Urban renewal has never been a zero-sum game and the same goes for the relationship between land expropriation and protecting private property rights. The key element is whether urban renewal furthers the public interest and meets the requirements for land expropriation.
However, over the past few days, some commentators have said that criticism and protests against the forced demolition of the Wang (王) family’s property in Taipei City’s Shilin District (士林) show that Taiwan has the world’s strongest protection of private property rights, which overrides all else. These views are not only far from the truth, they are also devoid of any intellectual inquiry based on democracy and the spirit of public debate.
The reason why the Taipei City government’s forceful demolition of the Wang property caused so much fear and panic is that the public suddenly realized how incredibly weak government and systemic protection of private property is in Taiwan. A decision made by the majority can deprive the minority of a basic human right.
Also, after committing this big mistake, the Taipei City Government remains unwilling to face up to it. Department of Urban Development Commissioner Ting Yu-chun (丁育群) said it all when he said the administrative procedures pertaining to the case were completed and that we could not go back to the way things were. Such an attitude shows that the city government feels all it needs to do is ask for everyone to put up with their mistakes.
There are two main points when it comes to the Wenlin Yuan (文林苑) urban renewal project. The first is that the Taipei City Government, relying on self-government ordinances and regulations written by itself, forced the use of the whole block as the renewal unit for the project. The other point is that the developer relied on Article 25 of the Urban Renewal Act (都市更新條例) to force a minority that did not agree to move — in this case the Wang family — to carry out a transformation of rights. When the Wang family refused to submit, the city government hit them with Article 36 of the act and demolished their property on behalf of the developer.
What exactly does “a block” mean? The definition is very abstract and unclear, allowing the city government to do as it pleases. On the block where the Wang family residences once stood, there are another three buildings. If the entire block was supposed to be used as the renewal unit, then these other three buildings should also have been pulled down. This is not what happened.
Even more important is the question of whether the renewal of the entire block is the same as the legislative prescription for planning of land for renewal as given in Article 6 of the Urban Renewal Act. Where in that article does it say that the entire block must be used as the unit for urban renewal? The city government has obviously exceeded legal regulations; it violated not only the principle of prohibiting inappropriate contracts, but also the protection of property rights outlined in the Constitution.
These things were made clear last year in a ruling by the Taipei High Administrative Court, so how are we supposed to believe that the Taipei City Government did not know about this?
The forced demolition of the Wang property could have been avoided. However, the Taipei City Government has kept making mistakes and remains unwilling to admit to having done so.