Until several weeks ago, few had heard of the cross-strait service trade agreement. That was until a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislator infamously attempted to eliminate the pact’s clause-by-clause review — previously agreed upon by the governing and opposition parties — and force it through to the next stage. His actions infuriated the public, and a group of students broke into the legislature and occupied its main chamber, throwing the government into a crisis.
There is nothing inherent about the near-universal distrust Taiwanese have for the government: It is the result of confusion accumulated over a long period. Why has the government been so selective with its rezoning policy and on who it grabs land from? Why do certain companies get all the breaks, while the government, with all the laws and regulations at its disposal, picks when they are enforced on a few “disobedient” companies?
Government officials’ fantastical and dubious comments only add to distrust and suspicion, as in “the dolphins won’t go near the industrial park, they will just learn to turn back,” or when the chairman of the Atomic Energy Council claimed, in the wake of the March 11, 2001, earthquake, tsunami and resulting nuclear disaster in Japan, that nuclear power plants in Taiwan were perfectly safe, like “bodhisattvas meditating on their lotus thrones.”
Unable to face up to public scrutiny, the government has started to look for ways to hide and keep the public ignorant of what it is doing. If it does not tell anyone what it is up to, if it keeps the public in blissful ignorance, people will see no reason to worry and therefore will not protest.
Signing the pact with China followed this rationale. The wording in the agreement regarding deregulation of the environmental service sector — sewage treatment and waste product handling, the handling of waste gases, noise management, soil and groundwater pollution control, testing and analysis, technical consultation and the cleaning of buildings — seems straightforward and harmless. However, when it is considered in the context of government policy, the hidden implications become clear.
In an Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) report in September last year, 12 of 14 items originally classified as hazardous industrial waste — including scrap electrical cables, transformers, capacitors, electroplated plastics, computers, home electronics, electronic components and optoelectronic elements — are classed as general waste. Taiwan does not manufacture such products much and has not for some time, so the amendments clearly pave the way to legalizing the importation of these hazardous waste products.
The EPA did not deny this, saying that these types of waste are “rare strategic materials,” and to foster “domestic supply chain integration” it recommends “a reasonable deregulation of mixed metal scrap imports to support the development of the renewable resources recovery industry,” also that “signing the service trade agreement will... help Taiwanese industry to create new job opportunities.”
In the 1980s, Taiwan imported large volumes of scrap metal to recycle precious and heavy metals, causing serious air, soil and water pollution. The situation gradually improved following a 1993 ban, but the harm caused continues to this day. Cleaning up the Erjen River (二仁溪) estuary in Greater Tainan has cost NT$4.2 billion (US$139 million), and the operation continues with no end in sight.