After years of threatening Taiwan with missiles, China has discovered a new and possibly more effective weapon to achieve its goal of what it calls "unification:" wooing farmers with the promise of a big market for their glut of fruits and vegetables.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) last month offered to help farmers in southern Taiwan sell their produce to China.
A large fruit show was held in Beijing the past week to introduce Taiwanese mangoes, pineapples, oranges and bananas to the Chinese.
President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) administration is alarmed.
Farmers have long been staunch supporters of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
They have firmly backed the government and rejected China's overtures and pressure to unify.
Officials and lawmakers in Taiwan are worried farmers will be vulnerable to the latest fruit offensive as China has offered lower tariffs and relaxed quarantine controls.
"They are using farm imports to win the hearts of Taiwanese farmers and further control them," said a leading DPP Legislator Lai Ching-te (賴清德).
"Even so, we don't object to the exports, but the two sides must sit down to discuss it so China can't toughen up the terms once it has achieved its purpose," he said.
China considers Taiwan a part of its territory and has threatened war to stop the self-ruled, democratic island from pursuing formal independence.
For years, the communist regime in China has lured Taiwanese businesspeople to invest there, as part of a campaign to win support for the objective of eventual unification.
Taiwan's government could face immense pressure to negotiate farm exports by the estimated 3.4 million rural population, out of Taiwan's total 23 million people.
Farmers have faced an influx of foreign produce since Taiwan joined the WTO three years ago and had to open its markets.
They have also fallen victim to the mass exodus of factories to China over the past two decades.
People in rural Taiwan traditionally count on factory jobs to subsidize their farm incomes.
Despite their plight, rural people in southern Taiwan have vehemently backed the DPP. The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which favors friendly ties with China, has a voter base mainly in the middle-class dominated north.
Opposition lawmakers said the DPP has won voter support in the south by presenting itself as a grassroots party that stands up to "evil" China.
"The DPP has for years told farmers to hate the Chinese," said lawmaker Lin Yi-shih (林益世).
"But one can't live on political fervor alone. I wonder how many farmers will say I'd rather starve than sell my produce to China," said Lin, who came from southern Kaohsiung County, a DPP stronghold.
Limited Taiwanese fruits, orchids, seedlings, frozen and processed foods have been exported to China.
tackling the question
But the exports were done by traders, and few farmers were aware that their goods ended up in the Chinese market, Lin said.
Still, the opposition has refrained from tackling the question of exports to China for fear it could be labeled as pro-Beijing and thus lose voter support.
Some farmers, however, have begun to question if they should keep distancing themselves from China, said Jan Che (詹澈), a Pro-KMT member of the Taiwan Farmers' Alliance.
"They saw the many `love Taiwan' businesspeople move to China and make great fortunes there," Jan said.
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