by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: 林澔一
On August 27th, New Bloom’s Brian Hioe interviewed Chen Hung-Ying and Long San-Peng from Taiwan Alliance for Victims of Urban Renewal (TAVUR) in regards to TAVUR ’s work concerning urban renewal and forced eviction in cities in Taiwan.
This is the fourth of a series of interview profiles that New Bloom will be doing with Taiwanese NGOs and civil society organizations, in an effort to present a picture of Taiwanese civil society to an international audience.
Brian Hioe: How did TAVUR begin? Can you also explain your activities to those who might not be familiar with what you do?
Long San-Peng: We began in 2010, with a group of people concerned with the current issues of urban renewal, land eviction, and land appropriation. The other issue we were concerned with was increasingly high real estate prices. That is, we didn’t just begin with the problem of urban renewal. In the process of our activities, we reached a consensus amongst ourselves which led to the development of TAVUR. We hope the establishment of this platform can raise awareness among the public about urban renewal.
BH: Was there any specific incident which led to your founding as an organization, you would say? Or would you say it came more out of neighborhood organizing?
Taiwan Alliance for Victims of Urban Renewal logo. Photo credit: Taiwan Alliance for Victims of Urban Renewal
LSP: Yes, we began from neighborhood organizing, because in 2010 there were already ten neighborhoods working together. But we faced the threat of being sued by unscrupulous businessmen behind land grab actions, so we established the organization to counter this threat. This is something which is made to look like it takes place under proper policies. For example, the dismantling of homes by saying they were refuse, but in which there were actually people living inside.
Chen Hung-Ying: Let me fill in a bit. What he said earlier about neighborhood organizing, maybe was a bit different from traditional environmental rights organizing. Because urban renewal became a big issue after land policy was changed from 1998. After 10 years it became a larger and larger issue, as a result, more and more neighborhoods were affected. One neighborhood had a section in which people have already moved out and part of it was dismantled, but people still had to live in the area. At that time, activism in that neighborhood began with the aims of aiding or saving the neighborhood. But it led to different neighborhoods coming together.
BH: What were the kind of activities you began with and what are the activities you do now? Would you say there were any changes or improvements you made along the way?
LSP: We began in 2010. That year, some neighborhoods encountered the problem of gangsters coming into a neighborhood and randomly taking apart houses at the behest of businessmen. Behind that, our consideration was that this was a result of that there was profit to be made from real estate. There was something behind that, the problem of urban renewal. Of the articles in the land policy, there was a need to point out which articles were the ones affecting people and which were the legal justifications for this set of circumstances.
CHY: Let me fill in again. From 2010, because a lot of places unscrupulous businessmen could receive permission to take apart houses, it became a problem. The original activity of neighborhood organizations was to resist this and also to record what was happening on-site. Of course, this was not always effective. So there were protest activities in the beginning.
But the next step we took was in 2011, using press conferences, to publish information we asked the question of why forced evictions and appropriation was necessary for urban renewal and to spread news of this to different neighborhoods. This was what we did in 2011, with the focus on why something supposed to benefit people would go against the well-being of people. In the second half of 2011, this was a problem of multiple neighborhoods, there were at least five in Taipei with this problem.
Because Article 36 of the Urban Renewal Act specifies that if a businessman requests the city government to undertake forcible eviction, the government must accept it and must give two warnings but if the desired result is not achieved, the government can forcibly evict. The city government does act as a government in this case, but it has become the tool of business.
In 2010, a lot of neighborhoods that had agreed to urban renewal moved out, settled with business, and agreed to forcibly evict those who were still resisting. In 2011’s second half, businessmen started to advertise heavily and buy media reports, pretending it to be objective news, but with the aim of muddling the problem. So we focused on the neighborhoods in crisis of forcible eviction and upon coordination and communication with the Ministry of the Interior. That is, to see if there was any ways to address the problem through reporting it to the authorities.
But business began to use the methods of stigmatizing victims more strongly and to claim the legal legitimacy of their actions. Well, originally it was August 2011, the developer of Wenlin Yuan attempting to drive out the Wang family in Shilin. That was a prolonged struggle until 2014 of this year, because they wanted to take it apart. On October 2nd of that year, we put together an organizational meeting to try to arrive at a solution to avoid the forced eviction, but the city government in March stated they would take the Wang family residence apart.
