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
Even hoteliers in Hualien are dubious. “Visitors who come
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
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,
Now citizens are wondering if it isn’t time to apply the
energy that built the economy into making the island livable.