Thursday, July 11, 2013

Miaoli is Taiwan's Wild West - the Dapu fiasco continues

Today, Miaoli County government placed half-page ads titled, "The county government has the obligation to its residents to provide a safe road", in Taiwan's major newspapers, Liberty Times, United News Daily, China Times and Apple Daily.  The ads reportedly costed four million dollars total.  The ads accused Mr. and Mrs. Chang of the Chang Pharmacy (張藥房) of disregarding public road safety with their insistence to not demolish their own homes and move out.  The ad also included a photograph of an 18-wheeler making an U-turn, crossing several lanes of traffic, as evidence of the Chang's home preventing smooth traffic flow.  What the ad didn't include, was the Miaoli County Government sent another 18-wheeler three days ago to test that same corner, and the truck successfully made an U-turn without a problem.  The students taped the traffic test here

A lot has happened in the Dapu Village of Miaoli County in between and since the demonstration last weekend.  Student supporters formed watch groups to guard the homes of the residents.  Someone from the watch group always stays awake and would notify the others if he sees demolition crew or notice any police presence.  Patrollers in cars or on mopeds are also monitoring the surrounding area for suspicious activities.  That's how things stand for now in Dapu.  

Here are some notes on what has been happening in the past week.  It is by no means everything that happens, as the situation is complicated and ever-changing.  

Smoke screen
Poster of Liu by the protesters
So, it has become evident that the decision flip-flops, and the different versions of stories from the Vice President, the Premier and the County Commissioner in the past week were all smokescreens to the real decision and final on Dapu village, which is evict the residents and demolish their homes no matter what.  

On July 4th, soon after the demonstration that led to clash between the students and the police, Vice President Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) was said to place a call to Miaoli County Commissioner Liu Cheng-hung (劉政鴻) and asked him to suspend demolition of the four families' homes, pending yet another government official meeting.  Wu then told the media that he has never broken any promises, and the homes would not be demolished on July 5th.  The media was quick to report Wu's statement as a "dramatic turning point" for the Dapu residents.  

Wu's statement did nothing to relinquish the Dapu residents' anguish.  The student advocates quickly pointed out that the official document issued by the Miaoli county government never specified any date for demolition.  The July 5th deadline was only for the residents to demolish their homes on their own.  If the residents failed to do so, the county government would the demolish their homes by force.  The county government is also charging the residents a demolition fee.  For example, the county government requested the Changs to pay NT$242,000 by September 15th, for the government to tear down their shop and home for the past three decades. 

"July 5th, Save Dapu" - "七月五, 救大埔"

Crowd in front of the Chang Pharmacy
On July 5th, more than 1,000 students and supporters drove, chartered buses and took trains to Miaoli for another demonstration at the homes of the residents whose homes the county government is determined to demolish.  The county government now says the demolition is necessary due to "public safety" concerns, more specifically traffic safety.  The county government alleges the four houses are in the way of a road-widening project, and if the homes were not demolished, traffic accidents are bound to happen.  

Individuals came from as far as Kaohsiung and Taitung to lend their support to the Dapu residents.  Mr. Chang of the Chang Pharmacy (張藥房) and his son broke down in tears several times during the demonstration.  

On that same day, Mr. Chu Bing-kun (朱炳坤) received another official notice of demolition from the county government.  This time, the demolition notice included the small convenience store his mother committed suicide in three years ago.  Upon learning the government's attempt to demolish the store, Mr. Chu became extremely emotional and swore he would fight to the end to protect his property. 

(Photo from PTS)
Later, when reporters called the county government for verification, the county government official told the reporters that they merely made a typo of the door number of the home that is to be demolished.  When the reporter asked if the county government would apologize to Mr. Chu for their mistake, as Mr. Chu was scared of out his wits, the government official hung up.  

After a buddhist prayer to the gods, the protesters moved to County Commissioner Liu's home in Houlong Township.  Liu's home is located in the area designated for the Miaoli High-speed Rail Station.  The County Commissioner applied for permission for his own home not to be demolish under the reason that his home is an residential artifact (古蹟建築) and was granted permission.  

If Commissioner Liu's only intention is to preserve his ancestral home, no one would blame him.  However, Commissioner Liu was also seen on a video answering question from a Miaoli County legislator, on Jun 27th, that the acquisition of the land in Dapu would generate NT$200 billion (US$666 million) for the county, and the entire Chunan Township project would help generate NT$150 billion (US$5 billion).  Commissioner Liu said he plans to sell the land he acquired, including the land surrounding the HSR area, after the HSR came through and the price of the land in the surrounding area has risen.

In another video, County Commissioner Liu was seen telling another legislator not to worry, because he would "give birth to a lot more land" (for the county to sell to repay the debt).

Lynch mob

By the evening of July 5th, the Dapu residents and their supporters learned the central government would not step in to prevent the county commissioner from demolishing the residents' homes.  Vice President Wu told County Commissioner Liu to "handle the the case properly, since the county government is in charge of the project".  Wu also insisted that the government did not overturn the decision to preserve the four homes and said he expected the county government to seek consensus with the residents involved.  

Then, Executive Yuan's spokesperson Cheng Yi-wun (鄭麗文) said in a nonchalant manner at the EY's press conference that "there was no decision whatsoever at the meeting whether the four homes should remain or be destroyed".  (The audio of the press conference, where the spokeswoman was weirdly bubbly and chuckled from time to time can be found here).

Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺), who has been somewhat silent on the issue, now also said, the matter is at the discretion of the local government.  The Executive Yuan, said Jiang, will give the county government a free hand to carry out the demolition.

