I became acquainted with Chang Sen-wen (張森文) and his family three years ago, when the Taiwan Rural Front got involved in protests against the forced demolitions of four houses in Dapu Borough (大埔) in Miaoli County.
Chang impressed me as a hardworking, frugal, kind and honest man who loved his wife and family. After the family home and the pharmacy they ran was torn down, he became full of self-recrimination and felt that he had failed in his duties as a husband and a father.
Chang said that after the demolition, he felt as if he had been hamstrung; that he no longer had the strength to stand. He suffered from depression and mood swings.
He used to have a permanent smile on his face. I never saw that smile after the demolition.
We still do not know what the immediate cause of his death was, but I would say that the true cause of death was homicide: He was killed by a cruel government and an unjust system.
On Aug. 17, 2010, I accompanied representatives of the Dapu Self-Help Organization to a meeting at the Executive Yuan, which came to two main conclusions: The four properties would not be demolished in the plans to make way for a science park in the area and any farmland lost would be compensated by an equivalent area of land elsewhere.
As there already existed a general consensus on these issues prior to the meeting, the atmosphere that day was
laid-back and convivial. The Construction and Planning Agency had already drawn up its urban development plan for everyone to examine.
At that meeting were Vice President Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), who was then the premier, Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺), then the minister of the interior, and Miaoli County Commissioner Liu Cheng-hung (劉政鴻). The meeting went well and everybody was pretty much in agreement. After the meeting, official documents were drawn up, including the minutes.
As the Ministry of the Interior was responsible for urban planning and land expropriation, Jiang should have handled those two aspects, but he deferred them to Liu. The results of the meeting were overturned in a later meeting of the Urban Planning Commission. The Land Expropriation Examination Committee breezed through the review as a mere formality that did not take even four minutes.
A new plan was settled. The official Cabinet documents drawn up at the end of the meeting I had attended were apparently not worth the paper they were printed on.
Liu has always responded to criticism by saying that he acted according to the law. It must be asked: What kind of law is it that pushes a good man to his death?
The Dapu affair involves the Urban Planning Act (都市計畫法), the Equalization of Land Rights Act (平均地權條例) and the Land Expropriation Act (土地徵收條例). The current version of the Urban Planning Act was formed after two major amendments in 1964 and 1973. In the interests of economic growth and to avert land speculation, the Urban Planning Act concentrated power in the hands of the authorities and reduced public participation in the process; major decisions are made in closed sessions. It has become a way for the powers that be to consolidate their own interests.
When the Equalization of Land Rights Act was amended in 1986, in reference to the official stipulation of “land compensated by cash due to zone expropriation,” the definition of “zone expropriation” was changed to mean “compulsory expropriation of public land for joint development initiatives.” The government thereby disingenuously evaded the contingencies put in place to constrain land expropriation that would later be incorporated into the Land Expropriation Act.
These pieces of legislation remain unchanged despite the lifting of martial law, retaining the same form that they had when Taiwan was ruled by an authoritarian regime and when a minority consisting of the political elite and technocrats monopolized decisionmaking. Ordinary people have no say.
It was all of Liu’s doing. Under this system, land is a commodity to be bought and sold; to invest in and make money from. However, for Chang and his family, their land was home and their means of survival. They relied upon and had an emotional attachment to the 20m2 of land on which the family pharmacy stood. You cannot put a price on that. This is why land and property ownership is a basic human right.
There is never a time when the expropriation of land is necessary; it is a violation of human rights and should be strictly forbidden. Such measures are very rarely taken in advanced countries. If the system in Taiwan is not changed, human rights violations will continue as the government continues to wantonly wrest people’s land from them.
Minister of the Interior Lee Hung-yuan (李鴻源) has argued that land expropriation is needed if there are to be public construction projects. He is wrong. Land expropriation does not happen in advanced countries, but those nations have public construction projects.
Land expropriation in Taiwan is not about freeing land for public construction projects anyway. In most cases it is more about land speculation.
It is too late for Chang, but perhaps his death was not in vain. Everybody should do their best to make sure that these unsuitable laws are revised to create a government that truly works for the public.
Hsu Shih-jung is chairman of the Taiwan Rural Front and an economics professor at National Chengchi University.
Translated by Paul Cooper