Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The latest thorn in Taiwan-China tensions: pineapples

Taiwan is looking to further restrict which seeds and saplings can be brought out of the island after accusing China of taking a pineapple cultivar developed in Taiwan.
Sam Yeh
/
AFP via Getty Images
Taiwan is looking to further restrict which seeds and saplings can be brought out of the island after accusing China of taking a pineapple cultivar developed in Taiwan.

CHIAYI, Taiwan — For 24 years, plant scientist Kuang Ching-shan planted, then culled round after round of pineapple sprouts, hoping to develop a new cultivar of the tart fruit. In 2018, he finally hit the mark: a small, golden-yellow fruit with the luscious aroma of a mango.

His euphoria soon turned into helplessness, however. Last year, Taiwanese authorities discovered the patented fruit he had developed was somehow being sold in China.

"Do I care that China is planting my pineapples? It is hard to answer this question because my opinion cannot change anything," he tells NPR, sitting in his office in southern Taiwan, surrounded by plant cuttings and plates of fresh-cut pineapple.

Taiwan's deputy agricultural minister, Chen Junne-jih, is more blunt, calling the case blatant "robbery" and accusing China of agricultural pilfering spanning decades. Taiwan rice variants, orchid blooms, tea bushes, soybean sprouts, and edible fungi all have mysteriously been transplanted in China from Taiwan.

Taiwan is a self-governing democracy, but China's government in Beijing claims it as a province of its own that must unify with the mainland.

Beijing has cut off nearly all political exchanges with Taiwan, and cultural and economic ties between the two have plummeted. In the absence of more direct avenues to pressure the authorities in Taipei, the China has turned to agricultural proxies, like the humble pineapple, to turn the screws on Taiwan.

Pineapples sit in containers after being picked in Taiwan. China's alleged theft of a cultivar of the fruit has caused tensions.
Emily Feng / NPR
/
NPR
Pineapples sit in containers after being picked in Taiwan. China's alleged theft of a cultivar of the fruit has caused tensions.

The alleged theft of Taiwan's mango pineapple — formerly called Tainong No. 23 — has set into motion a debate across Taiwan on how to counter Chinese economic coercion and political influence. China had already banned imports of Taiwanese mangoes and actively encourages Taiwan-patented variants to be grown in China as part of unification efforts.

The alleged theft also highlights the challenges of Taiwan's diplomatic isolation. China has prevented the island from joining international institutions like the United Nations and its related organizations, including the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, the primary multilateral organization for adjudicating cross-border agricultural disputes over intellectual property.

Starting in March, Taiwan will further restrict which seeds and saplings can be brought out of the island, in response to the mango pineapple case.

"Freedom pineapples"

Pineapples have outsize cultural importance in Taiwan. The tropical Asian island has made a name for itself by developing dozens of cultivars of the fruit, and today there are sour ones, sweet ones and a delectably named "champagne" pineapple on the market, named for the pale, creamy color of the flesh.

Kuang began his career at a local branch of an Agricultural Ministry research institute in Chiayi, a county in southwestern Taiwan, in 1994. He came to study with another famed plant researcher who developed Taiwan's most popular pineapple, the Golden Diamond cultivar. The cultivar found a lucrative market in China, and by 2021, Taiwan was exporting some 97% of its Golden Diamonds to China.

But in March 2021, China banned Golden Diamond imports, forcing Taiwanese regulators to shell out billions of dollars in subsidies to farmers as pineapple prices cratered. China said it had discovered pests in the fruit. Similar bans on Taiwanese grouper fish and sugar apples followed.

This aerial photo taken on March 16, 2021, shows farmers harvesting pineapples in Pingtung county in southern Taiwan.
Sam Yeh / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
This aerial photo taken on March 16, 2021, shows farmers harvesting pineapples in Pingtung county in southern Taiwan.

Taiwanese leaders decried these moves as economic coercion: punishing voters in agriculture-dependent districts when cross-strait ties worsen and creating pressure in Taiwan to vote for more China-friendly policies in the future.

Within Taiwan, eating pineapples became an act of patriotism. Taiwan's foreign minister dubbed the tropical fruit "the freedom pineapple," explicitly turning the spiky fruit into a symbol of Taiwan identity against Chinese aggression. The discovery in 2023 that Chinese farmers were advertising the mango pineapple especially galling.

Advertisements for the mango pineapple on Taobao, a mainstream Chinese e-commerce site, claim the fruit is being grown on the tropical Chinese island province of Hainan. More than 250 square miles of mango pineapple fields have already been planted, mostly clustered in Chengmai county, according to a Chinese media reports.

NPR reached a farmer in Chengmai county who confirmed growing the Taiwanese mango pineapple. The farmer's first batch of pineapples had ripened last April, and the second batch matured this past December. (Pineapples mature in roughly 18-month cycles.)

Wang Heng, chairman of Chengmai county's pineapple association in Hainan, tells NPR by phone that the county has been commercially growing cultivar Tainong No. 23, the mango pineapple, since 2017 — three years before the cultivar was even commercially available in Taiwan.

Taiwanese officials say they are not surprised. Chen, the deputy agriculture minister, says in 2017, he visited a plant research institute in China. "They had Taiwan's plant variants from our No. 1, 2, all the way to number 22. They flaunted them to us. They were not ashamed about having them at all."