With permission from the central government, county commissioner Liu now says he is determined to demolish those homes and acquire the land.  Liu also taunted the residents by saying, "The Miaoli people couldn't stand by and watch those who acted so pitiful and crying on TV to garner sympathy and demonize the county government.  Regardless, I will demolish those houses".

Attendees of press conference
chanted slogan in support of the commissioner
On Monday (July 8th), Miaoli politicians mobilized 1000+ people to attend a press conference to support the county commissioner.  The press conference felt more like an election rally than an occasion for the Miaoli County government to explain its position to the press.  Watching the crowd chanting in unison with their fists raised reminded me of a lynch mob of the American south, from the part of history that's shameful to most Americans, including myself.  They were out for blood, because how dare these small business owners and farmers dare to say no to the county commissioner?  Who has been portraying himself as the savior of Miaoli, the one who will bring in big companies, new residents and jobs and above all, "modernity" and "progress".  

Some of the press conference attendee wore the KMT "battle" vest, and some wore the same t-shirts.  Most were middle aged and older.

One should be reminded that during Commissioner Liu's reign, he acquired and developed more than 30 plots of land for industrial and factory use; however, most remained unused and unoccupied, yet, he continues to acquire more land from the residents. 

During the press conference on several occasion, the Miaoli County Council speaker,  Yu Chung-tien (游忠鈿), led the chant, "Go Commissioner Liu! (縣長加油!)" to encourage the county commissioner.  Yu also said it is the county council's job to mobilize the people who are supportive of demolition, and there it doesn't make sense for the government to not demolish those homes simply because those people protested.  Both Yu and the head of the Chunan residents representative council, Lin Shu-wen (林樹文) said they plan to bring 50 busloads of people to Taipei for a counter-demostration.  Lin said the reason he decided to speak up is because Taiwan has become too democratic but the voice of the majority who supported the demolition remained unheard.  

It seems to me that Speaker Yu, Head Council Lin and County Commissioner Liu unsurprisingly lack the basic understanding of democracy and the rights of individual in a democracy.  Just because one is able to mobilize more people to show up at a press conference to agree to demolish four families homes doesn't lend the decision any legitimacy.  In today's newspaper ad, the Miaoli government also contends that the Changs have a house elsewhere, so they shouldn't object the demolition of their current home.  The issue here isn't whether the Changs have another home or another ten homes.  If the Changs do not wish to sell the government their home at the price determined by the government, they don't have to, as the land and house were bought by the money they earned on their own from their pharmacy.  To follow Liu's logic, anyone in this society can start a survey, in the name of public interest, to take votes from individuals to decide, say, Terry Gou of Foxconn give up half of his money to be distributed among individuals living below the poverty line.

Even if the Changs home will indeed block traffic in the future, the government should offer them reasonable compensation, so the Chang and start their lives elsewhere.  As of now, the law doesn't require the government to offer market price when it acquires a citizen's property.  There many other problems with Liu's "public interest" theory.  I am only mentioning a few.  

Mr. Lin's land development company
Photo by 陳權欣 
It's also necessary to mention here that a former China Times reporter, who now works at NewTalk, discovered Mr. Lin also owns a land acquisition and development company with its office less than 100 meters from the Chang pharmacy.  Conflict of interest here?  Mr. Lin has since removed the plaque with his political title from the window of the office and is now saying the company is not his and he only borrows the office space for the purpose of constituents service.  Some local residents came forward and pointed out that the "friend" who is listed as the owner of the company is actually Mr. Lin's second son.

Photo from PTS
 Furthermore, if one takes a walk or go for a car ride in the Dapu and Houlong area, one would constantly see ads spray painted on walls or placards advertisement for land development companies seeking to acquire land from the residents.  

All this reminds me of the wild west in American's history, where the sheriff and his cohorts rule the town and dominated the town's resources and funds.  Anyone who dares to oppose them would inadvertently suffer dire consequences.

The battle rages on
The "Dapu Patrollers"
Liberty Times reported yesterday Mr. Chang of the Chang Pharmacy was sent to the hospital to receive psychological treatment after suffering some kind of nervous break down.  I heard about the news the day before yesterday but was hoping the press doesn't pick the news up, as I feel Mr. Chang should be left alone for a while.  It's been an extremely stressful three weeks for him, his family and the other residents, and they were already living under constant worry and fear in the past three years.  Most of them have been taking antidepressant and sleeping pills.  

As we speak, students and supporters of Dapu are holding vigils outside of the residents homes.  They vow to continue guarding the houses until they couldn't anymore.  President Ma Ying-jeou finally commented today that he also held the same position as Wu and Jiang, that the local government is responsible in settling the issue.  

I am wondering, though, with permission from the President, Vice President and the Premier, why doesn't Commissioner Liu just go ahead and forcibly demolish the homes as he promised?  Why have the 18-wheeler do a test turn?  And why have the 1000-persons "press conference"?  Why the survey (with horribly formulated questions)?  And why spent millions of dollars placing ads in newspapers?  

With Typhoon Soulik approaching, it is unlikely the demolition will happen this week.  Will keep a close eye on what happens next week.  

Survey from Miaoli County government to poll the residents
on whether they agree with forced demolition in the name of public interest
The recipient should return the survey three days after receiving it
Mr. Chang on the first day of protest in front of the Executive Yuan (July 2nd)
Mr. Chang now. 
Ads to pre-sell land in the surrounding area of the High Speed Rail station

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