As you read this, 85-year-old Chiang Bei-bei’s (蔣伯伯) ramshackle house in Taipei’s Huaguang Community (華光社區) will have been pulverized by bulldozers sent by the central government. Like many other residents of the community, Chiang barely ekes out a living and the government’s decision to raze the community to erect a glitzy neighborhood condemns him to destitution. While business tycoons and the central government pour millions of dollars into China’s Sichuan Province following Saturday’s earthquake, the fate of Chiang and others is ignored.
No sooner had the magnitude 6.6 quake hit Yaan City than the Executive Yuan, along with tycoons like Hon Hai chairman Terry Gou (郭台銘) and Want Want China Times Group chairman Tsai Eng-meng (蔡衍明), announced they would make donations to help with relief efforts and reconstruction. Gou and Tsai alone donated more than US$10.5 million, with actors, singers and other business leaders also making contributions.
While this outpouring of generosity is commendable, it raises serious questions about those people’s priorities. Just as with the 2008 quake in Sichuan, what the Chinese government needs is emergency aid in the form of food, medicine and expert medical teams — not money, which it has plenty of.
Even more disturbing is that not a single one of those donors has bothered to say anything about, let alone provide just a fraction of the money they are sending to China, to help destitute people in Taiwan. The destruction of Huaguang, the forced relocation of its predominantly elderly residents, the lack of proper assistance from the government and the fines that this same government has imposed on those people, is just one among many examples in Taiwan of situations where desperate people should receive help.
Many of the residents, including Chiang, are not entitled to social assistance and are being forced to move into social housing in Taipei’s Nangang District (南港). In most cases, their meager earnings are insufficient to cover the NT$13,000 rent, while the small businesses that they operated are now uprooted.
For the rich and powerful, the residents of Huaguang are nothing. In fact, their presence on this prime plot of land in the heart of Taipei stands in the way of further riches. Those who have extended a helping hand are mostly students, social organizations and private individuals.
While the wealthy donate to China, it is artists like film director Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢), who last week donated his NT$1 million (US$33,520) in prize money from the National Cultural Award to help finance reconstruction of the partially demolished Losheng (Happy Life) Sanatorium in New Taipei City (新北市), who man the front lines in the local war between the haves and the have-nots.
Of course, the large donations to China have a self-serving component, as it ingratiates the tycoons with the Chinese authorities and opens the door to large investments in future. Which is why the wealthy cannot be bothered with the fate of Taiwan’s own poor.
This is shameful. Taiwan is, by any metric, a modern and wealthy country, and the refusal by the government and the more fortunate to help those in need flies in the face of the very values that underpin society. One-tenth — one-hundredth — of the money generously donated to Sichuan to help its people recover from a natural catastrophe would go a long way in helping people like the displaced residents of Huaguang, the victims of human agency, live their last few years in dignity rather than destitution.
Gou and Tsai, whose interests in China are well known, are not alone in this. There are plenty of extraordinarily rich people in Taiwan who could make a difference, but who are not lifting a finger.