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Taiwan fish farmers make most of China trade deal

11 June 11 11:00 GMT

By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Taiwan

China is making it easier for its citizens to visit Taiwan but, after years of tension between the two countries, are the Taiwanese impressed by Beijing's efforts to win friends and influence?

It is always uncomfortable to be stared at, even more so while you are conducting an interview and when that stare seems cold and unblinking.

This time, the stare came from the kind of giant fish tank you see only in the lairs of James Bond villains, encased in concrete, covering one wall of the living room.

Behind the glass were two monsters - carnivorous fish each more than 1m (3ft) long.

I was here to meet Tai Kun-tsai (no villain in fact, although he did confess to a former life as a smuggler of giant groupers).

The fish who were giving me such a hard time were inside the tank.

The grouper's flesh is prized by the gourmet diners of China and Hong Kong.

They like to select the fish themselves from a restaurant's tanks so that it can be despatched with a swift blow from a cleaver and steamed at the peak of its freshness.

New legitimacy

Most of the waters off the coast of mainland China are too cold to raise the giant grouper.

Here in Taiwan though, Mr Tai can rear them on his fish farm, using a secret breeding technique he has developed. Now he exports thousands of them to the mainland every year.

I had come to talk to him about a trade agreement signed between China and Taiwan which came into force six months ago.

It is known by its initials - ECFA (the Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement). As part of the agreement, China abandoned its 13% tariff on imports of live fish.

I wanted to know if this had improved Mr Tai's ability to make money.

He fixed me with an unwavering stare - similar to the one I was getting from his fish.

Then he smiled. "I used to have to smuggle my fish into the mainland," he said, "but under ECFA, everything became more legitimate."

He told me China could produce just one in 10 of the giant groupers it now needs for its growing market. As China gets richer, this is a delicacy more and more mainlanders want to enjoy.

Elections

ECFA is sometimes described as a ploy by the mainland to win friends in Taiwan, a place it has always claimed is part of the People's Republic of China and a historical anomaly that should be corrected by reunifying the island with the motherland, by force if necessary.

But Mr Tai dismissed such talk.

"These are not concessions they're giving us," he insisted. "Chinese consumers are the winners. They're getting my fish quicker, legally and more cheaply."

Taiwan is at the start of its election cycle. Voters will go to the polls to select a new president next January.

The current president, Ma Ying-jeou, is a frequent visitor to Mr Tai's fish farm.

It is a useful campaign stop in the south of the island, an area better known for supporting the opposition - the Democratic Progressive Party - who are sceptical of the current government's efforts to build bridges with the mainland.

President Ma's nationalist government has spent the last three years thrashing out agreements that bind this island closer to the mainland.

He is hoping they will prove enough to convince voters to give him a second term.

He will play on fears that, if voters hand power to the opposition, the economic benefits his policies have created will be put at risk.

But the opposition believes that domestic concerns should be given more importance.

How well has the president run Taiwan? Their answer - of course - not very well at all.

'China needs us'

Our interview over, Mr Tai took me outside to the giant pools where his fish are raised.

We walked along a narrow ledge between two of them.

One of his staff was tossing smaller fish into the water. Swiftly from the depths, the monsters rose, some of them huge.

It was a frenzy with much thrashing around as they fought amongst themselves for a bite.

"If you fell in now," he warned me, "they'd each take a bite out of you. They wouldn't eat you, but they'd have a taste."

It is easy to portray Taiwan as small fry, an island of 23 million people at risk of being gobbled up by the 1.3bn strong, mainland China.

But as a businessman Mr Tai, does not agree with that kind of analogy.

"They need us, they need our products," he says.

He is proud of the way he and other Taiwanese businessmen have spotted opportunities to make money from mainland China, and become wealthy as a result.

For him the lesson is clear. Tiny Taiwan is stronger than Beijing or others might think.

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