Thursday, March 29, 2012

The wolves are closing in

Thoughts on wealth inequality, forced evictions, human rights, Taiwanese technocrats and the future of Taiwan

When Taiwanese voters elected Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in 2008 with such an overwhelming margin, they did so under the perception that the previous Democratic Progressive Party administration, which ruled from 2000 until 2008, was corrupt. When Taiwanese voters re-elected Ma in January 2012, they voted for technocrats, and this is what they got.

Under their watch, wealth inequality has increased, salaries for ordinary workers have stagnated, the CPI has gone up, as has the bourse, the cost of real estate, and unsurprisingly, the number of violations — of human rights or environmental laws — committed for urban renewal or industrial projects. The main victims have been people from the low to middle class: young graduates seeking their first job, modest home owners, small businesses, villagers, farmers.

The technocrats who gradually filled the ranks of Ma’s first term, and who now populate what can only be described as a Cabinet of uninspiring and utterly uncharismatic policy implementers, will only do more of that. And this is only going to get worse as the impact of Chinese investment, which is now being allowed in a variety of hitherto off-limit sectors, begins to be felt. Already, studies have shown that whatever positive economic impact the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) signed between Taiwan and China in June 2010 has been felt predominantly by large businesses, while more fragile sectors, such as SMEs and farmers, apprehend signs of a bleak future. The same applies to the purchasing delegations sent by China, party to help Ma get re-elected.

But can Taiwanese really expect the KMT, the party of the rich and powerful, to protect the rights of the less wealthy? Asset disclosures from the Control Yuan earlier this year showed that Premier Sean Chen (陳冲), Judicial Yuan President Rai Hau-min (賴浩敏) and Examination Yuan President John Kuan (關中), to name just three, have total assets exceeding NT$100 million (US$3.4 million) each. Chen and his wife own seven buildings and one plot of land in Taipei’s Xinyi District (信義). For his part, Rai owns no less than seventeen plots of land in Da-an District (大安). 

Not only do such assets place those officials in the ranks of the wealthy, they are also the cause of  potential conflicts of interest. Why would officials adopt policies to rectify soaring real estate costs to help ordinary citizens when doing so would negatively affect the value of their properties? A similar conflict arises when we consider expanding Chinese investment in Taiwan. Can officials who stand to gain from such investments be trusted to act with the interests of ordinary Taiwanese in mind? What of the negotiators who strike agreements with their Chinese counterparts, who often have business interests in China, or have family members who do? Or the owners of large corporations who openly support the KMT in election time, knowing they will reap the benefits of closer engagement with, or access to, the huge market across the Taiwan Strait? Who looks after the needs and rights of ordinary citizens when politics become the means for the rich and powerful to further enrich themselves?

It’s hard to imagine any of the above-mentioned government officials, or owners of large corporations, suffering the same fate as that of the Wang (王) family yesterday, who saw their two houses in Taipei’s Shilin District (士林) torn down by city officials to make way for an urban renewal project. The Wangs, who had lived there for more than a decade, were the sole voice of opposition to the project; 38 other households were in favor. Under the Urban Renewal Act (都市更新條例), the construction firm in charge of the project was entitled to ask the city government flatten the Wangs’ homes even if they refused to move out, as more than 75 percent of the landowners on the site of the future project agreed to the plan.

And flatten them they did, while about 300 supporters of the Wangs gathered to express their anger. In a scene more at home in China than Taiwan, the city government deployed more than 1,000 police officers to ensure stability while the houses were being razed, an unusually high 3:1 police-to-protester ratio.

One wonders if, under the Act, government officials or wealthy entrepreneurs facing a similar situation (say, the entire neighborhood is in favor of an urban renewal project, but the official/entrepreneur refuses) would, like the Wangs, suddenly find themselves homeless. Chances are they wouldn’t.

Sadly, we’re bound to see more of what befell the Wangs, as land owners, expecting future liberalization of rules on Chinese investment, engage in speculation and await the day when wealthy Chinese are allowed to buy land and property here. How else can we explain the dozens, if not hundreds, of brand new, entirely empty, apartment buildings that have sprung up around the city in recent years, pushing ordinary residents ever further on the peripheries? This says nothing about the young entrants on the job market who do not make enough money to be able to buy a house, let alone start a family.

Such a scenario hit very close to, well, home last year when a city government official, accompanied by a developer, knocked at my door and said they were asking around the neighbourhood whether owners would agree to the entire area being razed to make room for … large, expensive, shiny apartment buildings that not a single one of us could ever hope of being able to afford? While I made no secret of my resentment for such an outcome, I had to tell the pair that I had no say on the matter, as I do not own the house where I live. I can’t afford to buy in Taipei.

The treatment of the Wangs by the city government appears to have angered a lot of people. Already I am told that Internet chat rooms and Facebook are mobilizing against what, despite legal backing, can only be described as a human rights violation. Ultimately, those who feel powerless against the wealthy will find common cause with those who oppose the government on matters of Taiwanese identity in the face of ongoing efforts by the authoritarian regime in Beijing to swallow Taiwan. The closer ties between the KMT and wealthy Chinese investors, which China is relying upon to accomplish its political aims, will only exacerbate social injustice, and the ordinary Taiwanese who resent the idea of being ruled by the Chinese Communist Party will realize that they have a lot in common with the Wangs and others who, even for those who show little interest in issues of national politics, or independence versus unification, stand to lose just as much if the technocrats on either side of the Taiwan Strait have their way.

