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PRC Taiwan Affairs Office Deputy Director Zheng Lizhong

Going Straight to Taiwan's Grassroots


Going Straight to Taiwan's Grassroots


Reaching into Taiwan' local communities, he projects himself as a populist in the mold of former provincial governor James Soong. How does he do it?



Going Straight to Taiwan's Grassroots

By Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 509 )

His concentration laser-like, and notebook filled with copious notes on agricultural and fishery products from towns all around Taiwan, he has made tracks through over 340 local communities across the island. Zheng Lizhong, deputy director of the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) of China's State Council, seems to be perpetually taking notes. But he collects more than cold, hard facts and figures, winning local hearts and minds as he moves about.

As spring began stirring, outgoing PRC state president Wen Jiabao gave a final press conference for international media this past March. During his remarks, Wen set the tone for future cross-strait relations, saying, "(We will) take special care of the interests of Taiwan's small- and medium-size enterprises, specialized local industries, and grassroots citizens, especially the people of central and southern Taiwan."

This statement was the first time in over a decade that Wen Jiabao explicitly named the "triple middle" to which the PRC aims to devote more attention, namely Taiwan's SMEs, middle- and lower-income households, and residents of the central and southern parts of the island.

Zheng Lizhong is a key figure in China's targeting of Taiwan's "triple middle."

Outdoing James Soong

Over the last two years Zheng has made multiple visits to Taiwan, meeting farmers and fishermen around the island wherever he goes.

"He's covered every town and village, making friends everywhere. He's more of a James Soong than James Soong was," says the bespectacled, graying Han-Chun Hsiao, general manager of the Kaohsiung City Farmers' Association, making reference to former Taiwan provincial governor James Soong, renowned for his community-level networking. In spite of his lofty minister-level position, Zheng never puts on the airs of a bureaucrat.

"The PRC stresses accessing the island, entering households, and touching hearts and minds. They have come straight onto the island, right to your door, and know what's on your mind," observes Tsai Chin-shu, chairman of the Commerce Industry & Culture Interchange Association.

The association was founded in 1995 under the leadership of former legislator Lei Yu-chi. Despite its name, it is registered as a political party with the Ministry of the Interior.

"At the time the idea was to set up a third party to back candidates," relates Tsai, a former student of Lei's active on both sides of the strait going as far back as 1992.

Holder of a doctorate degree from the Institute of Taiwan Studies at the University of Xiamen in China, Tsai Chin-shu proffers a business card that, in addition to noting his position as chairman of the Commerce Industry & Culture Interchange Association, is jammed with characters in tiny fonts giving his titles as director and standing member of eight different private-sector organizations, as well as a boutique in Xiamen dealing in aged sorghum liquor and tea from Taiwan.

From last year through last week, Tsai helped facilitate three visits to Taiwan by Zheng Lizhong. The itinerary for each of Zheng's visits to Pingdong is directly coordinated by Wang Xiaobing, deputy director of the Taiwan Affairs Office's Department of Political Parties.

And here in Taiwan, if it is not Taiwanese business community leaders guiding Zheng Lizhong on his tours of Taiwan's agricultural and fishing villages, it is elected legislators, for Zheng has people on the ground wherever he goes.

Speaking Taiwanese, Winning Hearts and Minds

One day last June, Zheng Lizhong stood by an aquaculture pool in Pingdong's Linbian Township chatting with fishery industry people, picking their brains with such questions as how many fish hatchlings could be sustained per plot, the cost of raising them to maturity, and the price per catty on the wholesale market. He dutifully recorded all the responses in his notebook in extensive detail. This past February, during a visit coordinated by Tsai Chin-shu to the Sin Fang Specialized Rice Production and Marketing Area in Pingdong's Sinyuan Township, he was keenly interested in why China's rice processing facilities destroy four out of every 10 rice kernels, whereas the average is only three out of 10 in Taiwan.

In the Tainan countryside he sits on a small stool in a four-sided compound chatting with farmers in fluent Hoklo dialect over rice noodle soup. At the sight of indigenous people lining the streets and greeting him with welcoming dances in Pingdong's Laiyi Township, he quietly suggests to Tsai Chin-shu, "Given the hot ground in the summer heat and the possibility of people getting wet in the rain, maybe we should put up some awnings for them."

