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No confidence: protests over land grabbing in Taiwan

The ongoing protests in Taiwan over the land grabbing of rural farmland by the government have experienced a recent, rapid escalation. The Taiwanese government’s current reactive policy-making is providing a masterclass in disastrous public relations.

Linda van der Horst
21 August 2013
Taiwan protests

Protesters spray the Taiwanese Ministry of the Interior, Credit: Linda van der Horst

It was only a few weeks ago that 250,000 protesters gathered in front of the Presidential Office to demand greater military transparency. But Taiwanese activists have not let the momentum slip. Protests have continued against the land grabbing of rural farmland, an ongoing process since 2010, by the Taiwanese government. On July 18 thousands of protesters gathered in front of the Presidential Office to demand a reform of the Land Expropriation Act to protect the property rights of farmers.

Activists and affected homeowners have been protesting since 2010 when the Miaoli County Government issued a new urban renewal plan for Dapu that would entail a relocation of about 900 rural families and their farmland. Although 98 per cent of homeowners have accepted some financial compensation, a substantial number of homeowners and occupants were not willing to relocate. The issue was taken on by the Taiwan Rural Front and has since received wider appeal. Following protests in July 2010, the government of Premier Wu Den-Yih promised several families that they could keep their homes and would be reallocated farm land.

But four families insisted on keeping their homes and current farmland. The demolition of their houses was nonetheless scheduled for July 22 of this year. While they were protesting outside the Presidential Office on July 19, the Miaoli government seized this opportunity to send in bulldozers and demolish their houses while the inhabitants were away.

Last weekend, exactly one month after the bulldozing of those homes, almost 10,000 protesters gathered in front of the Presidential Office to demand a change of the Land Expropriation Act that allows for such government land grabbing while leaving citizens with few avenues to protest these decisions. The protests at the Presidential Office ended at 10 pm after which most protesters returned home, but a substantial crowd marched on. Initial public announcements on social media targeted the Executive Yuan, but as the police were expecting the protesters, there was an ad-hoc change during the march led the protesters to the Ministry of the Interior.

At this point the protests escalated when other movements seized the opportunity to turn the event into a radical anti-government protest that went beyond Dapu, with pro-Taiwanese independence, LGBT rights and anti-nuclear groups also in attendance. Central to the protests were banners proclaiming: “Yesterday Dapu was torn down, today the government will be torn down”. Radical activists climbed over the fence and broke through the line of police guards. Protesters sprayed “tear down” on the building, just as houses designated for demolition are marked. Staying the night, the protesters occupied the Ministry of the Interior for a full 20 hours, attempting to prevent civil servants from entering.

The urban renewal plan that required the eviction of these homeowners came under the label of the region’s ‘general welfare’. But the question arises: the ‘general welfare’ of whom?

Political alliances in Taiwan are complex. Miaoli is a bulwark of the Kuomintang party, who are supported mostly by the Hakka community. The urban renewal policies that require the forced evictions were adopted by the KMT but target the Hokkien community in Miaoli, who traditionally support the opposition Democratic Progressive Party.

Despite representing the majority Hakka community, the KMT party is also under an obligation to respect the individual human rights of the Hokkien community. Forced evictions, contrary to what many Dapu protesters believe, are not by definition illegal, but should adhere to certain principles to ensure the interests of the affected homeowners and occupants are considered.

As per the United Nations guiding principles on development-based evictions, the government first of all needs to ensure that the evictions only happen in “exceptional circumstances”, where alternative plans are not possible. Given the number of unused science and technology parks, activists argue that the government should have focused on the improvement of those parks rather than the establishment of a new one.

In addition, the government should have consulted the citizens in the process, and considered the impact of the plan on the human rights of the Dapu homeowners. The Taiwanese government has gravely mishandled the case in this respect, as it was only in response to continued protests that it considered compensation and reallocation of farmland.

Rather than involving these citizens in the consultation process, the government has actually distanced them and seeded distrust. The Miaoli government has not kept its promises regarding land reallocation and revoking certain forced eviction orders. Even worse, the government moved the date of demolition forward so it could demolish the houses when the four homeowners were in Taipei protesting their forced eviction. As a result, the Dapu citizens felt they had no choice but to intensify their protests.

The case of Dapu is a perfect illustration of the current government’s failure in public relations. Protests in Taiwan happen frequently with varying degrees of intensity. Last month, the suspicious death of the soldier Hung Chung-Chiu, while serving his mandatory one-year military service, sparked a public outcry over the lack of transparency in the Taiwanese military. Rather than immediately stepping up to instigate a full-fledged public enquiry into the issue of abuse in the military, the government allowed the protests to escalate.

The government would do well to reconsider its approach to consulting and respecting different interest groups in society. The current reactive policy-making sends the wrong message to its citizens. The idea that you need to gather 250,000 protesters or occupy a government building before the government recognizes your interests is deeply unhealthy. Protests should be a last resort, not a monthly activity to push items onto the government agenda.

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