Got Beef with President Horse?

by on Friday, 29 June 2012 Comments

Is Ma Yingjiu truly the son of Satan?

Upon being reelected in the 2012 presidential election this January, Ma Yingjiu (or Horse England Nine1, as one of my former students called him), must have felt the calm satisfaction of a job well done. He had just defeated a fairly strong opposition by a very tight margin, and would have four more years of control to shape Taiwan the way he saw fit. Little did he know that just five months down the line, he would be the target of (almost) everyone’s criticism.

It has been common over the last few months to read strong criticism of President Ma in both newspapers and televised media, and even the public has seemed to lose faith in their president, at least according to approval ratings, which have dropped as low as 18% at various points this year. To listen to the press, it seems as if literally every problem that arises, from the increasing price of electricity and fuel, to torrential rains, is directly caused by his incompetence and poor decision-making.

As amusing as it is to believe that Ma has the power to call forth earthquakes and rain, it is obvious that a lot of the problems are being politicized and, while Ma’s leadership is far from perfect, it is hard to believe that if the DPP was in power they would do things any differently in certain aspects. This criticism from political opposition is common, ad it doesn’t help that Taiwanese society is extremely divided when it comes to politics.

The reason I mention that it is hard to believe that the opposition would do things differently is because some people seem to believe that a president makes all his decisions independently, without outside influence, which is of course ludicrous. Ma Yingjiu has only limited control over some of the issues pressing the country, particularly since Taiwan doesn’t have much pull on the international scene. As an example, the increase of the prices of electricity and fuel are responding to a rising demand, and tensions in the Middle East respectively. Whilst obviously no one likes having the prices of commodities go up, how could the DPP do things any differently?

Again, there is little Taiwan can do in the political scene, and it should come as no surprise to anyone, since from the beginning and throughout his last term he made it very clear that he is pro-China, that Ma’s policies have been tending towards relations with the mainland. Like it or not, Taiwan needs to have a relationship with China, seeing as, at the very least, both countries are neighbors.

This is where it gets interesting. The biggest issue lately in the press has been the ban on US beef imports. The controversy stems from the fact that traces of the leanness-enhancing drug ractopamine can be found in US beef products. The use of this drug is banned in around 100 countries, including big markets such as China, the EU, and currently Taiwan, and therefore US beef imports are also banned in these areas. The KMT is coming under fire because of Ma’s determination to lift the ban(which, as I will elaborate upon later, is probably largely politically motivated).

The DPP, in addition to a large amount of consumers and farmers, have all protested the move, although their motivations are probably very different. To address the consumers first, they complain that beef is unsafe and that they don’t want to eat it. There are my things that can said about this. The first is that there have been no documented cases of ractopamine poisoning in humans, so, at least for the moment, its adverse health effects are largely speculative. Also, there is the hypocrisy of complaining that one doesn’t want to eat unhealthy things and demonizing the US when Taiwan’s food is no better. Who knows what additives are included in home grown meat? The scandal with plasticizers last year shows that authorities, consumers, and businesspeople alike are less than inquisitive about what is included in their products. At least the use of ractopamine is regulated; it took years to discover the plastic residues in beverages. Why then such hatred for a substance that most people don’t understand? It may come back to the “foreign bad, local good” mentality or it could be a purely political opposition masquerading behind health concerns.

This is not to say that I support pumping farm animals full of drugs. Far from it. The simplest thing would be for the US beef companies to farm their cattle in a more natural way and to stop pumping them full of chemicals, as is already practiced in many areas of the US. Ractopamine does not increase productivity, and the cost associated with feeding it to the animals increases the price of the meat, so economically it only benefits the pharmaceutical companies that sell it.

That being said, the political consequences should Taiwan fail to lift the ban, as the US has made painfully clear, will be dire. The US would presumably block any discussion of a potential Free Trade Area between both countries and any talks of Taiwan joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, both of which would be severe blows. In addition, it would probably stop selling or reduce the amount of weaponry sold to Taiwan. Finally, it would also be likely that the right to visa-free entry for Taiwanese citizens into the U.S. might also be affected.

As despicable as the US bullying tactics are, I cannot but reticently acknowledge that this is the way the game is played. And in this particular round, the potential cost attached to blocking the import of U.S. beef is truly sensational. It shouldn’t be about the parties bickering with each other, it should be about doing what’s right for Taiwan with the big picture in mind. The DPP opposes lifting the ban. If they were in power, would they relinquish all the benefits that their relationship with the U.S. gives them and make an enemy of them, whilst simultaneously distancing themselves from China? It doesn’t seem like a very smart move, and I believe that, since the DPP are not stupid, it is not a move they would take. This is the reason I mentioned before that Ma’s hands were tied when it comes to international politics. When you are a state like Taiwan, you can’t afford to make enemies of both the U.S. and China, and risking a bad outcome over a relatively minor issue is not a smart move.

Since eventually lifting the ban is the most likely outcome, what can those people who don’t want to eat ractopamine do? It’s quite simple, stop eating beef, or at least U.S. one. Traditionally, beef has not been big in Taiwan and (barring Beef noodles, which originated in the 1960s) it is ironically the idealization and pursuit of American culture and food amongst the more affluent Taiwanese that has led to an increase in consumption of beef, particularly steak. The vast majority of restaurants clearly indicate the origin of their beef, so it is simple enough to avoid the American beef in favor of Australian of New Zealand varieties, although the smarter customer would probably do better to go back to the healthier days when eating steak was not a status indicator, since, of all the diets to emulate, for health reasons, the American one is probably one of the least beneficial.

Ma’s critics will no doubt continue to make mountains out of molehills with this ractopamine issue when their attention could be better focused in other directions. His policies towards China are much more important and offer many more opportunities for structured and logical criticism. There are certainly many things he could be doing better, which is proven by his low approval ratings, and those are the topics that this detractors should be focusing on. I have no political affiliation or interest in either party, I am merely pointing out that perhaps some of the criticism is slightly misplaced. It would be refreshing to see two political parties engage in productive discussion instead of name-calling and criticizing issues over which there is little leverage to be exerted. Until that happens, however, and perhaps even if it does, many people will continue to have beef with Ma Yingjiu.


Article by Daniel Pagan Murphy

Photo by Paul Farrelly


1. The direct literal translation into English of the three characters that compose his name (馬英九).



Daniel Pagan Murphy (李大年)

Graduated from the University of Leeds with a BA Chinese-International Relations in 2009. He has been living in Taiwan ever since and has been working at eRenlai since 2011.

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