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Tea Brews Up Controversy on Arms Procurement in Taiwan - 2004-10-12


A beverage popular among Taiwan's youth has suddenly become a symbol of opposition to the government's planned purchase of advanced weapons from the United States. Jacques van Wersch visited a tea stand in Taipei to see what people were lining up to buy.

A Taipei tea-shop clerk asks if a customer wants hot or cold pearl milk tea.

Pearl milk tea, also known as bubble tea, is sweetened tea and milk, mixed with bitter tapioca balls, or pearls in Chinese. Taiwan's youth happily fork over about $1 for big cups of the concoction.

Now bubble tea is at the center of a protest against government plans to buy about $18 billion worth of U.S. weaponry. The Taiwan Defense Ministry last month distributed a leaflet to troops with a cartoon saying that if island residents each drink one less bubble tea a week, the government could afford new weapons to deter China from attacking.

The news media picked up on the cartoons, and it immediately created a sensation. Polls show that about half the Taiwanese oppose the arms deal, and think the money could be better used in building infrastructure and boosting the economy.

They say that mainland China's leaders are too concerned with consolidating power to contemplate attacking the island. China claims Taiwan is part of its territory and has threatened to reunite the self-governed island with the mainland by force if necessary.

Nancy Yang is the founder of Quickly Enterprise, one of Taiwan's largest pearl milk tea vendors. She says it appears no one has cut back on buying pearl milk tea.

"On the contrary, our revenue has actually increased," she said.

But she thinks there are more important concerns than the brouhaha over the beverage.

"Actually, I think a country's economy should be vigorous and varied and care should be taken to maintain a country's stability. If they make these statements, it may help us, but that's beside the point," she added.

Ms. Yang says sales spiked during a recent Taipei peace march. Organizers encouraged demonstrators to march with pearl milk tea to show their disdain for the weapons deal.

While Taiwan defense ministry officials have expressed regret that the cartoon caused such a stir, they point to the effectiveness of the leaflets that were sent home with the troops. The ministry later will assess whether this tempest in a pearl milk teacup helped efforts to promote Taiwan's special arms procurement budget.