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A pineapple symbolizes the tense relationship between China and Taiwan

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Things are tense between China and the island of Taiwan. Beijing is ramping up economic pressure on the island to force it into a more subservient relationship to China. And to tell the story of how China's doing that, we begin with a pineapple. NPR's Emily Feng takes it from here.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: This past spring, Taiwanese policymakers issued an urgent call to action. They had discovered China had gotten its hands on a Taiwan-bred fruit called the mango pineapple. Now, the fruit was being grown and sold in China. Taiwan's deputy agricultural minister, Chen Junne-jih, called it blatant robbery. And he told NPR this kind of, what he calls, agricultural IP transfer has been happening for decades. Taiwan's rice, orchids, tea, beans and mushrooms have all somehow been transplanted in China.

CHEN JUNNE-JIH: (Through interpreter) In 2017, I had the opportunity to go to China and visit their plant research institute, and they had all of Taiwan's plant variants. They flaunted them to us. And they weren't ashamed about having Taiwan intellectual property at all.

FENG: But the transplantation of the mango pineapple hit especially hard because pineapples are political. Ninety-seven percent of Taiwanese pineapple exports used to go to China until 2021, when China announced a ban on the most common type of Taiwan pineapple.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Pineapples have become the latest victim of the worsening relationship between Taiwan and China.

FENG: China said the fruit was full of pests. Taiwan denied it and said the ban was economic coercion, pressuring their voters towards more China-friendly policies or lose even more access to the China market. And eating pineapples in Taiwan became an act of patriotism. The foreign minister dubbed the tropical fruit the freedom pineapple. And in the past two years, it's become a symbol of Taiwan identity.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: And few people know more about pineapples than this man, Kuan Ching-shan. He is the scientist who created the mango pineapple.

KUAN CHING-SHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He also named the new fruit, saying its mouthfeel and fragrance reminded him of a mango, hence the name. Mr. Kuan's life work is developing new pineapples. I met him in his office in southern Taiwan, surrounded by sprouts and, yes, plates and plates of freshly cut pineapple. He says he spent about a quarter of a century developing the mango pineapple.

KUAN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He says he went through rounds and rounds of selection and planting to get there. But now his career's work is being sold and marketed by someone else. And it is likely farmers from Taiwan who brought the fruit over to China. That's according to Wang Heng, the chairman of a county-level pineapple association in China's Hainan province, a tropical island very similar in climate to that of Taiwan.

WANG HENG: (Through interpreter) Our Taiwanese compatriots really contributed a lot because some 80% of the fruits we grow here in Hainan Island are from Taiwan. Taiwan plant varieties have really carried our entire fruit industry here.

FENG: And Wang confirmed Hainan farms have been growing Taiwan's beloved mango pineapple since 2017. Taiwanese farmer Lin Shu-yang says the biggest reason he's seen other farmers in Taiwan move to China with their knowhow is because of the money.

LIN SHU-YANG: (Through interpreter) In Taiwan, they have to work so hard, but the profit margins are thin. In China, they're higher. Why would you do the same thing for less money?

FENG: And China wants Taiwanese farmers to come. Last September, China released a new economic plan calling for greater integration between China and Taiwan. And agriculture is a big part of the plan. Chinese pineapple sellers like Wang say they've done nothing wrong. They believe Taiwan belongs to China and so do Taiwan's plants.

WANG: (Through interpreter) People may not want to hear this, but China's Hainan is actually the best suited for growing pineapples, not Taiwan. You can only claim something as your local specialty if it's fixed and unmovable.

FENG: Meanwhile, Taiwan has no legal means to push back against this economic coercion. China blocks Taiwan from joining the United Nations, which oversees international agricultural IP issues. In 2017, China cut off an agricultural policy exchange it had with Taiwanese officials. And so in a few weeks, starting in March, Taiwan will start limiting the kinds of seeds and saplings people can take off the island in response to the mango pineapple mess.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Back in his office, Mr. Kuan, the pineapple scientist, says he feels helpless knowing the fruits of his work are in China.

KUAN: (Through interpreter) Do I care that China is planting my pineapples? It's hard to answer this question because my opinion can't change anything.

FENG: And so he immerses himself in his fields every day...

KUAN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: ...Pointing out leaf sizes and colors to me. But cross-strait tension, even here, is unavoidable because in Taiwan, fruit is a matter of geopolitics.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Chiayi, Taiwan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.