Tai­wan has a prob­lem, and it’s not just the gov­ern­ment

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

Chen Ting- chi might look just like an­other se­nior Tai­wanese man but he is in fact Tai­wan’s an­swer to Colonel San­ders. Four decades ago, he in­vented Tai­wan fried chicken based on recipes in­her­ited from his fa­ther.

The snack be­came an in­stant hit and peo­ple flocked to him, some to try the chicken, some to learn from him. He later es­tab­lished the com­pany, The Tai­wan First Store, sell­ing cus­tom- made pep­per — the key to the fried chicken’s taste — to its “Tai­wan First Fried Chicken” fran­chisees ( cur­rently more than 3,000). Chen was rec­og­nized as the cre­ator of the quin­tes­sen­tial Tai­wanese snack and was hailed as a suc­cess story by the gov­ern­ment.

This week Tai­wan First, now run by Chen’s son and daugh­ter, ad­mit­ted to hav­ing used industrial- grade mag­ne­sium car­bon­ate in its pep­per prod­ucts since 2008. The chem­i­cal ad­di­tive costs a frac­tion of its ed­i­ble coun­ter­part but is banned in food prod­ucts as it can cause dam­age to health in­clud­ing dam­age to the liver and the kid­neys.

The damn­ing rev­e­la­tion of tainted Tai­wan First fried chicken pep­per marks the lat­est of a se­ries of food scan­dals. The list of re­cent food scares is so long that it chal­lenges not only peo­ple’s faith in Tai­wan’s food in­dus­try but also their abil­ity to sim­ply keep track of all the scan­dals. The fall to dis­grace of such a stock Tai­wan food busi­ness also serves as a sym­bol of the prob­lems the na­tion faces.

Tai­wan has al­ways prided it­self as a na­tion of “good peo­ple.” The say­ing “Peo­ple are the best scenery in Tai­wan” is com­monly known and widely ac­cepted in the na­tion. The strength of the night mar­kets as an au­then­tic Tai­wanese ex­pe­ri­ence in part stems from the im­age that th­ese mar­kets are run by hon­est, hard­work­ing Tai­wanese peo­ple like Chen se­nior.

Since the dis­cov­ery of the long- time use of plas­ti­ciz­ers ( banned for their ef­fects on hor­mones and for other dam­age to health) in food and drinks in 2011, the public has seen their na­tion’s im­age as a “gourmet king­dom” pro­vid­ing safe and re­li­able food shat­tered. Most of the time the blame lies squarely with the usual sus­pects — un­scrupu­lous busi­ness­men and a gov­ern­ment too in­com­pe­tent to crack down on them.

While the gov­ern­ment is re­spon­si­ble for en­sur­ing Tai­wan’s food safety, the al­most end­less rev­e­la­tions of food scan­dals have shown that Tai­wan’s prob­lems are more wide­spread and pro­found. Dis­hon­esty is not ex­clu­sive to politi­cians; it runs deep in Tai­wanese so­ci­ety.

Some of the busi­nesses caught in food scan­dals, for ex­am­ple Tai­wan First, shifted from their pre­vi­ous hon­est prac­tices and used cheap il­le­gal chem­i­cals to cut cor­ners. Oth­ers, such as Ben Hur Spices and Chem­i­cals in the 2011 plas­ti­cizer scan­dal, had used banned ad­di­tives from day one.

In a way sim­i­lar to how the rev­e­la­tions of the sink­ing of the ferry Se­wol opened the eyes of South Kore­ans to the dam­age of years of cor­ner- cut­ting, Tai­wan’s food scan­dals also amount to a mo­ment of reckoning for the public. The na­tion has blindly pur­sued eco­nomic growth since the be­gin­ning of the “Tai­wan Mir­a­cle.” Ev­ery politi­cian makes “fight­ing for the econ­omy” ( ) his or her top pri­or­ity and the public cheer them for it.

In such an en­vi­ron­ment, im­por­tant ideas such as hon­esty, jus­tice, sus­tain­abil­ity and safety have taken a back seat, re­sult­ing in the decline of Tai­wanese val­ues both tan­gi­ble and in­tan­gi­ble, which in turn hurts the na­tion’s econ­omy. For how­ever much Tai­wan First saved in its seven years of cheat­ing, it does not even come close to mak­ing up for the loss of trust in the brand.

The wrong­ful as­ser­tion of the supremacy of fi­nan­cial gains is deep- rooted in Tai­wanese so­ci­ety, af­fect­ing ev­ery­one from politi­cians to busi­ness lead­ers, to small en­trepreneurs and to “ev­ery­day peo­ple.” It is easy to crit­i­cize oth­ers but it is time to do more than that. It is time for Tai­wan to begin its soul- search­ing, to tally the dam­ages done and to cor­rect course.

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