Following the forced demolition of two houses owned by the Wang (王) family in Taipei’s Shilin District (士林), the Taipei City Government has been criticized for its approach to urban renewal programs. Numerous protests have also erupted over other cases of land expropriation. In light of these incidents, serious thought needs to be given to the issue at their core, namely, how best to define public interest.
The public interest is an abstract and indeterminate legal concept. It should be formed and expressed through rigorous administrative processes in which information is freely available and members of the public have a chance to participate. In other words, public interest is a consensus that is arrived at through fair and open participation, communication and discussion.
In pursuit of the public interest, most advanced democracies have abandoned the traditional model in which a minority of experts had a monopoly on policymaking. Instead, they actively encourage public participation.
This reflects the acceptance of various knowledge systems, like traditional knowledge, and value choices, such as the idea that one’s land is one’s home. This more inclusive approach justifies and rationalizes the public interest.
In contrast, Taiwan has long been used to authoritarian rule. Our government and institutions have a cast-iron grip on decisions involving the public interest. As a result, scant attention is paid to the decision-making process — a state of affairs that hasn’t changed since the Martial Law era ended in 1987.
The government in Taiwan has long been in the habit of acting arbitrarily, forming and executing plans as it sees fit in pursuit of economic growth and efficiency.
Those plans could be operational, like the fourth phase of the National Science Council’s Central Taiwan Science Park; town plans, such as the one in Ji-an Township (吉安) in Hualien County; or land expropriation plans, like the compulsory purchase of farmland at Dapu Village (大埔), Miaoli County and Puyu (璞玉) and Erchongpu (二重埔) in Hsinchu County. They could also be plans for the reassignment of urban land, such as the site of the Nantun (南屯) Catholic church in Greater Taichung, or urban renewal plans like the Wenlin Yuan (文林苑) development in which the Wangs’ house was demolished.
The system gives the public little opportunity to participate and even when they can, it is just done to fulfill legal requirements and has very little real meaning. The Administrative Procedure Act (行政程序法) became law in 1999. Originally, it was supposed to mimic similar French and German laws by incorporating legally binding planning procedures. Later, however, the government deleted most of the relevant clauses on the grounds that Taiwan’s administrative system and culture were very different from those of France and Germany.
Although the Ministry of Justice later drafted regulations in this regard, the government and associated institutions remained unwilling to cede their powers. As a result, public participation remains no more than an empty slogan. When ordinary people are excluded from the process and find their constitutional rights being violated or denied, they naturally take to the streets to protest such unjust treatment.
Given the failings of the current system, it is important that legally binding planning procedures be incorporated into the relevant laws, so that all the people whose interests are affected can take part. The introduction of meaningful public hearings would allow all parties concerned to work out between them where the public interest lies.