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|
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|
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|
|A protester is dragged away|
|Police officer, really?|
|The rude MOJ enforcer (center)|
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:
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.
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|
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 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?|