"The development history of agricultural intellectual property began a bit later in China," said Fang Yidan, director of the Chiayi Agricultural Research Institute. "As long as new cultivars emerge [in Taiwan], they are very easily taken to other countries to be grown, through all sorts of means."

Made in Taiwan, grown in China

So, how did Taiwan's mango pineapple end up in China?

Agriculture experts believe Taiwanese farmers likely smuggled the saplings into China, despite Taiwanese laws strictly forbidding people from taking seeds and sprouts off the island with them.

China openly admits it grows several Taiwanese cultivars on a commercial scale. "Our Taiwanese compatriots [have] really contributed a lot, because some 80% of the fruits we grow here in Hainan island are from Taiwan. Taiwanese plant varieties have really carried our entire fruit industry here," says Wang, the pineapple association chairman in China's Chengmai county.

China has made agricultural transfers of technologya key component of ongoing policies designed to draw Taiwan closer into China's political and economic influence. It has set up farms within nearly three dozen "pioneer parks" along its southern coastal provinces, across the strait from Taiwan. The parks offer subsidized agricultural land, water and electricity to Taiwanese farmers who are willing to bring their know-how to China.

This aerial photo taken in March 2021 shows crates of pineapples being sorted at a warehouse in Taiwan.
Sam Yeh / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
This aerial photo taken in March 2021 shows crates of pineapples being sorted at a warehouse in Taiwan.

"China's usual tactic is to send familiar Taiwanese businessmen or Taiwanese farmers back to Taiwan to persuade Taiwanese farmers to develop in China. In name, it is to jointly develop land and share benefits. In fact, it is to steal technology openly," a Taiwanese newspaper alleged in 2010.

China's vastly bigger consumer market is a big draw for farmers, says one of Taiwan's bigger commercial pineapple growers. He declined to be named because he continues to sell fruit to China and is worried about losing business for talking about cross-strait relations.

"The biggest reason Taiwanese farmers do it is for the money," says Lin Shu-yang, a farmer from southern Taiwan. He did consulting work for private Chinese rice farms and does not grow or sell pineapples. But he says he knows other Taiwanese farmers who have smuggled seeds and saplings into China, tempted by potentially big payouts and generous Chinese state subsidies.

"In Taiwan they have to work so hard, but the profit margins are thin. When you go to China, your profits are higher. Why would you do the same thing for less money?" he says.

Earlier this year, China's cabinet-like State Council reaffirmed the role cross-straits agricultural should play in establishing closer ties with Taiwan. "In a few years, it may be cheaper for people in the central plains to eat Taiwanese fruits," says a 2012 article published by a municipal-level office for China's Taiwan Affairs Office in China's Xiuwu county.

Whose fruit is it, anyway?

In the last two decades, Taiwan has investigated what it alleges is the illegal transfer of orchids, poinsettia flowers, Golden Diamond pineapples, edamame beans and Oolong tea leaves. From Beijing's perspective, this transfer is perfectly legal: they believe Taiwan belongs to China and so do Taiwan's plants.

Wang, the pineapple association chairman on China's Hainan island, says Taiwan cannot have exclusive claim to plants, especially if the same cultivars can thrive elsewhere.

"This may sound impolite to say, but in reality, China's Hainan is the best suited for growing pineapples, not Taiwan. Hainan has no typhoons and no winter frosts, unlike Taiwan," says Wang. "You can only claim something as your local specialty if it is fixed and unmovable." This runs counter to international agricultural law, including a convention China is party to, which allows breeders patented rights over distinct variants they develop.

Officials from the Agriculture Bank of Taiwan pose at a press conference to promote domestically grown pineapples and their exports, at the bank's headquarters in Taipei on March 5, 2021.
Sam Yeh / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
Officials from the Agriculture Bank of Taiwan pose at a press conference to promote domestically grown pineapples and their exports, at the bank's headquarters in Taipei on March 5, 2021.

Earlier this year, Taiwan's legislature amended its laws to increase the maximum fines and detention time for those caught taking seeds and saplings out of Taiwan. However, it has little recourse to force China to comply with agricultural intellectual property investigations.

In 2010, Taiwan and China set up a cross-straits plant patent working group to allow agricultural officials from both sides to communicate regularly. Chen, Taiwan's deputy agricultural minister, says in 2016, China simply stopped responding to the working group's requests and the group has ceased functioning since then.

"In 2016, they cut off communications with Taiwan. That is how China is: They talk to you when they want to, and when they don't want to, they just ignore you," Chen says.

Taiwan can alert friendly countries like Japan and the United States so they will not accept Chinese imports of allegedly stolen plants and fruits. But Taiwan can do little if its own citizens bring the plants to China.

"There are a lot of Taiwanese farmers going to China. They have all sorts of methods to do so. The Taiwanese government has its policy, but farmers themselves have different considerations," says Lin, the rice farmer in southern Taiwan.

As for Kuang, the plant scientist, he says he does not concern himself with cross-strait politics. He it too busy maintaining his fruit fields, in search of developing the next cultivar.

"I never get tired of pineapples," he says.


Aowen Cao contributed research from Beijing. Hugo Peng contributed research from Taipei and Chiayi county, Taiwan.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.