Making friends and winning hearts and minds is one thing, but talk must be accompanied by action and tangible benefits to people. "They go around observing and asking questions everywhere, and wherever they can liberalize and institute policies beneficial to Taiwan's grass roots, they do it," relates Tsai Chin-shu.

Agricultural Sales to China Doubled

A sign to the left of the entrance to the Kaohsiung City Farmers' Association reads Kaohsiung Agricultural Development Corporation. Inside, general manager Hsiao, still busy working on arrangements for a late October trip to China, raises his head and fires off a list of figures, noting that not only have Taiwan's fruit sales hit few slow periods, but the company has exported large quantities of pomelos, mangoes, and atemoyas to China. With an enthusiastic thumbs-up, he says, "Sales are up by a full hundred percent."

Han-Chun Hsiao is especially sanguine about agricultural exports to China. According to statistics from the Council of Agriculture, since both sides entered the ECFA deal in 2010, sales of agricultural products to China have leapt from US$360 million in 2009 to US$670 million, with US$550 million as of September this year alone. (See Table)

Rice is another good example. With Zheng Lizhong still fresh from his February visit to Pingdong's Sin Fang Specialized Rice Production and Marketing Area, Taiwan Affairs Office director Wang Yi announced the PRC's policy of trade liberalization with Taiwan at the cross-strait forum concluded in June, among which one prominent item was rice imports from Taiwan.

"The resumption of cultivation on idle land can provide an outlet for rice, along with employment opportunities for farmers and laborers," Zheng asserts to friends.

One veteran observer with extensive cross-strait experience bluntly states that China's strategy is very clear: get things done right now. "Don't let cross-strait developments regress; the deeper and longer they progress, the less chance there will be to backtrack."

This approach is not without its blind spots, however. One trade official who requested anonymity describes Zheng Lizhong's approach of working Taiwan's grassroots through local elected representatives and fisheries and agricultural associations as "propaganda." Clarifying this assertion, he says, "Newsprint space and articles have long exceeded their value. This buying of people's hearts and minds is money well spent."

However, when Zheng facilitates the purchase of agricultural products or access to the PRC market for agricultural and fisheries products, in some cases this has not been integrated into sales and distribution agencies across the strait. Taking the example of atemoya fruit grown in Taidong, enjoyed in China for its intense sweetness, vast exports to Hong Kong and the mainland have generated over US$10 million in sales over the past four years.

In contrast, rice produced in Taiwan on a small-scale, high-cost model lacks competitiveness across the strait. "A change or cessation of policy could ruin everything," says the trade official, betraying his pessimism about the enthusiasm for Taiwanese agricultural products across the strait.

Zeroing In on the Pro-independence Heartland

One example is the contracted aquaculture production of milkfish from Tainan City's Syuejia District.

Zheng Lizhong successfully midwifed an agreement between the Shanghai Fisheries Group and Shinejia Foods Co. of Syuejia for the import of milkfish. Under the terms, the price of the milkfish, for which there was an oversupply, was arbitrarily raised from just over NT$20 per catty to $45 for export to Shanghai.

In reality, milkfish aquaculture is commonplace all along the west coast of Taiwan, from Jiayi south to Pingdong. "By moving into Syuejia, they're trying to achieve a breakthrough in perceptions of the mainland among fishing communities, starting with the greenest areas," local media workers commented. (Here, "green" refers to the official color of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.) To local observers, the intention behind this effort to "test the waters" was transparent.

However, milkfish did not catch on well in Shanghai, where local tastes differ, and the exports, originally purported to be in the range of 1800 tons per annum, were cut in half. According to statistics from Taiwan's Directorate General of Customs, exports to China last year reached only 906 tons, with just 500 tons sold across the strait through June of this year.

In spite of such concerns, Zheng Lizhong has unquestionably succeeded in improving relations with farmers and fishermen by interacting closely with them. Slowly but surely, PRC authorities are learning that views cannot be completely changed within a short span of two years. Accordingly, this year they have raised the stakes, working with food processors to sell processed milkfish, with an eye on developing a stable long-term trading relationship.

Just how effective this approach will prove, remains to be seen.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman