When voters elected President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in 2008 with an overwhelming margin, they did so under the perception that the previous Democratic Progressive Party administration had become too corrupt. When they re-elected Ma on Jan. 14, they voted for technocrats, and this is what they got.
Under Ma’s watch, wealth inequality has increased, salaries for ordinary workers have stagnated, consumer prices have gone up, as has the price of real estate and, unsurprisingly, the number of violations — of human rights or environmental laws — committed for the sake of urban renewal or large industries. The main victims have been people from the lower to middle class: first-time job seekers, modest homeowners, small businesses, villagers, farmers.
The technocrats who gradually filled the ranks of Ma’s first term, and who now populate what can only be described as a Cabinet of uninspiring and utterly uncharismatic policy implementers, will only do more of that. And this will get worse as the impact of Chinese investment, which is now being allowed in a variety of hitherto off-limit sectors, begins to be felt. Already, studies have shown that whatever positive economic impact the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) signed between Taiwan and China in June 2010 might have brought, it has been felt predominantly by large businesses, while more fragile sectors, such as small and medium-sized enterprises and farmers, apprehend signs of a bleak future. The same applies to the purchasing delegations sent by China, partly to help Ma get re-elected.
However, can Taiwanese really expect the KMT — the party of the rich and powerful — to protect the rights of the less wealthy? Asset disclosures from the Control Yuan earlier this year showed that Premier Sean Chen (陳冲), Judicial Yuan President Rai Hau-min (賴浩敏) and Examination Yuan President John Kuan (關中), to name just three, have total assets exceeding NT$100 million (US$3.4 million) each. Chen and his wife own seven buildings and one plot of land in Taipei’s posh and increasingly out-of-reach Xinyi District (信義). For his part, Rai owns no less than 17 plots of land in Da-an District (大安).
Not only do such assets place those officials in the ranks of the wealthy, they are also the cause of potential conflicts of interest. Why would officials adopt policies to rectify soaring real-estate prices to help ordinary citizens when doing so would negatively affect the value of their properties?
A similar conflict arises in regard to expanding Chinese investment in Taiwan. Can officials who stand to gain from such investments be trusted to act with the interests of ordinary people in mind? What of the negotiators who strike agreements with their Chinese counterparts, who often have business interests in China or have family members who do? Or the owners of large corporations who openly support the KMT during elections, knowing they will reap the benefits of closer engagement with, or access to, the huge market across the Taiwan Strait if they do so?
Who looks after the needs and rights of ordinary citizens when politics become the means for the rich and powerful to further enrich themselves?
It is hard to imagine any of the above-mentioned government officials or owners of large corporations suffering the same fate as the Wang (王) family, who saw their two homes in Taipei’s Shilin District (士林) torn down last week by city officials to make way for an urban renewal project. The Wangs, who had lived there for decades, were the sole voice of opposition to the project; 38 other households were in favor. Under the Urban Renewal Act (都市更新條例), the construction firm in charge of the project was entitled to ask the city government to flatten the Wangs’ homes even if they refused to move out, since more than 75 percent of the landowners on the site of the future project had agreed to the plan.