Article 15 of the Constitution reads: “The right of existence, the right of work, and the right of property shall be guaranteed to the people.” This makes it quite clear that the government has a constitutional duty to safeguard people’s private property. Only under exceptional circumstances can it place limits on citizens’ property ownership rights.
For example, the system of expropriation allows government authorities to forcibly seize people’s land, while paying them compensation, for the sake of the greater public interest. However, the government must strictly observe the principle that expropriation cannot be used to generate profits for private corporations.
Two cases that have arisen from policy decisions made when President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was mayor of Taipei present a serious challenge to the Constitution’s guarantee of citizens’ property rights. These are the 2005 merger of Fubon Bank and TaipeiBank to form the Taipei Fubon Commercial Bank Co, and the case of MeHAS City, a big residential and commercial development project surrounding the Xiaobitan Metro Station in New Taipei City’s (新北市) Xindian District (新店).
Set aside for the moment the long-standing controversies over alleged wining and dining of officials and other questionable aspects of Fubon Bank’s takeover of the larger TaipeiBank. It now emerges that Taipei Fubon Bank wants the land occupied by its headquarters, which was originally the headquarters of the government-owned TaipeiBank and officially classified as land for use by government agencies, to be reclassified as land for commercial use. This would raise the value of the land from the original NT$200 million (US$6.63 million) to NT$7 billion.
Taipei Fubon Bank occupies 44 plots of land classified as being for use by government agencies. If this land was obtained from its original owners through expropriation, it would mean that land that was forcibly seized from members of the public has been handed over for commercial use, resulting in a doubling and redoubling of the land price.
That would mean that the ultimate purpose for which the original landowners gave up their land and were deprived of their property rights was not the public interest at all.
A similar situation applies in the MeHAS City project, for which then-mayor Ma signed the contract in 2006. The original landowners were led to believe that their plots would be used solely for transportation purposes, so they had no choice but to accept the government’s land seizures for what they understood to be the public interest.
As things turned out, however, the government handled the affair in a way that has allowed a big corporation to make a huge profit out of the properties on the real-estate market. The original landowners must feel as though they have been ripped off by a fraud syndicate.
Although Article 15 of the Constitution clearly guarantees citizens’ property rights, the tricky policy decisions that Ma made when he was mayor of Taipei sacrificed citizens’ interests while enabling big corporations to make huge profits.
Huang Di-ying is a lawyer and a board member of the Taiwan Forever Association.
Translated by Julian Clegg