With evictions, they have an official document (as in the case of Huaguang Community) saying when it will be taken apart and other information on it, but in this case, they did not provide any information. It was an issue that we couldn’t tell when was the date for the forced eviction when we would have to mobilize people to try and resist the eviction.
The demolition of the Wang family home in Shilin District, Taipei, on March 28th, 2012. Photo credit: Fang Pin-chao/Taipei Times
In the end, on March 28th, 2012 the city government mobilized upwards of eight hundred to one thousand police officers to surround the two buildings. So we went to the area, and occupied the construction site. We built a small tent, then built temporary housing, which we occupied until this year’s March. In between, construction companies tried to frighten us with intimidation. But we needed to have people there 24/7. March 2012 to March 2014, we needed people there constantly.
These incidents can be tied together in the Constitution’s articles providing for forced eviction. So then the government put together a publication to explain Article 17, saying that within urban renewal, to say that what wasn’t being done correctly was public hearings. Of course, public hearings would just be government officials or construction companies just talking, the people below just listening, without any discussion or debate, or to offer opinion. On April 15th of last year, it was said that the Legislative Yuan would be given a year, for them to address the issue of urban renewal. So between occupying the site, on the other side, what we did was try to address legislation. From 2012’s second half, with some experts and lawyers, we were discussing the issue and going to the Legislative Yuan.
But from the end of last year to the start of this year, because free trade became such a big issue, the urban renewal article didn’t pass, and some articles have been blocked. Yet Taiwan’s government and people industries are still continuing with urban renewal actions in the meantime.
BH: So you can say the urban eviction issue is still there, for example, with the Wang family and Huaguang, etc. How would you explain the current situation? And what kind of activities are you taking to address the problem?
CHY: For us, the important part is push back against this law, because urban renewal in Taiwan, including Huaguang and others area are for the purpose of commercial development. Comparing Taiwan with other countries, the situation in Taiwan is especially severe, because it is easy for companies to argue that development would be in the public interest and thus request land appropriation.
Last Saturday, we put together a workshop to compare urban renewal issues in different countries, and part of what was illustrated was that other countries take in consideration urban infrastructure, not just buildings. A building wouldn’t be demolished just because a building is ugly, it’s thought of more in terms of broader urban infrastructure. We also discussed how to spread awareness of law and this social issue, that “urban renewal” in Taiwan is not “urban renewal” at all, but “building renewal” in terms of demolishing individual homes.
Why “building renewal” was thought to be urban renewal is part of our issue, whether there is a justification for dismantling people’s homes under the broader rubric of “urban renewal”. People don’t have the means to participate in how these decisions are made. We think this is the biggest problem that people are forced to give up their ways of life for the sake of development, for banks, finance, etc.
Taiwan and its Particularities
BH: Could you talk a little more about the specific characteristics of the problem of urban renewal in Taiwan, then? For example, I live in New York City, we have the problem of gentrification. But what is specific in Taiwan?
CHY: Right now the situation of urban renewal is quite severe in Taiwan, gentrification is also quite severe; it is all-encompassing of society. For example, high real estate prices leads to nobody being able to afford housing and subsequent evictions. And people originally living on land—despite being originally middle class—are having their houses evicted nonetheless. This is one aspect where Taiwan is more similar to elsewhere.
As for the aspects where Taiwan is different, let me talk about one first. Taiwan’s government, the public authority, has no responsibility for urban planning. For example, with New York, for development, it goes through urban planning.
Police at the site of the Wenlin Yuan development complex, the former site of the Wang family home in Shilin, on March 14th. Photo credit: Taiwan Alliance for Victims of Urban Renewal
But in Taiwan, it doesn’t go through this process, different competition of local areas, applying for different amounts of allocation from the government. Almost like haggling over prices in a supermarket. So disorder results from Taiwan’s government setup.
The other is Taiwanese government, because of these large counter-protests, it’s getting hard for them to move. But in order to continue to allow for urban renewal, they have added a new justification, saying how allocation is for granting loans. That is, for making a loan, it needs to go through the city—under this justification, the city undertakes building renewal and says it is for preventing earthquakes, public disasters.
