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.
And flatten them it did, while about 300 supporters of the Wangs gathered to express their anger. In a scene more at home in China than Taiwan, the city government deployed more than 1,000 police officers to ensure stability while the houses were being razed — an unusually high 3:1 police-to-protester ratio.
One wonders if, under the act, government officials or wealthy entrepreneurs facing a similar situation (say, the entire neighborhood is in favor of an urban renewal project, but the official/entrepreneur refuses) would, like the Wangs, suddenly find themselves homeless. Chances are they would not. This is an issue whose implications go well beyond legality or flaws in existing regulations; this is fundamentally an issue of human rights and justice.
Sadly, we are bound to see more of what befell the Wangs, as land owners, expecting future liberalization of rules on Chinese investment, engage in speculation and await the day when wealthy Chinese are allowed to buy land and property in Taiwan. How else can you explain the dozens, if not hundreds, of brand new, empty apartment buildings that have sprung up around the city in recent years, pushing ordinary residents ever further on the peripheries? This says nothing about the young entrants on the job market who do not make enough money to be able to buy a house, let alone start a family.
Such a scenario hit very close to home last year, when a city government official, accompanied by a developer, knocked at my door and said they were asking around the neighborhood whether owners would agree to the entire area being razed to make room for large, expensive, shiny apartment buildings that not a single one of us could ever hope to afford? While I made no secret of my resentment for such an outcome, I had to tell the pair that I had no say on the matter, as I do not own the house where I live.
The treatment of the Wangs by the city government appears to have angered a lot of people. I am told that Internet chat rooms and Facebook groups are mobilizing against what, despite legal backing, can only be described as a human rights violation. Ultimately, those who feel powerless against the wealthy will find common cause with those who oppose the government on matters of Taiwanese identity in the face of ongoing efforts by the authoritarian regime in Beijing to swallow Taiwan.
The closer ties between the KMT and wealthy Chinese investors, which China is counting on to accomplish its political aims, will only exacerbate social injustice, and the ordinary Taiwanese who resent the idea of being ruled by the Chinese Communist Party will realize that they have a lot in common with the Wangs and others who, even for those who show little interest in issues of national politics, or independence versus unification, stand to lose just as much if the technocrats on either side of the Strait have their way.
Only when these two forces are joined in the fight for rights will opposition to this government have enough momentum that it cannot continue to be ignored. Taiwanese will have to be creative, use their imagination and be far more vocal than they have been in the past four years, even at the risk of being uncivil. They have been sheep for far too long; the wolves are circling and getting ever closer.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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