Taiwan’s Pork-barrel Politics and an Unwanted Road

Taiwanese environmentalists are nearing the crunch in their

fight to stop a government plan to build an 85-kilometre expressway through

some of the island’s last pristine territory. It will cost a whopping NT$93

billion (US$2.81 billion), take seven and a half years to build and is fiercely

opposed by many of the people it is supposed to benefit.

But this is an election year for the national legislature in

December and presidency next March, so politicians need major projects to show the

public and to raise money from companies for their campaigns. That is why the

highway is now back on the public agenda, to be taken up by a 16-member

government-appointed evaluation committee at the end of April, the last stage

in the approval process. Two have come out in favor, five against and nine have

not expressed an opinion.

The four-lane highway would connect two towns on the east

coast, Suao and Hualien, and require 11 tunnels and 27 bridges on a route that

runs through breathtaking mountains that descend into the sea. The highway

would pass through eight reserves and beauty spots including the Taroko Gorge,

one of the island’s main tourist sites, inflicting damage on all of them.

The bare-knuckle contest over the highway is a throwback to

a pork-barrel era of politics in which the beneficiaries will be the

construction firms that get the contracts, insiders who will be well

compensated for land they have bought on the highway route and politicians

receiving kickbacks. The huge expense

and the fierce opposition of the environmental lobby are the reasons why the

highway has not been built since it was first proposed in 1990.

For its supporters, the road would link Hualien to the

highway network that emanates from Taipei,

cutting the driving time to the capital from four hours to two and making it a

more attractive destination for investors and tourists. Companies that produce

goods in the town would be able to move them more quickly to domestic and

foreign consumers. This influx of visitors and capital would raise the value of

land and property in Hualien and bring more business to its shops, restaurants

and other retail businesses.

For its opponents, these benefits are greatly outweighed by

the environmental destruction.

Hualien, a mountainous county that stretches along the east

coast, has just 300,000 people – out of the 23 million in the whole island – of

whom one third live in the town. It has few industries and relies on

agriculture, mining, tourism, including resort homes owned by the rich, and a

fishing and cargo port.

It is home to the military’s eastern command, with a large

air base and jets stored in tunnels dug out of the mountain. Test flights by

these jets are the only sounds that disturb the area’s postcard tranquility.

Hualien was the last part of Taiwan to be settled by Han Chinese.

Aboriginals – the native inhabitants ‑ still account for 25 per cent of its

population. Most of the county is mountains, with a narrow stretch of flat and

cultivable land along the coast.

“East Taiwan is the last

piece of pure land in the island and we are threatening to destroy it for the

sake of short-term speculation,” declared Yan Chang-shou, the president of the

Ritz Hotel group, at a press conference on March 7.

The opponents include an alliance of 132 non-government

associations in Hualien who have collected more than 10,000 signatures on an

Internet petition launched on March 6, and groups of Aboriginals who say that

they have not been consulted and that, if the highway is built, they will no

longer be able to buy the land on which their ancestors have lived for

centuries.

Even hoteliers in Hualien are dubious. “Visitors who come

from Taipei

have to spend at least a night, because it is too far away,” said Liang Kuo-ming,

a manager of the Azure business hotel. “But, if this highway is built, they

could come and go in a single day. So it would be bad for the hotel sector

here.”

The county government supports the project, as does a

majority of members of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the

opposition Nationalist Party. One exception is Frank Hsieh, a former DPP Prime

Minister and a candidate as the party’s presidential nominee for the election

in March 2008.

“A majority of the public support the highway because they

have been encouraged to do so,” Hsieh said. “Destroying the environment and the

habitat is an issue for the future. A nation’s leaders should take a long-term

view. My opinion now is that of the minority but will be the majority in the

long term. And we cannot take on too heavy a financial debt, to leave to future

generations to repay.”

Hsieh said that politicians liked big construction projects.

“You can immediately see the result, in the form of opportunities, jobs and

growth. Private investment is insufficient, so the government has to invest.

You use investment to increase GDP. This was the simple lesson I learnt as prime

minister. We spent NT$200 billion and GDP would rise.”

The issue is whether Taiwan

is still a prisoner of the development model of Japan, in which vast amounts of

money have been spent on bridges to nowhere and airports in nearly uninhabited

areas to please their contractor backers, or whether its leaders have matured

enough to take the decision that will be welcomed by future generations.

Until fairly recently, Taiwan’s headlong urge for

development has resulted in disastrous damage. Taiwan

has some of Asia’s most polluted rivers and heavy traffic and high

concentrations of industrial plants have made air pollution one of Taiwan’s

most serious problems. According to a study by the government’s Environmental

Protection Administration, vehicular exhaust comprises more than 95 percent of

the air pollution in Taipei,

Taiwan's

largest city.

Now citizens are wondering if it isn’t time to apply the

energy that built the economy into making the island livable.