The third is maybe the aspect of forced eviction. We know other countries, within laws, there are provisions for resettlement after land appropriation, but this is especially not well worked out in Taiwan. As visible in Huaguang, the Taiwan government views it as land owners as the only people with the right to discuss resettlement.
BH: Can we discuss the question of using gangsters and such to drive out people? You don’t usually see that in New York as well. I’m thinking of the Wenlin Yuan developers from the Wang family incident.
LSP: This is a very normal thing. Let me add a bit. Like she said, this is a very special aspect for Taiwan which is different from other countries. Whether you have money or don’t have money, anybody, you can draw up an area, no matter whether the houses in the area are new or old, whether they are broken or livable or unlivable, or what the real estate price is, whether more than 1,000,000 NT in value or 200,000 NT. Anybody can circle up that area and say I want to undertake urban renewal in that area and apply to the government.
So in Taiwan, private interests can undertake urban renewal and don’t not need to return to the government any money after new development; they can sell, say, changing a two story building to a twenty story building, they can don’t need to give anything to the government. Not one cent.
The will of the people is of course, not listened to in face of business interests and in the name of profit. In order to undertake this task, some will find gangsters in order to get people to agree to move out. In Taiwan, there have also been incidents where people who refused to move out were shot to death. Like our workplace here, there have been incidents with people wearing black suits wandering around, then been taken away by the police.
But for Taiwan’s government, the government will not address these issues as connected. They will not address the issue of someone being shot to death in connection to urban renewal, this will not affect the process of urban renewal.
CHY: We’ve already had incidents in which people have been killed, and it’s certain that it was at the hands of developers. Usually we’ll ask, whether the company can still continue to do this, in spite of having killed people. But the government will claim that these are different issues, that they can’t consider them under the same framework, so it doesn’t affect urban renewal.
BH: That’s very scary.
A Problem of Democracy?
BH: Can we discuss the connections and cooperative work TAVUR has done with other organizations? Like I interviewed Tongzhi Hotline and they discussed this issue too, surprisingly, though this did not have very much to do with their issue. Also, after the Sunflower Movement, a lot of young people began with the issue of urban renewal, but then began to participate in other social movements. Do you have any views on this?
CHY: From when we began, we began connecting with other issues. This was important in two directions. The first was the labor movement, for example, during the Mid-Autumn Festival, we’d roast meat and we would do a gathering with the labor movement. An important aspect is because a lot of people who own land and face urban eviction are also laborers. Because Taiwanese culture has the view that land is important, people invest a lot of the money they earn in their houses. But that has run up against limits, of course, hence the problems of urban renewal. So connecting with laborers is important to us.
Demonstrators against forced land evictions in Dapu, Miaoli on Ketagalan Boulevard on July 25th, 2013. Photo credit: CNA
The other is closer to land issues. For example, groups organizing around Dapu, Miaoli. And groups working towards legal reform of urban renewal issues, for example, we work with Huaguang Community, Shaoxing Community, and others.
At least 6-7 organizations have come together to form the Alliance for Anti Forced Evictions. This is a network, so together we put together events. For example, during March, a lot of students were interested in land issues, so we put together a big event. The other part was about commercial development. The first was about the connection of urban renewal and labor, the other aspect is the connection with land and urban renewal.
The third part is about working with organizations also fighting against developmentalism, such as Green Citizen Action Alliance, or the organizations fighting for democracy that appeared after 318. It looks like separate issues, land, labor, and democracy, but we all are actually confronting the issue of developmentalism. We want to find alternatives to capitalism and developmentalism. So another aspect of discussion is regarding this.
Within the network, we also turn towards addressing other issues. The Taiwanese government set up a conference to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of free trade. Economic liberalization, regarding free trade. We could try to conduct discussion to discuss what free trade, or trade liberalization is, what the influence for us would be.
BH: I’m a bit curious. We put together this magazine, New Bloom, after the Sunflower Movement. Some of our other members participate in issues of urban renewal as well. I’m curious about why in Taiwan so many social issues are connected. In America, you have a lot of these issues, but they aren’t connected.
CHY: During the Sunflower Movement, we went there too, and had a table, or helped organize. After all, the media billed it as a student movement, it certainly was students on the inside, but on the outside were NGOs and such, and groups whose topics they addressed did not originally connect, so it was a process of change. All NGOs were included, we could say, and NGOs were working 24/7 during this period. Ah-San was there, he also some experiences there he can discuss.
