Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Huaguang and the dance of modernity

Modernity showed its face today, and it was to be found in the hearts of those who defied the authorities in the name of humanity 

What is modernity? What is progress? Is it the sprouting of multibillion-dollar glitzy hotels and shopping malls, or is it how human beings deal with one another, in a society that strives for non-zero-sum outcomes?

Judging from the latest round of forced evictions and the demolition of houses at the Huaguang Community (華光) in Taipei, one would conclude that the march of progress was all about rejuvenation through the removal of the old and the eventual emergence of the new.

A large police force was present
I woke up at 4:45 this morning and jumped in a cab to Huaguang, where student protesters, who had gathered at the site since early evening the previous day, were facing off with several hundred policemen (it could have been worse; the previous Wednesday, I’d had to get up at 3:15am to attend the Han Kuang 29 military exercises on Penghu). An entire row of houses and small businesses were scheduled for demolition by construction workers dispatched by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ).

To make a long story short, through some of the residents of Huaguang have lived there for more than half a century, the land reportedly belongs to the central government, which means that they have been occupying it illegally. Although previous administrations had chosen not to enforce the law, the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) government earlier this year decided it could no longer wait and moved in swiftly, presumably because of the tremendous pressure it must have been receiving from land developers. The government’s handling of the dispute has been awful at best, with the MOJ filing multimillion-NT-dollar lawsuits against the impoverished and elderly residents for illegally profiting from the land, seizing a portion of their bank accounts, and charging them for the demolition of their homes (it also allegedly charged the residents NT$500 per police officer that had to be deployed to the site during a pervious protest). Many of the residents are in their eighties and of ill health; some are not entitled to social assistance, and most cannot afford to pay the rent in the limited social housing made available, on a priority basis, to them. The community is broken, with old friends losing their homes and friends, as they are dispersed in places as far away as Nangang and Wanfang.

On both ends of the street, protesters were prevented from accessing the site by rows of police officers and temporary barriers. Only journalists had been able to penetrate the urban slaughterhouse, and police were checking their i.d. before they went in. The big question was whether they would allow a foreign reporter to enter as well. After minutes trying, and failing, to identify the commanding officer, I saw a small group of Taiwanese reporters glide through the row of police officers on their way back to the site. I immediately jumped in, expecting to be stopped at any moment. The night before, rumors had circulated on the Internet that police would not allow foreign reporters to come close to the area.

Police behind the lines
It worked. A couple of cops exclaimed out loud that there was a foreigner among them, but nobody intercepted me. The trick on such situations is to act as if one owns the place, to pretend that everything is perfectly normal. Furtive glances, rushed movements, or nervousness will inevitably attract the attention of the authorities. It also helped that I had made sure to keep all the tags I had been issued by Air Force officials during my trips with the military attached to my camera. I’d also brought a notepad. I looked legit, as in fact I was.

So I was in, and I realized that we had total freedom to walk around, chat with the few remaining local residents who were busily gathering their belongings before the demolitions, to enter houses selected for demolition, and to snap pictures at will. After an hour of doing so, I had become part of the scenery, and police no longer paid attention to me. Some even apologized (mostly in Taiwanese) whenever they bumped into me or asked me to make way for them.

Protesters and police clash
The situation turned ugly on two occasions, when protesters tried to break through the barricades. The previous night, fourteen young people had been taken away by police for trying to do so, and were now being arraigned. There was some serious pushing and shoving, with some youth sustaining minor injuries as they were hit and crushed by the police shields. A small girl in a yellow shirt, who could not have been older than in her early twenties, was pretty banged up and had a split lip. She and a friend managed to slip by the cops and briefly entered the site, but minutes later both were dragged outside by female officers. The injured girl sank to the ground in a daze. One protester seemed to have fainted and spent about one hour inside the zone lying on the ground and speaking incoherently to nobody in particular. He, too, was eventually taken away, along with a few others.

A protester is dragged away
Some police officers grumbled among themselves that the MOJ had mucked things up and that this was why they were in such a mess. The demolition trucks should have been brought in the night before, but this hadn’t occurred, they said. One elderly police who was facing the students directly observed that this was the “highest quality of protesters” he had seen since he’d entered the force — of course, as many of them were from National Taiwan University; hardly the betel nut-chewing type. Another one said the protesters were “just kids” and just stood there. He obviously didn’t want a violent confrontation with them.

Police officer, really?
Conversely, there were also among the ranks of the police officers men who didn’t wear uniforms and whose behavior and countenance made them look like gangsters. One of them, who wore a white T-shirt and gloves, and looked like he’d just chewed on betel nut, was among the roughest people pushing back the young protesters (he saw her push the injured little girl mentioned above). There was a handful of them, and it was impossible to know whether they indeed were police or were local thugs hired for the occasion.

The rude MOJ enforcer (center)
As some local residents gave tearful interviews to the media, the MOJ enforcer and her minions, carrying piles of documents, showed up and visited every single house. The enforcer had a record of showing great condescension towards the residents and protesters, and once again she didn’t disappoint, hollering at one of the elderly evictees who appeared to be struggling with the documents and was trying to contact someone on the phone. Only later, when the bulldozers were ripping buildings apart, did the MOJ woman appear to relax. She even smiled. An additional fine of NT$1.6 million (US$53,700) was announced against the owner of a noodle shop, on top of the NT$6 million lawsuit they were already facing.

