Sunday, April 27, 2014

Thugs come out on Taipei’s East Side (中文 link at bottom)

Crew working for the Farglory Group at the site of the Taipei Dome are ripping beautiful trees around the area and turning to goons to scare off environmental activists

In the past year I’ve often referred to Miaoli County as Taiwan’s “Far West,” a sobriquet attributable to the fact that pretty much anything goes there when it comes to the ability of local officials getting their way, often with the help of bought local police and, when necessary, gangsters. The corollary was that such lawlessness would not occur in more “civilized” parts of Taiwan, such as in Taipei. Think again.

As we all know, construction projects — roads, bridges, large infrastructure — are notorious for the kickbacks and corruption that accompanies them. What is also known is that following the nationwide crackdown on organized crime in the 1990s, the major triads reinvented themselves as “businesses” and many of them went in the construction sector. For one thing, such efforts were more lucrative than running prostitution dens, underground gambling, or selling drugs, while the “clearer” nature of their work made them more socially acceptable, not to mention less likely to attract the attention of law enforcement. Better therefore to threaten officials and get a lucrative construction deal than break knees or engage in shootouts that are bound to land gang leaders in jail.

What happens, then, when ordinary citizens oppose construction projects, land grabs, urban renewal, or development that fails to take the law or the environment into account, is that the goons come out. They have their deals with land developers, city councilors and officials, and they expect to be able to go ahead and build without accountability, even if the proper public consultations expected in a healthy democracy do not happen.

I’ve already written at length about such behavior in Yuanli, Miaoli County, where a foreign wind power company, with the complicity of local officials and the central government, has gotten away with breaking the law (and the bones of elderly local residents). We’re seen similar incidents at Taipei’s Huaguang Community, where residents who refused to be evicted to clear the land for a major luxurious construction project were fined by the government and harassed by individuals of questionable backgrounds — not to mention an unexplained fire that destroyed the house of an elderly woman who refused to leave (she later died). Lapses were also noticed in Shilin over the Wang Jia property, which also faced demolition, and where thugs passing off as construction workers physically assaulted protesters, including young women. In all those cases, police did nothing to protect citizens and showed every sign that it was siding with the construction companies and their government backers.

Now this is happening again, this time in Taipei’s east side, and the developer in question is the Farglory Group. While everybody’s attention is turned to the large anti-nuclear protests on Ketagalan Blvd and outside Taipei Main Station, the construction crew has been busy removing, and in some instances sawing off, old trees on Guangfu S Rd, Zhongxiao E Rd and Yixian Rd. Farglory and its contractors were reportedly given the green light by the Taipei City Government to get rid of the trees to expand the site of the Taipei Dome, which is being built on the site of the old Tobacco Factory. Trees lining the sidewalk, along with those on the road dividers on Guangfu, were to be transplanted.

The situation on Guangfu S Rd
However, starting on Thursday night, locals and environmentalists realized that something wasn’t right: the trees were being ripped off the ground (transplanting a tree requires careful work), while others, as we saw, were simply being cut. Several trees were broken in half by excavators. Workers then poured concrete in the holes. The beautiful Bombax Ceiba, or “red silk cotton” trees, were planted about 40 years ago and were part of a landscape that local residents had come to love. The trees that have already been removed were taken away and nobody seems to know where (they can be turned into plywood). Farglory, which evidently cannot be bothered to spend a little more money to preserve the beautiful trees, reportedly intends to replace them with coconut trees. Several other trees have been marked for removal, perhaps as early as this evening.

As with everything else that has prompted protests in the past two years, the source of the problem is lack of transparency and the government’s making a mockery of democratic procedures. Activists turned up, and things got a bit ugly early on Friday when some of them attempted to block construction workers who were trying to uproot the trees. Some sat on the roots and were practically hacked away by the workers. Police looked on, documented the protesters’ efforts, and warned them that if they got injured in the process, it was their fault.

More worryingly, intimidation is now also a factor in the crisis, which continues as I write this. Young female protesters have been followed my masked individuals at night, so much so that the activists have instructed women who need to walk around the area to always do so in pairs.

We did a walk-by earlier today and experienced some of that intimidation ourselves. After chatting with the activists, we decided to walk along Zhongxiao E Rd towards Yixian Rd. As we were walking, we came upon an opening that gave onto the large construction site. We stopped to take a look, and my wife began taking pictures. Immediately, a large construction worker parked at a little shack by the gate started shouting at us and told us that we were not allowed to take pictures. Given that we had not entered the construction site and were on a public sidewalk, I went over to the man — a largish guy with missing teeth and every sign of a betel nut-chewing habit — and asked him why. No explanation was given; we just couldn’t. I asked him whether we were in Taiwan or in China, where this sort of thing happens all the time. He assured me that we were in Taiwan. I had to check.

No sooner had we resumed our walk than we noticed that we were being followed by a man in his fifties wearing a gray shirt. We’d seen him chatting with the man I’d just quizzed. He shadowed us for over 200 meters until we stopped and let him walk by, whereupon we asked him what he wanted. He pretended to ignore us and turned left on Yixian Rd. We resumed our walk, turned on the same street, and saw him having a chat with a police officer right outside the Criminal Investigation Bureau office. We doubled back, crossed over to the other side of Zhongxiao Rd, where we were again followed by a man in a similar gray shirt, who eventually went into the MRT station.

This was intimidation, pure and simple. They didn’t even make any effort to be subtle, in fact, as in China they wanted us to know that we were being followed. Those are the kinds of people who do the dirty work for the president of the Farglory Group, a man infamous for saying last year that civic activists who call for justice are hampering development.

With police once again failing to do its duty to protect citizens (and demonstrating that it is actually in bed with the developers), it isn’t a bit surprising that the activist are now receiving protection by a group of very large animal rescuers from the EMT Tough organization. Those of us who spent time at the legislature during the occupation by the Sunflower Movement will immediately recognize them. If police won’t do its job, rough types (some of those guys have affiliations with organized crime) will do it as society fights back. (Photos by Ketty W. Chen)

New! A Chinese-language translation of this article is available here.

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