AFTER Negotiating for 15 Years, China and Taiwan Became Members of the World Trade Organisation Last Week

Sunday Business (London, England), November 18, 2001 | Go to article overview

AFTER Negotiating for 15 Years, China and Taiwan Became Members of the World Trade Organisation Last Week


AFTER negotiating for 15 years, China and Taiwan became members of the World Trade Organisation last week. It looks good on paper and there is a sense of achievement for both governments, but back home there are a lot of worried people.

Take Taiwan's betel farmers for example. Growers of this pungent red plant, beloved by the island's proletariat who chew it constantly, could quickly lose their livelihood. Until a week ago, the Taiwanese government protected betel farmers with high tariffs, in effect closing the market to foreign imports. But as part of its WTO obligations, Taiwan has undertaken to cut the tariffs on a wide range of farm goods, which will put up to 90,000 farmers out of work over the next three years, according to official figures.

Worst hit will be those who grow betel, garlic, bananas and sugarbeet and they are not comforted by the government's promise to set up a $3bn fund to ease the transition and provide retraining. They like being farmers and they accuse the government of betrayal.

To make matters worse, many of the cheap imports will come from the other new member of the WTO across the Taiwan Strait. China's labour costs are a fraction of those on the island and they grow a lot of garlic and sugarbeet. The betel root will come from South-east Asia, where it is grown and chewed by millions of Vietnamese, Thais and Indonesians.

Secretly, a lot of government officials think that allowing the betel farmers to go out of business is a good move because years of chewing the root results in rotting teeth, gum infection and foul breath. Witness those red, gummy smiles that greet you when you board a bus in Taipei.

Betel munchers say the practice is an important part of Taiwan's history and culture and that those opposing it work in front of computers, in air-conditioned offices and do not know the meaning of manual work.

There is a contradiction here because, according to WTO logic, lower tariffs will mean cheaper prices and higher consumption. While it may be bad for the farmers, it should be great for betel addicts who will be able to chew cheaper imports. So much for improved oral health.

Moving across the straits to the mainland, there are plenty of worried farmers there too. …

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