The district head and other local officials were also overheard taunting some of the residents. One woman who was helping an evictee, Mr Zhan (詹), commented afterwards about how they were treated. Here’s just one excerpt from her testimony:

這時突然一個地方人士現在鎮暴警察堆,看來是同一夥的 不屑的語氣用大嗓門的對詹伯伯說:『呦,這麼多人幫你搬家阿,真好命阿,不是一個月前早就告訴過你趕快搬走了嗎!站著茅坑不拉屎!你們這些垃圾!』

Then word got round that all the journalists on site were required to present themselves at a table and show their press passes, whereupon the Taipei Detention Center would issue them an official pass. Anyone who did not have the pass would be forced out.

I expected to be among those who would be asked to leave. After all, the night before, some reporters had been turned away when police pretended that they did not know the media organization they worked for, or that they were not on “the list.” I showed my Taipei Times card, which technically isn’t a press pass. The man looked at it briefly, wrote my name in Chinese and organization (misspelling it) down on a pad, and said I was OK, but that they had run out of badges. Me and another journalist immediately protested, saying that without a badge, cops who couldn’t know we’d been cleared were bound to take us away. Someone eventually found a bag full of badges, and we both received one. It was odd to be given a badge by a detention center. This was also a new practice, never used before. I wonder if this might not have been an attempt by the authorities to limit the ability of activists to spread images and video of the destruction on the Internet, which during past demolitions had served to embolden the opposition to the government’s actions at Huaguang.

Ghost money
At 9am, the protesters held their last stunt and threw ghost money in front of the police. Speeches followed, and then the protesters dispersed, most of them going heading for the prosecutor’s office, where the fate of their friends who’d been taken away the night before was being decided.

Police told reporters to stand behind a low-lying gate for their protection during the demolition. We waited for about half an hour, during which time one of the local residents being evicted, whom I had seen earlier marking boxes with addresses in the Philippines and Malaysia, brought us a crate of juice, crackers, and a handful of umbrellas. I had one of her drinks, a Vietnamese cocktail of some sort made with leaves. It was very green. Not bad, but after that I limited myself to taking water bottles from the police, though I stayed away from their sandwiches.

A home is destroyed
The demolition proceeded quickly, and the decrepit structures that had served as homes for more than half a century were no match for the gigantic steel monsters that were unleashed to tear them down. The huge claw tore sheet metal roofs and walls like some titan sent from above, while a man hosed the area to limit the dust emissions. We snapped out pictures. Most journalists looked on with sadness; some were laughing among themselves. A few residents sat on the sidelines, crying. Mr Zhan smoked one cigarette after another.

While this was going on, on the other side of the police line a few local residents were heckling the protesters and accusing them of being disruptive and selfish. One woman blamed the protesters for creating a scene and keeping her awake all night. Another one said it was a good thing that the neighborhood be razed, as its residents stood in the way of progress, and their houses were decrepit anyway. As she is not a journalist, Dr Ketty Chen, who had accompanied me to the protest, was unable to reach the site as I did, but her being out there with the protesters allowed her to listen to those conversations. As she pointed out to the churlish passer-by, today it was the poorest residents of the community who were being targeted by the rich and the powerful. After the glitzy Roppongi-style neighbor rises, it’ll be her forty-year-old house that looks decrepit. What will she do, then, when the government rules that her part of the neighborhood is too unsightly and decides to wipe it clean?

Another protester is taken away
I remember the first thing that British journalist Martin Jacques told me when I interviewed him in Taipei a few years ago, just after his book, When China Rules the World, had been released. This was his first visit to Taiwan in years, and he was shocked, on his way from the airport into the city, how little construction there was, and how quiet it was compared with the construction boom that was going on across China and other countries in the region. He was disappointed, Jacques said. It didn’t feel “modern.”

I thought to myself back then that Taiwan’s construction boom had occurred about a decade and a half prior to that in China. It had gone through that phase already. Therefore, modernity and progress had to mean something else, something more than skyscrapers MRT lines, which were still popping up all over the city. Maybe the new phase — call it Taiwan’s post-modern era — involves social justice, and the realization that the injustice visited upon the weakest today could very well be the fate in store for those who tomorrow find themselves in an equally disadvantageous position. Maybe modernity is the embracing of a non-zero-sum society, the coming together of a people in opposition to the wealthy vultures, as a prophylactic against future abuse.

The face of modernity?
While the rich seem to have President ma by the balls, I saw the face of modernity in Taiwan today. It wasn’t the bulldozers or the aloof MOJ officials who had the weight of the law to animate them. And it wasn’t the plans that are being drawn for this future neighborhood for the super rich. No. It was to be found in the eyes of the young protesters who set aside politics and ethnicity (most of the Huaguang residents are “mainlanders” who fled from communist China) and who defied the authorities, once again, for the sake of humanity, dignity, and justice. It’s their future, and what they make of modernity and progress is theirs to decide. (All photos by me.)

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