Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The Dapu ruling and Taiwan’s ‘moral wealth’

A court last week ruled that the government had wrongfully demolished four homes in Miaoli County. Fearing that this would set an inconvenient precedent, the authorities will likely appeal

There were four of them, fangs protruding upwards, with garishly painted visages and eyes flashing a deep rage. We looked on in silence as they performed a Taoist ritual dance, flashing halberds, swords, and banners upon which were inscribed Chinese characters indicating that an injustice had not been righted.

We were in Dapu, Miaoli County, on the morning of Sept. 28, for the funeral of Mr. Chang Sen-wen (張森文), whose lifeless body had been found in a drainage ditch on Sept. 18 less than 200 meters from the ruins of his home and pharmacy, which had been demolished by the government exactly two months prior.

A Taoist demon performs a ritual
It was hard not to be moved by the demons of the underworld, or by the hundreds of people who came from all over Taiwan to pay their respect to the man and his family, whose simple, contented lives were forever torn asunder by the forces of “progress,” propelling them (against their will, I am sure) onto the national stage.

Former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), on her way to a DPP meeting in Taichung, made a brief unwelcome appearance, a publicity stunt by someone who, along with her party, had not lifted a finger to help prevent the catastrophe and was now sucking on the blood of suffering for her own political gain (she would later become an adviser to the Taoyuan Aerotropolis project, which will likely result in hundredfold suffering).

The last time I’d seen Mr. Chang, whose portrait greeted us at the entrance of the blue tent, was during a protest in front of the Executive Yuan. His home was still standing at the time, but already his mental state had deteriorated. The night before, he had descended into unconsciousness, and after he woke up he was never the same man again. I’d had more interactions with his wife, Ms. Peng Hsiu-chun (彭秀春), who throughout her family’s ordeal remained the strong figure. I was right next to her when she burst into the crowd on July 18 during yet another protest, this one in front of the Presidential Office, and screamed in a voice that I will never forget before being hit by a police shield and collapsing to the ground. She’d just learned that her home had been demolished.

The administration’s callous response to the calumny that befell the Chang family, the loss of their home and pharmacy after they had been promised that such a fate was not in store for them, Mr. Chang’s mental destruction and death, was utterly shocking. Nobody, not President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), not Miaoli County Commissioner Liu Cheng-hung (劉政鴻), and not Vice President Wu Den-yi (吳敦義), who had himself delivered that promise (which he denies making), ever uttered a single word to bring comfort to the grieving family.

There was reason to rejoice, therefore, when on Jan. 4 the Taichung High Administrative Court ruled that the Miaoli County Government had illegally destroyed the Changs’ homes and those of three other families on July 18, and added that the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) had for its part failed to properly review the cases. Of course, the ruling did nothing to undo the damage that was already done, and will not resurrect the life that was needlessly lost in the process. But it was hoped that the acknowledgement that the government had wronged an innocent family would somehow bring a bit of solace to the widow and now fatherless children.

Despite the verdict, the government remained unapologetic. It was defiant, in fact. Wu, true to himself, disfigured language and blew a lot of smoke to rid himself of all responsibility in the matter. Moreover, the MOI has indicated it will likely appeal, as this would create a “bad” precedent for similar cases, more precisely the hundreds of evictions that will accompany the controversial Taoyuan Aerotropolis megaproject. Heaven forbid that justice and human life should stand in the way of “development,” as Liu, the principal perpetrator of injustice in Dapu, crassly warned after the High Administrative Court ruling. (Unless Liu knows something that we don’t about future investors in the Science Park and other projects that he has initiated across Miaoli, “development” promises to yield a slew of empty lots and vacant buildings, with little in terms of boosting the local economy — unless, of course, by “local economy” we mean Liu, his family members, and close associates.)   

To add insult to injury, someone in government has since suggested that it was those who stood by the Chang family, people like Hsu Shih-jung (徐世榮), Frida Tsai (蔡培慧), Taiwan Rural Front activists, lawyers — and this writer — who ultimately bear responsibility for Mr. Chang’s death, presumably for planting such silly ideas into his head as the belief that people have a right to say no when the government seeks to evict them, and that there is more than the two options given them by the authorities (meager compensation or capitulation) when the bulldozers and excavators come knocking at their door.

Not long ago I was discussing the Dapu case with a Taiwanese friend who currently works in the Philippines, and told her how the injustice and the death/suicide/murder of Mr. Chang had deeply affected me. Her reaction was a bit unusual. “That’s sad, but compared with the mass atrocities that occur in the Philippines, the rampant corruption that delays the delivery of aid during emergencies, it’s pretty minor.” I agree with her that in terms of scale, the Dapu case indeed seems trivial when weighed against the atrocities that are committed within this region alone. But Sam Harris, writing in The End of Faith, had a valid point when he said that not all societies “have the same degree of moral wealth.” In other words, some societies, thanks to variables such as education levels, wealth, development, stability, formative experiences and so on, have more rigorous moral standards than others. Taiwan, having gone through its own dark ages, is now at a point where the death of an individual and the forced eviction that directly led to it are defining issues requiring nationwide attention.

By threatening to appeal the verdict, the MOI risks inflicting even more pain on the Chang family, whose trials should serve as a warning to many others. The Dapu case is extremely important because it serves as a precedent for Taoyuan and other areas lined up for “development.” The government could do the right thing by not appealing and making the proper amendments to the Land Expropriation Act (土地徵收條例), but that seems unlikely. The money involved in future projects is simply too good to ignore. All we can hope, therefore, is that the higher court will do as the Taichung High Administrative Court and rule in the interest of the public against the hyenas. (Photos by the author)

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