by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: EPA
RECENT PROTESTS against Taiwanese-owned Formosa Steel in Vietnam have to date seen little coverage in Taiwan. Millions of fish washed up last month across 200 kilometers of shore, a distance stretching four provinces across the central shore of Vietnam. Reports of fish die-offs began early in April, but the fish die-offs escalated as the month went on, with mass die-offs occurring on April 18 and 20. Fishing villages in Vietnam have been severely affected, with boats not sailing and seafood restaurants having no fish to serve, and many avoiding fish for fear of contamination. Cases of food poisoning have been reported after consuming affected fish. The Vietnamese government later banned the sale of fish from the affected seashore.
Though the Vietnamese government officially claims that the cause of fish die-offs remains unknown and has called for an international investigation, the culprit pointed to by demonstrators is Taiwanese-owned Formosa Steel. A mile-long pipe traced back to a Formosa Steel factory was constructed shortly before die-offs began and it is widely believed that contamination stems from this pipe, which is reported as emitting waste. Though the Vietnamese government has pointed to other possible causes such as algae blooms, it seems likely that the Vietnamese government is attempting to defend Formosa’s investment in Vietnam, given that the steel mill constructed by the company is a $10.6 billion USD investment.
Mass fish die-offs. Photo credit: EPA
Formosa has not helped matters, however, with company spokesmen in April stating in response to criticism that fishermen will need to “to choose whether to catch fish and shrimp or to build a state-of-the-art steel mill”. Formosa has otherwise denied wrongdoing, however, claiming that it has followed Vietnamese law and citing the largesse of its investments in Vietnam as proof of its contributions to the Vietnamese economy. Formosa Steel is owned by Formosa Plastics, Taiwan’s largest producer of plastics materials.
Yet this would not be the first time Formosa Steel has come under fire, with a scaffolding collapse that led to sixteen deaths occurring in March of 2015, reportedly after a manager forced workers back to work despite their worries that the scaffolding was near collapse. The firm previously was a target of large-scale anti-Chinese protests in 2014, with at least one dead and 149 injured, a product of territorial tensions with China over the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands as well as poor workplace conditions in many Chinese and Taiwanese-owned factories.
Given that the Vietnamese government normally represses protest, demonstrations are rare. 2014 anti-Chinese demonstrations were an exception, with the Vietnamese government originally allowing protest to express its dissatisfaction with the Chinese government sending an oil tanker to maritime territory disputed between China and Vietnam. But the Vietnamese government later clamped on protests after they grew beyond its control. In particular, the Vietnamese government is afraid driving away investment from Chinese and Taiwanese firms, an underlying fear we can see both in 2014 protests as well as present ones.
Though dozens of arrests have taken place during recent protests in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Vung Tau and Da Nang, demonstrations against Formosa Steel thus have not been reported on in Vietnamese state-run media. As part of efforts to limit coverage of protests, two reporters, Minh Tam and Chu Manh Son, have been arrested on charges of inciting disorder.
Demonstrations in early May. Photo credit: EPA
Demonstrations target not only Formosa Steel, but also the Vietnamese government It would be that the government is at times perceived as backbending to defend economic interests in acting to defend Formosa Steel and having handled the disaster poorly. Protests reflect widespread social dissatisfaction with present circumstances and the protest movement appears only set to grow into the third week of protests.
Apart from the hundreds of demonstrators that have taken to the streets during demonstrations this weekend and last, netizens have also demonstrated with the hashtag #toichonca meaning, “I choose fish”. This is in response to the statement of Formosa Steel officials that what Vietnamese would have to do is choose between the economic development which would come with the meal or fish. Many see this as part of economic infringements upon Vietnamese sovereignty by Chinese or Taiwanese companies. With mass fish die-offs and contamination leaving fishermen out of work, this goes hand in hand as the territorial infringements upon disputed island territories by both China and Taiwan when fishing waters are among what is at stake. Reports of fish die-offs have also been connected to Chinese development on South China Seas in the past, though without establishment of direct causation.
Indeed, if protests in Vietnam have yet seen little coverage in Taiwanese media, they come at an ironic time for Taiwan. DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-Wen is set to take the presidency on May 20th, with a central component of her economic policy being the “New Southwards Policy,” aimed at diversifying the Taiwanese economy away from dependence on China by building stronger economic ties with Southeast Asian countries. At the same time, in order to sabotage Tsai’s future foreign policy, outgoing KMT president Ma Ying-Jeou is aggravating tensions regarding South China Seas island territories disputed by Taiwan with China, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam during his remaining term as president.
While it remains to seen whether Tsai will take any action to address this incident once she takes office, the incident would leave one wondering: Would the “New Southwards Policy” merely consist of Taiwanese companies exploiting workers in Southeast Asian countries and causing environmental damage to Southeast Asian countries? If Taiwanese-owned companies as Pegatron and FoxConn are already infamously the target of ire from Chinese workers, with the view of Taiwanese as capitalist exploiters, does shifting away from economic dependence on China just mean becoming an exploiter of Southeast Asian nations as Vietnam?
Formosa Steel factory in Ha Tinh. Photo credit: RFA
Indeed, if Tsai’s “New Southwards Policy” probably also has the aim of building stronger diplomatic ties between Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries facing increasing incursions on their territorial sovereignty from China, this would be a case in which any positive feeling of the Vietnamese people towards Taiwan would be negatively impacted by Formosa Steel and its actions. Tsai could in this case take a strong stand on the issue. However, one wonders if Tsai would be banking on building closer ties with the Vietnamese government through her “New Southwards Policy”, rather than acting to secure the goodwill of the Vietnamese people. There are already cases in which Tsai has sided with autocratic governments in order to build at alliances aimed at checking China. We see in past expressions of support for South Korean president Park Geun-hye, through Tsai writing the introduction for the translation of Park’s autobiography into Chinese, and the courting of political alliance with Japan’s Shinzo Abe despite a past year which has seen outbreaks of mass protest against both in a manner reminiscent of the Sunflower Movement, which Tsai’s electoral victory came in the wake of.
While it may be premature to speculate about Tsai’s foreign policy in this way, it should be that the Taiwanese people can take action in their own hands in standing against the actions of Formosa Steel. Taiwan is plagued with problems of crony capitalism and rampant developmentalism in which corporations as Formosa Steel and their owners get away with acts of endangering public safety through collusion with corrupt officials, as we see in frequent food poisoning scandals, problems of unsafe building infrastructure in Taiwan, and unchecked environmental destruction. Apart from that this is a problem in Taiwan itself, should Taiwan allow this model to be exported to other countries if it seems to be of economic or diplomatic benefit to Taiwan? To do so would only lead to backlash against Taiwan from potential allies. Thus, the lack of discussion of this event in Taiwan to date is something which needs to change.