Everybody's got a beef with the US at the moment over the local government's decision to allow US beef into Taiwan.
Students in all my classes today complained to me about it, feeling put upon by the mighty US. The perception that the US had forced Taiwan to open its market to a dangerous product, that the US was acting in a high-handed manner that was ignorant of local fears, was only heightened by AIT Director William Stanton's remarks, widely disseminated in the local media (David on Formosa with a great report), that it was more dangerous to ride a scooter in Taiwan than to eat US beef. Nothing like insulting your hosts after forcing them to open their markets to you to really win those hearts and minds.
Taiwanese reaction was swift. Officials in major cities, including Taipei mayor Hau, asked local businesses to form an alliance to reject US beef -- Hau called on all 15,000 of the city's major food establishments to get involved. Several local trade groups and beef importers promised not to import "risky" beef products, including ground beef. Apple Daily had an almost full page spread on the issue. The DPP's pulchritudinous politico Bi-khim Hsiao observed that the government had gotten nothing out of the permission for US beef to enter, although as several papers reported the other day, opening the market to US beef was a prerequisite for talks on a trade agreement with the US. Feelings are clearly running high, with a China Times poll saying 71% opposed the decision (here).
The symbolism of beef on all sides is fascinating. In South Korea the decision to open the market to US beef was widely seen as a total capitulation (Wiki page, fascinating stuff), and the decision was caught up in other central government follies, reverberating into a major political issue. Here too that dynamic was going full blast, with the government accused of incompetence, and beef becoming a pawn in the KMT's internal faction fights as Taipei Mayor Hau appeared to set himself in opposition to the President, and conspiracies involving NSC head Su Chi, often portrayed as Rasputin to Ma's Czar Nicholas, and commonly said to be the source of many controversial decisions. Su Chi himself said that the Presidential Office had guided the decision, and that it was to balance the "disequilibrium" in US-China-Taiwan relations. The outlandish claims that the Wiki page on South Korea reports were replicated today in my class, as students claimed US beef would certainly kill them.
The US Meat Federation says Taiwan is the nation's sixth largest market for US beef, whose total exports were a whopping $3 billion annually. For the sake of the profits of a few large meat producers the US decided to expend its political capital on this trivial product. Is there no issue in which we can behave with grace as a secure and powerful nation?
Fear of globalization? Reaction to feelings of powerlessness? Symbol of how Taiwan is caught between great powers on every side? You make the call.
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