The cross-strait service trade agreement was signed in June last year, but remains mired in controversy and has yet to be approved by the legislature, while negotiations about a trade in goods agreement are ongoing. Nevertheless, media reports say that, following consultations between a certain company and Chinese government agencies such as the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) and the Taiwan Affairs Office, lettuce from Taiwan will now be given quick clearance through Chinese customs. The reports described how Taiwanese officials looked on as two container loads of lettuce were shipped directly to China.
The government said a few days ago that when the Shanghai Pilot Free Trade Zone is eventually linked with Taiwan’s planned free economic pilot zones, it was considering allowing private Chinese firms nominated by the AQSIQ to set up facilities for farm-product inspection in the Taiwanese zones, so that there would be no need for them to be inspected again when passing through Chinese customs. This proposal has raised concerns about whether it is meant to pave the way for Chinese businesses to come to Taiwan and invest in agricultural logistics operations.
What concerns people is that the authorities on either side of the Taiwan Strait have varying regulations about what agricultural inputs are allowed and what test methods and residue levels are permitted, and they also face different situations regarding diseases and pests.
Before the two governments reached full agreement about recognizing each other’s certifications, they must take into account the need to guarantee the public’s food safety and guard against alien pathogens. Bearing this in mind, further negations will be needed to cover express customs clearance for fresh farm produce.
However, a private company appears to have been given the green light to export its products, setting aside major issues to do with food safety on both sides of the Taiwan Strait rather than following officially agreed upon channels.
Is this incident a special case, or will it apply across the board? The government departments concerned must offer a clear account, so that other firms in the same line of business can also receive express clearance when they export Taiwanese agricultural products to China, rather than bigger corporations being given a special privilege.
Even more important to consider is that the WTO requires equal treatment for citizens of different countries. Based on this principle, the question arises of whether Chinese farm products will be given express access to Taiwan through the same channel and procedures. Will Taiwan act reciprocally by accepting safety inspection certificates and labels issued by Chinese authorities?
There is good cause to worry, because Chinese farmers use a lot of agricultural chemicals, growth hormones, antibiotics and other drugs, while inspections and quarantine procedures are unevenly applied in different parts of China.
Such uneven approaches also apply to the way safety certificates are issued by Chinese authorities. Some issue licenses at the drop of a hat, and the Chinese market is full of products carrying fake certificates.
Will these factors result in Taiwanese consumers being exposed to even greater food safety risks than they already are? Similar doubts apply to import and export quarantine and inspections of raw and processed agricultural products in the planned free economic pilot zones.
The responsible government departments should carefully assess these issues and then explain them to the public and allow people to ask difficult questions. These matters should not be dealt with behind closed doors, and the government should not be reduced to playing second fiddle to a corporate show.
Following trade liberalization, more kinds of food and ingredients are being imported into Taiwan, from an ever-wider range of sources and in ever-increasing quantities. Consequently, food safety risks keep increasing and have almost reached the level of a national security problem.
Advanced countries may use sophisticated tests and equipment operated by highly qualified personnel to legally block imports of foreign farm produce. Taiwanese consumers have experienced a series of adulterated food scares and these painful lessons have caused them to completely lose faith in the government’s ability to ensure food safety within and without the nation’s borders.
People also no longer believe in the benevolent corporate images that big companies have constructed for themselves.
If government departments are going to uphold the good-quality image that has taken decades to establish for Taiwan-made products and ensure food safety, they should think twice before authorizing outside contractors to conduct inspection and quarantine-related tasks.
The news is full of stories about things such as the faulty electronic toll collection for freeways, officials’ attendance at banquets given by big companies and the illegal construction of a villa in a national park by the brother of a county commissioner. These issues show that it will take more than complaints to change the cozy relationships between officials and corporations. People must work together to monitor the government and make sure that government officials fulfill their responsibilities.
As economist Jeffrey Sachs, a US proponent of “clinical economics,” says, only when everyone in the country has faith in politics and the sense that they have a role in political processes can the problem of plutocracy be overcome and the nightmare of corporatocracy be avoided.
Du Yu is chief executive officer of the Chen-Li Task Force for Agricultural Reform.
Translated by Julian Clegg