Delicious Milkfish: Enjoyed on Both Sides of the Strait
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
November 1, 2011
Summary: Cross-Strait exchanges must not remain mired in politics. They must be seen in a more pragmatic, economic light. There are many different ways to prepare milkfish. If we dig deeper, we can reach a better understanding. We can get past short term advantage and accusations of "reunification strategy." So many areas of cross-Strait exchanges remain taboo. Milkfish, groupers, pomelos, commercial advertising, financial cooperation, performing artists. In this particular case, a few milkfish exports have led to questions about the fishermen's ideology. Isn't this rather absurd?
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Milkfish is cheap, nutritious, and delicious proletarian cuisine. It can be fried, "looed," or made into soup, porridge, or fish balls. Mainland buyers have put in order after order for milkfish from Xuejia, Tainan. Nevertheless a recent poll showed no change in the "Blue 30%, Green 70%" voter demographic. This suggests that Beijing's "silver bullet offensive" has been ineffective. But the real question is how Mainland consumers came to like milkfish in the first place. Who if anyone showed Mainland consumers how prepare milkfish?
Milkfish is being sold to the Mainland. This leads us to the fishermen, and their political ideology. The fishermen are indeed problematic. They do indeed exhibit "special Taiwanese characteristics." Their "nativist" attitude is typical for Taiwan. Referring to the problem in such terms however, is also problematic. When one conducts business, does one demand to know how the buyer feels, or how one can increase sales? Isn't demanding that the seller alter his political ideology in response sales just a little bit strange? People on Taiwan habitually reduce cross-Strait relations to politics. This of course, is the result of the two sides' special relationship. But matters have been over-politicized, to the point where they interfere with pragmatic concerns and limit future possibilities. This is a blind spot. We must be aware of it. If milkfish was being exported to Japan, would we make the same demands upon the fishermen?
Taiwan milkfish fishermen have contracts with Mainland buyers. These contracts are naturally going to have political overtones. But they remain matters of commerce. They must remain economic in nature. If the price is unreasonable, if payment is not timely, if delivery is tardy, if quality control is lax, if consumer acceptance is low, then the commercial relationship cannot be sustained. From an economic perspective, the logic is clear. The pros and cons can readily be calculated. Business is business. But suppose we blindly denounce milkfish sales as part of Beijing's "reunification strategy?" Suppose we blindly denounce any loss in milkfish sales as "milkfish sales losing their value in reunification strategy," or as Beijing "exacting punishment?" Aren't we saying that making a sale amounts to victimization? Aren't we saying that conducting commerce amounts to putting our heads on the chopping block?
The issue is not limited to milkfish. The ECFA early harvest list includes groupers from Pingtung, pomelo from Matou, and bananas from Kaohsiung. They have all been exported to the Mainland this year. The quantities are large. From Taiwan's perspective, this stabilizes prices for locally grown products. It protects farmers' income. It enables them to avoid selling at a loss or allowing their products to rot. From the Mainland's perspective, the Mainland public is afforded an opportunity to enjoy fruits and fish from Taiwan. This enables the Mainland public to feel closer to Taiwan. This enables farmers, fishermen, and officials from both sides to meet each other, understand each other, learn what the other expects, and create a win/win relationship. From a cultural perspective, the impact of such exchanges on society far outweighs any political considerations.
Many cross-Strait transactions cannot be carried out due to political considerations. Endless second-guessing makes progress impossible. Mainland businesses want to run commercial advertisements on Taiwan. But the MAC remains mired in the martial law era. Superficially, it is worried that Beijing will produce partisan political "product placement" ads. But deeper down, it is more worried about the opposition DPP accusing the government of "selling out Taiwan." Hundreds of millions of dollars of milkfish sales a year have not been able to win the hearts and minds of Xuejia fishermen. How can the national allegiance of the Taiwan public possibly be subverted by a few commercial ads? If advertising on both sides can increase commercial opportunities, what does the MAC have to fear from Mainland advertising?
Cross-strait negotiations often involve "concessions." It is time to rethink this as well. During commercial negotiations, securing the most favorable terms is a good thing. But talk of "concessions" is often equated with surrender in the face of "reunification strategy." Initially, one may feel one has gotten a sweet deal. Eventually however, one may find oneself mired in passivity. For example, rumors have emerged that limits will be imposed on performing artists from Taiwan. The reason is that our side imposes too many limitations on performing artists from the Mainland. Also, the two sides must accelerate financial cooperation to bolster Taiwan-funded enterprises and cross-Strait trade. This is a matter of great urgency. But the government is afraid to allow Mainland banks to operate on Taiwan. This has delayed attempts by financial institutions from Taiwan to establish a foothold on the Mainland. Insufficient boldness limits one to eking out petty gains.
Cross-Strait exchanges must not remain mired in politics. They must be seen in a more pragmatic, economic light. This is true even for culture. The two sides' entertainment realms and academic realms are cross-fertilizing each other. There are many different ways to prepare milkfish. If we dig deeper, we can reach a better understanding. We can get past short term advantage and accusations of "reunification strategy." So many areas of cross-Strait exchanges remain taboo. Milkfish, groupers, pomelos, commercial advertising, financial cooperation, performing artists. In this particular case, a few milkfish exports have led to questions about the fishermen's ideology. Isn't this rather absurd?