It is hard to have a great deal of sympathy with the government over the fruit fight. Actually, it's hard to understand what the position of the government is.
China has opened its market to the tariff-free entry of fruit from Taiwan. Farmers here want to take advantage of this. The government seeks to use their enthusiasm to arm-twist some kind of political concession from China. Quite why China should consent to have its arm twisted as well as open its market is, frankly, hard to understand.
The government's reasoning is something of a moving target, so if we don't seem to nail it, we crave readers' forgiveness.
First it seemed that selling fruit to China was a good thing as long as the Chinese negotiated with some government-designated organization -- the Taiwan External Trade Development Council was later chosen for this purpose. China seemed unwilling to do this, preferring instead to negotiate directly with farmers' groups. The government then pointed out that inspection and quarantine were matters that only the government was capable of administering and that procedures had to be agreed on between government representatives. Once again China refused to negotiate with the Taiwan side.
Latterly we have heard how exporting fruit to China makes no sense because it will be too expensive, and in blatant contradiction, how fruit exporters risk becoming overdependent on an extremely fickle market. We have also heard how the lack of official links with China means the government will not be able to help resolve any disputes that might arise, and it has been hinted rather broadly that to want to sell fruit to China is to fall victim to a fiendish political plot -- the end result of which will be Taiwanese reciting the thoughts of Chairman Mao.
Now here is where we start to get puzzled. Why does the government give a damn? If farmers want to send mangoes to China, what is to stop them? The lack of quarantine and inspection facilities? But the Chinese don't seem to be too worried about this. They seem to think that they can reach agreement with farmers' organizations about this and they are probably right. The idea of representative organizations being self-regulating in this way is not new, even in Taiwan. Forty years ago the footwear industry was operating under an export code drawn up and administered by itself with minimal government interference.
If farmers in Taiwan want to sell fruit to China there is a common-sense attitude for the government to adopt. In light of talks between organizations representing the government of each side, the services which the government would usually provide to facilitate agricultural exports -- quarantine and certification -- will be lacking. If the farmers' organizations can work out some kind of self-regulatory approach that is satisfactory to the Chinese, then the government here simply has nothing to say. Farmers are free to export to any country that will take their produce. They do so, of course, at their own risk. Since the government is warning them against entering the China market it will certainly not bail them out should that market fail, and farmers need to clearly understand that.
This, unfortunately, is not the government's message, and the result is that the fruit exports are being seen as far more important than they are. As a portion of the nation's GDP, fruit farming verges on the statistically insignificant. Taiwan does not stand or fall on the mango market.
So let the farmers sell their fruit, stop trying to handicap them with the most amateurish cross-strait statecraft, and let the caravan move on -- perhaps to discussing something serious, like the evaporation of Taiwan's trade surplus in recent months and what this means for the economy. The fruit war is a phony war; end it now.
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