Disasters are common in Taiwan — a result of structural factors grounded in history. When the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) took over the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) more than 70 years ago, it did not inherit the Japanese’s dedication, rigor and responsibility, but instead brought with it the ability to milk something for all it was worth while muddling along and forming cliques. The TRA quickly devolved into an organization characterized by inertia and an inability to modernize.
As the 21st century was getting started, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) made a huge effort at reform after it brought about a power transition.
However, the problems ran deep and vested interests opposed changes to the death, so in the end reform came to naught.
After the KMT returned to power, it took back control of the government agencies where it could once again appoint its cronies who continued to muddle through, milking the agencies for what they could along the way.
Accidents, big and small, continued to happen, without any serious discussion or review to bring about reform.
In October 2018, two-and-a-half years after the DPP returned to power, the deadly Puyuma Express derailment occurred. The DPP government promptly and thoroughly investigated the accident, listing 144 issues that needed improving. Today, 109 of those issued have been addressed.
Then, out of the blue, before the changes were fully implemented, disaster struck again, due to the supposed negligence of a subcontractor being used in one of the projects.
Nevertheless, the TRA was remiss in its supervision of the contracted work, and so needed to take responsibility for the accident, and Minister of Transportation and Telecommunications Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) had to bear the brunt of public criticism.
Lin went to the scene of the accident and oversaw the response and the rescue operation, taking political responsibility for the disaster. He met with the families of the injured, lowered his head and offered his apologies. Who would not be moved by the scenes of Lin working to help with the rescue efforts?
The KMT leadership is now trying to exploit this tragedy to vent its frustration at being in opposition, and pursuing this unfortunate situation, which is difficult to avoid given the nation’s political, economic and social circumstances, rather than reflect on its own culpability from when it was in power.
It is making spurious attacks on Lin and Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), with soundbites, such as “Lin caused this, Su has blood on his hands,” that are completely untethered from the facts, cold-heartedly exploiting the victims and their families.
There are still those within the KMT who have a conscience, as one should expect from people.
Taichung Mayor Lu Shiow-yen (盧秀燕) spoke up in support of Lin, saying that he had been working hard, and that he should not be expected to deal with the aftermath of the tragedy all on his own, and everyone should lend a helping hand.
KMT-affiliated Yilan County Council Speaker Chang Chien-jung (張建榮), together with a number of independents and DPP political workers, have signed a petition for the government to retain Lin so that he can continue his work in improving the national infrastructure.
People implicitly understand what is fair and just. The Taroko Express tragedy can serve as a mirror to hold up to the KMT, to show that it still has normal people such as Lu and Chang, at the same time as it has many loud, more objectionable individuals that think it okay to throw pig offal at the premier; travel to Beijing to attend an address by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平); say that Chinese People’s Liberation Army jets encroaching on Taiwan’s airspace are not a provocation; say things designed to intimidate and fluster Taiwanese, such as “the first battle will be the last,” or that “the US will not come to Taiwan’s aid,” disseminating the ideology of surrender; or accuse the Ministry of Health and Welfare of seeking to profit from tragedy by setting up a special bank account for victims of the disaster.
The examples are too numerous to count, and they are enough to make one shake one’s head. It seems that Taiwan now has two KMTs. When you are asked to vote, which one will you vote for?
Jhang Shih-hsien is former head of the National Palace Museum’s conservation department.
Translated by Perry Svensson and Paul Cooper
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