China’s import ban on Taiwanese citrus is hurting pomelo farmers

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Pomelos growing at Jhan Jun-hao's farm in Ruisui Township, Taiwan on August 10.  Growers in Taiwan are facing an economic hit as China banned imports of Taiwanese citrus in response to Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan.  (Photo by An Rong Xu for Washington Post)
Pomelos growing at Jhan Jun-hao’s farm in Ruisui Township, Taiwan on August 10. Growers in Taiwan are facing an economic hit as China banned imports of Taiwanese citrus in response to Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. (A Rong Xu for the Washington Post)

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RUISUI, Taiwan — In a sunspotted orchid, Taiwanese pomelo farmer Jhan Jun-hao lays out a multifaceted plan to prevent China’s import ban from decimating income from his 130 or so trees of the pear-shaped, fleshy citrus.

Ideally he would land new deals to sell domestically to large supermarkets. If this does not succeed, he tries his luck at early auctions on wholesale markets.

“Of course I’m not optimistic,” says the 33-year-old bespectacled farmer and graduate forester. “Taiwan grows more fruit than it can eat, so we have to sell overseas,” he said, adding that there really is no second largest export market for pomelos. China is the only place one can hope to sell on a large scale.

On Aug. 3, the day after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) landed in the self-governing democracy of 23 million people that Beijing claims as its own, Chinese orders for Taiwan’s grapefruit, which is part of China’s package is military exercises and trade measures to punish Taipei.

Chinese warplanes, missiles and warships circled Taiwan to send out a threatening message about the Chinese Communist Party’s willingness to invade if Taipei ever formalizes its independence. Though the intensity of the drills has lessened in recent days, analysts expect Beijing to continue with escalated economic coercion as part of efforts to punish President Tsai Ing-wen’s government in Taiwan.

Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan heralds a new phase in China’s pressure campaign

In recent years, China has often used its vast market to pressure other governments. When South Korea deployed a US missile defense system with a radar capable of monitoring Chinese launch sites, its companies in China faced boycotts and sudden inspections. A diplomatic row with Canberra prompted Beijing to ban Australian coal and, among other things, impose heavy tariffs on its wine imports.

The same playbook is used on Taiwan. Citing quality concerns, Chinese customs announced they would suspend imports of Taiwanese citrus fruits, two types of fish and hundreds of packaged foods such as cookies and instant noodles.

Although agricultural exports account for less than 1 percent of total trade, the ban has had an outsized impact on Taiwan’s fishing and farming communities. The Taiwan Agriculture Council estimated that trade would be affected by just over $20 million. The greatest pressure is on farmers like Jhan, who are struggling to secure their income.

Guaranteeing a good price for seasonal fruits like pomelos is never easy. However, according to Liu Yuan-he, an auctioneer at the Taipei First Fruit and Vegetable Wholesale Market, China’s ban means supply has outstripped demand for domestic bulk sales.

At 4 a.m. on a recent day, the 26-year-old veteran stood behind his electronic auction machine rattling through batches of pomelo in one quick clip. Compared to nearby stalls selling dragon fruit and lemons, the amount of grapefruit was small and tender. Many lots remained unsold.

“For Hualien, about 70 percent [of locally grown pomelos] usually sold overseas to mainland China. Now they don’t know what to do with that 70 percent, so most of it is auctioned off,” he said, referring to the Taiwanese county, which includes Ruisui Municipality. A bigger problem in the long run, according to Liu, is that young Taiwanese simply aren’t eating as much grapefruit as older generations. “They don’t like having to cut them up,” he said. “Pomelos will probably become extinct over time.”

Taiwan plans to increase defense spending to ward off China’s military threat

China’s ban comes at the worst time for pomelo farmers. When well grown and with a smooth and unblemished skin, the fruit is a popular gift for family and friends on the Mid-Autumn Festival on September 10th. Because the holiday, which is determined by the lunar calendar, falls early this year and the hot and dry summer has delayed harvesting, there is only a short window of opportunity between ripening and the holiday for sale.

“Taiwan’s fruit exports remain heavily dependent on China, and the import bans have caused farmers losses,” said Christina Lai, an assistant professor at Academia Sinica, a state-run research academy in Taiwan. “It is certainly quite difficult for the Taiwanese government and farmers to immediately diversify tropical fruit exports, which would involve significant costs from logistics and storage to finding new business partners.”

Democratic nations have increasingly banded together to resist China’s global campaign of economic coercion. Taiwan’s Economy Ministry this month announced a $6.7 million fund to diversify trade and expand markets in Japan, Southeast Asia and the United States.

After repeated incidents of Chinese economic coercion, Taiwan’s producers “gradually realized that the risks of the mainland market are relatively high,” Min-Hsien Yang, a professor at the Department of International Economics and Trade at Taiwan’s Feng Chia University, said in an interview.

“What I could never understand is that even if the current cross-strait relations are not good, [China] does not have to sacrifice products from farmers and fishermen,” Yang added. From a political point of view, it seems like a lost strategy. It’s tiny in relation to overall trade, but it affects a lot of people. China “wants more support, not more hate, right?” Yang asked.

US and Taiwan begin formal trade talks amid fallout from Pelosi visit

In 2021, China remained the largest destination for Taiwanese exports, accounting for 19 percent of the total. Most of the trade is in electronics and other technology products, which are unaffected by Beijing’s penalties.

Chinese imports from Taiwan have continued to rise since Tsai took office, despite Beijing’s economic measures to punish the president’s and the Democratic Progressive Party’s alleged pro-independence policies.

Early in her career, Tsai often criticized the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement with China, which she once described as “a poisonous pill with sugar icing,” but she later softened her position on cross-strait trade. Her government has tried to maintain communications, exchanges and trade with China, but on the condition that the relationship must be mutually beneficial and should not be used as a tool to benefit China’s economy while undermining Taiwan’s.

Much of the action taken to resolve farmers’ concerns is taking place at the headquarters of the Ruisui Municipality Farmers’ Union. In a building that once housed a dinosaur museum, workers take calls from frustrated farmers. To find other ways to use up excess fruit, the association branches into grapefruit soap, tea and salt.

Hhung Sheng-Huang, the group’s director, said he was very stressed trying to find domestic markets for pomelos, which were previously expected to be sold to China.

However, he added that government support is already opening up new outlets and efforts to process pomelos and automate aspects of farming are gradually making headway. Earlier this month, they held an event to showcase the first automatic grapefruit peeling machine developed in Taiwan.

China’s actions somewhat color his view of the country, but Hhung’s main belief is that political disputes should be kept out of the economy. “I just hope that the other side of the strait can sympathize with the hard work of these farmers and not put political pressure on them,” he said.

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