War of the Pineapples


Posted 2021-03-03 11:34:19

Something unusual is happening here in Taiwan, to which I returned last Friday to resume duties. But as health protocols go, I have to be on home quarantine for 14 days from arrival.

 

China, in one of its many attempts to put pressure on self-ruled Taiwan, has imposed a ban on the importation of pineapples from this island, which produces perhaps the sweetest pineapples in the world.

 

When I was a small boy growing in San Pablo City, we would always have pineapples for breakfast coming from neighboring Calauan. My lola called them “pinyang Formosa” because the variety supposedly came from Taiwan, which was then called Formosa, the name the Portuguese called what was then Chiang Kai-Shek’s retreat fortress from the mainland, and which was then recognized by the US and it’s allies as “the” Republic of China.

 

Indeed, Taiwan pineapples are so sweet and juicy, and in most varieties, even the center core can be eaten, much like the small Ormoc pineapples I have had the pleasure to enjoy. But Chinese customs announced a halt to imports effective March first, citing “harmful organisms” detected. China produces very little of the fruit, which grows best in highland but tropical temperatures.

 

I recall my visit to Beijing April of 2012, to lobby their Minister of Commerce to vote at the WTO in favor of the extension of our quantitative restrictions on rice importation. At the time, we had a Scarborough Shoal tiff with China, and the week before, their customs authorities banned imports of bananas from the Philippines due to “pests and insects” supposedly detected in a big shipment to their country.

 

Our agricultural attache, who met me at the airport, was quite nervous that because of geopolitical reasons, my mission would be doomed to fail. I said I knew that, which is why among the seven countries which announced in Geneva December of 2011 that they would intervene on our request for QR extension, I started with China. Under WTO rules, a single member country veto would write finis to the request. “Kaya ko inuna ang China. If they say no, then I don’t have to parley with Vietnam, Thailand, India, Pakistan, the US and El Salvador,” I explained. Fortunately, China’s Ministry of Commerce was supportive after a mere one-hour conference, and even invited me and my group to a 12-course lunch which was not on the pre-arranged schedule.

 

But back to pineapples.

 

The Taiwan government lashed at the ban as “economic intimidation,” pointing that its pineapples have had 100 percent safety check rates. Presidential Spokesperson Kolas Yotaka, an indigenous Taiwanese said, “Taiwanese pineapples are too sweet for bitter Beijing.”

 

As a result, the people here have rallied behind their pineapples, launching a hashtag “Freedom Pineapple” which has gone viral throughout the world. Local celebrities joined government officials in urging the world to buy more of the “freedom” pineapples, while asking Taiwanese to eat more pineapples.

 

The domestic response has thus far exceeded expectations. Internet celebrity Holger Chen announced that he would buy 500,000 NT dollars (about P850,000) worth of the fruit, for distribution to the chain of gyms he founded. “Don’t bully us,” Chen defiantly wrote in a Facebook post.

 

Taoyuan, Taichung, Kaohsiung, Hsinchu, Keelung and other mayors exhorted their constituencies to “empty supermarket shelves and markets” of the national fruit, in support of their farmers.

 

The chairman of PX Mart, one of Taiwan’s largest retailers, announced that they will purchase at least 10,000 metric tons or 10 million kilos. Even electronic giants joined in the buy Taiwan pineapple frenzy.

I-MEI Foods Co., another large food manufacturer and retailer, which employs almost exclusively Filipino workers, and have launched direct-hire job fairs in Manila and Davao during our watch, placed initial orders of 1,600,000 kilos. Pastry operators pledged to buy 5,000 tons, and I suspect the famous Chia-Te, where I usually buy cranberry and strawberry cakes, will next sell only pineapple cakes, their signature product which almost every tourist buys as food memento, as a measure of solidarity.

 

What we see here is an example of nationalism and a strong sense of solidarity among the people of Taiwan, who value their farmers and are proud of their produce, which are truly of world-class quality.

 

And with the slack in foreign visitors coupled with the safety concerns of travelling abroad, one also notices how strong their domestic tourism has become. During the Chinese New Year holidays, traffic was congested in the mountain roads leading to tourist sites, and in the capitals, shopping was brisk in the shopping malls and outlet stores. Restaurants ran out of food to serve customers waiting for hours to get seated.

 

Still, foreign observers notice that everyone, but everyone, wears protective face masks. They did this since late January 2020 when the government learned about the coronavirus in Wuhan, China, and have been doing the same since, especially in crowded places. Oh, and by the way, no one wears face shields here, except medical workers attending to infectious disease patients.

 

And, as spring breaks out, with flowers beginning to bloom, from the native cherry trees of Wuling and Alishan, to the calla lily fields of Yangmingshan near Taipei, people congregate in droves, spending money to shore up the domestic economy.