will increase by at least NT$2 a kilogram. However, farmers are worried that the way in which rice trading is organized means that only rice traders will benefit, particularly as the increase was announced at a time when farmers are between harvests.
Furthermore, the retail price for rice has already started rising, giving local store owners plenty to complain about. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) suspects the policy is simply another ploy to buy votes.
As a result, what originally seemed like a policy intended to benefit farmers has been badly managed. It has also highlighted a blind spot in the Ma administration’s implementation of policy — a tendency to devise policies without the necessary complementary measures.
Despite the recent rise in commodity prices, the purchasing price for rice had not increased for many years. For quite some time, 4.8kg of rice cost the same as a single packet of cigarettes, an indication of the hardships faced by many farmers.
It is possible that the president and other government officials are meeting only sympathetic farmers when they visit rural areas and so haven’t heard complaints from farmers.
Legislators frequently question agricultural officials, demanding that hardworking farmers receive some sort of relief, but the typical response has been an undertaking to “make evaluations.”
Ma’s sudden announcement, just as focus has shifted to legislative and presidential elections in January, is similar to his declaration last month that construction of Kuokuang Petrochemical Technology Co’s proposed naphtha cracker in Changhua County would be suspended.
Not only is the timing of the increase in rice prices questionable, but follow-up measures to ensure that the price hike directly benefits farmers were not promptly unveiled, thus inciting public anger.
For the past three years, Ma has continually said how much he values the agricultural sector and how he has defended the interests of farmers more than any of his predecessors. Utilizing an embedded advertising strategy, the government has gone to great lengths to emphasize the successes of its agricultural policies in the media.
Ironically, the average annual income for farmers in Taiwan is still less than NT$200,000. Cross-strait agricultural exchanges and the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) have been claimed as achievements, but available data raise serious questions about the veracity of such statements.
Last year, the nation imported US$662 million worth of agricultural produce from China, while agricultural exports to China amounted to US$521 million — a trade deficit of US$141 million.
Most Taiwanese farmers and fishermen are unable to reap the benefits of cross-strait exchanges, but they are very much aware that their livelihoods are being undermined by cheap Chinese produce that is smuggled into the country and sold everywhere.
This has harmed markets and exacerbated problems in agricultural production and marketing.
Taiwanese farmers and fishermen are now skeptical about the Ma administration’s ability to govern, causing the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to lose yet more support in the south.
In light of such developments, it is inevitable that the increase in the government’s purchasing price for rice will be criticized as a blatant attempt to manipulate voters.