TAIPEI: Tainan city is home to Taiwan’s milkfish industry, which accounts for two-thirds of the island’s total output. A trade deal signed with China five years ago had boosted the city’s milkfish export and made the mainland its third largest market. But now the deal has been suspended after the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came into power.
Shih Chin-hsing, a milkfish farmer in Xuejia district of Tainan for more than 30 years, is feeling the pinch. The 64-year-old said his income increased by a third under the trade deal with China, signed by the district’s milkfish association in 2011. But now, the five-year deal is over and he is barely making ends meet.
"With the trade deal, the prices are fixed and fish farmers don’t have to take any risks. When the weather is hot, milkfish lay too many eggs and the over-supply pushes prices down. If you have the trade deal, this would not be a problem. Because when prices fall, we suffer,” said Shih.
President Tsai Ing-wen's refusal to accept the One China principle is believed to be part of the reason. Taiwan is estimated to lose about US$5 million a year, without exports of milkfish to China. Shih said that makes him feel helpless.
“I was told that there was no more deal because the Taiwan government refuses to accept the One China principle. I don’t know what that is. I just want to sell my fish. (What do you plan to do next?) I can only take one step at a time. If I can’t sell my fish, I will close down my farm and wait to die,” he said.
And he is not alone. There are more than 200 milkfish farmers in Tainan like Shih who are getting caught in the political crossfire between Taiwan and China. Aside from dealing with the squeeze from China, they are also facing pressure at home.
Their recent attempt to renew the contract with China hit a snag after the DPP government claimed the deal involved political content that required the approval of local authorities.
“We were going to bring our members to Beijing to negotiate for a renewal for the deal last September, but we received that government statement and decided not to go. It’s also because of the One China principle that we can’t continue the deal,” said Chou Chiu-yu, Tainan City Milkfish Aquaculture Association Board member.
Currently, 80 per cent of Taiwan’s milkfish is sold domestically and 20 per cent is exported largely to the Middle East. But local fish farmers hope to expand exports to China, which they believe is a bigger market. But Tainan City Mayor William Lai, a member of the DPP, has played down the impact on the fish farmers.
“Xuejia’s milkfish deal with China is a political issue and it doesn’t have much economic benefits. Why? Xuejia is the only district that signed the deal and the amount was very small, which is less than 1 per cent of Tainan’s total output. So the impact is limited,” said Mayor Lai.
For Shih and the other milkfish farmers in Xuejia, however, the non-renewal of the deal is a harsh blow and life for them is about to get a lot harder.