LSP: The NGOs outside was such that you could just collect people outside for so many topics and just discuss.
BH: My last two questions. First, what are the problems you need to address on a day-to-day basis? For example, getting donations, or finding volunteers, and maintaining your activity, and how do you overcome these problems?
LSP: When we established the organization, we didn’t decide to end it within a short period of time; we decided to create an alliance, but we faced the question of the long-term. So for the first few years, we did everything through volunteer work, and we didn’t have any set plan as to plan through things like a political official or as someone with set responsibilities would.
Residents of Huaguang Community protesting outside of the Executive Yuan on May 23rd, 2013. Photo credit: CNA
Sometime we would have to go back to our own work as well. But as these few years passed, we endured. But the situation with this structure, confronting the government, police, and gangsters, up to this point we want to make some changes and we need to work hard for it.
CHY: Like we talked about occupying Wang family. Again, because the Wang family incident was an landowner incident, the businessmen could say, though you are the landowner, we need this land for commercial development and the law sided with the developers. This was the second time they tried to take it apart, too, so 20,000,000 had to be paid, with cash, in order to retain the building. We put together a two-week event to raise money, it was already a case in court, and then in the middle, the son of the Wang family decided to take apart the house, although we were working on this penalty funding issue for awhile.
Some people who gave the money originally to the son gave it to us instead, so that provides some small funding. We’ve used all volunteers for the past three years, but in the second half of this year, we plan to have full time staff, and arrange normalization of operations. Money and people is often a problem. Originally, we wanted to try to add more young people who didn’t know the issue, but building that kind of organization would be more aimed towards public education. We want to pull people who don’t know the issue towards social movements.
BH: My last question is, where do you think you have succeeded and where do you think you can improve? And what is your next step?
LSP: Like said, it’s hard to know what success is, when we began out of neighborhood organizing coming together and forming an alliance out of organizations. In terms of fixing laws, we haven’t gotten to the point at which we have succeeded, but we’ve changed affected some legal experts and experts. With what we did, for example, in the case Wang family, it lets the government and businessmen know that there are people resisting. And with society, we all want help to address our problems, but in the future, can be if we can do something else in the future, we still need to work.
CHY: For success, I think it’s progressive. One step at a time, in taking apart the theories constructed by the government and industrialists or what the public is aware of. In the beginning, people didn’t think forced eviction was a problem. But to let people know that this can’t happen, we need better methods, or to confront the problem of what the city is, apart from a place where forced evictions take place.
We want to put it in light of the process of democratization. We want to go back and ask, what is the kind of democracy we want? As for Taiwan, with urban eviction, in 1980, after the end of martial law, people really thought Taiwan was a democratic nation and simply thought democracy was voting. But with urban eviction, it becomes very clear that voting isn’t enough. To decide where ordinary people can live, it’s still a problem.
Demonstrators from the Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters protesting outside Wenmeng Building in February, 2012. Photo credit: CNA
It goes back to asking if urban eviction is democratic? Is there another more democratic way to take care of this? With city environments and community action, we sometimes discuss if you have a local government, you have political representation, but we see tenants who are not allowed political representation. So one important aspect is democracy and the other is the city and neighborhood environment.
BH: Is there anything else you would want to say to foreign readers?
CHY: Can I go back to the question of organizations? Many organizations and groups encounter the problem of urban renewal. In Taipei there is a place called Wenmeng Building, have you heard of this? The building the sex worker’s collective occupies. Because of that’s also an issue of urban renewal, we would work with the organizations there too, so it looks like different questions but it is the same problem. With the GCAA, it looks like we don’t have direct connections in terms of our issues, but if we are also trying to establish discussion about the environment, we also need to discuss urban infrastructure. The haphazard building processes of urban renewal can’t create a suitable living environment for people so what can we do to use from different perspectives to oppose developmentalism? This is what we are also discussing.
LSP: Urban renewal connects with other issues. For example right now we are mayoral election season. The mayoral candidates have all raised the issue of urban renewal. It does not matter if you are opposing nuclear energy or labor or sexuality or environmentalism, you all encounter the problem of urban renewal. It crosses organizations.