Only when those two forces are joined for the cause of rights will opposition to this government have enough momentum that it cannot continue to be ignored. Taiwanese will have to be creative, use their imagination, and be far more vocal than they have been in the past four years, even at the risk (heaven forbid!) of being uncivil. They’ve been sheep for far too long; the wolves are circling and getting ever closer. 

A slightly different version of this article appeared in the Taipei Times on April 5 and can be accessed here.


Michael Fagan said...

"The Wangs, who had lived there for more than a decade, were the sole voice of opposition to the project; 38 other households were in favor."

No suprises: although that sort of thing will inevitably be attributed to "free-market capitalism" by certain people, it does in fact poignantly distill the cannibalistic essence of democracy, especially in its' effectively unlimited form. It's not the Democracy bit that's important, but the Liberalism bit i.e. the question - and it is a question - of how to limit the use and abuse of coercive power.

And I take nothing more than a meagre, bitter and perverted pleasure in adding that it is this principle, the incessant, perma-revolutionary democratic procedure which both the Marxist and Pragmatist wings of the Left, and countless op-eds in the Taipei Times I might add, have embraced with nothing more than piss-poor pleas for more thorough "procedures" and environmental impact assessments and so forth.

No apologies: I pour my contempt down on that stuff from an 80 meter waterfall, not because it's not nearly good enough but because it is actually counterproductive and serves as a scarecrow to keep the supposed "defenders" of economic prey bought off with cheap and easily broken promises.

What is necessary is to confront the nature of political power in strict stipulation to the Liberal principles which the West has abandoned in a seemingly exponential curve.

Michael Fagan said...

I should have added something else - and even though my comments may be being ignored, it's bugging me slightly so I'll add it now before I turn in...

"Only when those two forces are joined for the cause of rights will opposition to this government have enough momentum that it cannot continue to be ignored."

In any discussion of "rights" recognizant of individual freedom, a critical distinction must be observed between "positive" and "negative" rights which very loosely corresponds to the distinction between positive and negative liberty for which Isaiah Berlin is remembered as having drawn attention to in his public radio broadcasts (there is also an essay of his available online somewhere as a pdf).

The distinction is a subtle one and is easily confused - as proven by that confirmed commie Monbiot a while back in the Guardian (e.g. see comments in response to Flora Faun's flagging of Monbiot's piece here).

Negative liberty is freedom from the coercion of other people regardless of whether that coercion receives the cover of democratic sanction e.g. of the 38 people neighbouring the Wang's in Taipei. The right to private property is an obvious example of negative liberty since its direct upshot is the criminalization of theft - which is always and everywhere the modus operandi of governments (through the forced, non-consensual nature of taxation and the currency monopoly). This does give the curious result, which I mention only as an amusing aside, that publicly calling for say, tax hikes is actually incitement to violence.


Michael Fagan said...


Positive liberty is the freedom to realize some innate talent or capacity - or more narrowly - to pursue a given course of action, for instance to seek legal redress for violations of one's person or property. It is this form of liberty which is especially subtle and which demands care because, particularly in the rough hands of someone like Monbiot, it can easily crumble into an obvious - if clumsily disguised - equivocation with power. In this corrupted form, positive liberty is nothing other than the power to attain some given end, whether through the market or through state-sponsored programs.

However, if attaining a given end (e.g. "education") is now a "right" (as listed in the UDHR), then any instance in which a person cannot attain such an end must necessarily imply a violation of this right. From there it is only a small step to insisting that State provision of certain goods or services (e.g. education) is necessary to avoid the violation.

Once that final step is permitted however, then - and there is no logical way around this - we have accepted the principle of violating negative liberty, for in order to provide a given end to some people, the State must necessarily use force to take from other people (e.g. the "wealthy", but in actual fact often the relatively poor as well - such as myself)*. Once this principle is accepted, then it is no longer possible to engage in any principled defence of negative liberty (without being a rank hypocrite, that is). All that is left is to plead on one's knees to the "authorities" for more favourable "procedures" and democratic "oversights". Which, if an alternative choice is available, deserves contempt.


What that means is that in any promulgation of a "rights" charter, there cannot be any allowance made for the positive "rights" that the Left cling to (from their interest in aggregate social outcomes [e.g. income inequality]).

The Left will have to learn to accept that their concern with such things must be pursued through the free market, and in consonance with the negative liberty principles on which the free market must be based.

And that means finally growing out of the rotten, sub-Marxian view of the market and "economic freedom" promulgated in the punyverisites and the media.

*Or as it ought to be memorably expressed in T-shirt form - "If you have a right to force me to pay for your healthcare, why don't you have a right to force me to pick your cotton?"

J. Michael Cole 寇謐將 said...

Mike: Please don't think that my not responding to all your comments signifies that you're being ignored; you're not, and I appreciate the frequency of your visits and posts. I simply don't have the time to respond to all the comments I get both on my blog and by e-mail (and this excludes the occasional angry phone call at the office).

Michael Fagan said...

That's alright. I'd make the same comments even if I was being ignored. And actually in some ways I might be personally better off if I am ignored.

Though maybe it's not entirely insignificant that, when I make my little speeches here and there, certain other Taiwan bloggers - who shall remain nameless of course - either don't deign or don't dare to challenge me. I wonder which it is...

And as I recently said to one such individual in email, I should be challenged, as should my old libertarian friends (e.g. here).