by Aaron Wytze Wilson

Photo credit: Aaron Wytze Wilson

In late August, New Bloom interviewed social movement veteran Lee Hsing-Chang (李幸長) about his campaign for Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan. Lee is running as an independent candidate in New Taipei City District 9 (Yonghe and Zhonghe), a traditional stronghold for the KMT. Lee has fought for housing justice for over 25 years, and advocates for affordable housing as a basic human right.

Aaron Wytze Wilson: How did you get involved with the housing justice social movement?

Lee Hsin-Chang: Up until 1987, anyone in Taiwan could afford to buy a house as long as they worked hard. Houses were cheap in the past. But between 1987 and 1989 – a span of just two years – housing prices increased by five times, which was unprecedented. That was the prime motivation for us to start the ‘Snails Without Shells’ housing justice social movement (無殼蝸牛運動). Taiwan had just lifted martial law, yet we were able to mount a social movement of over 100,000 people. People felt a very strong response to the skyrocketing cost of housing.

In contrast, last year’s ‘Housing Movement’ (巢運) wasn’t able to get off the ground because young people are already numb to the problem. All they have ever known is high housing prices, and don’t know how the situation became so dire. My election strategy is to make sure people can clearly see the cause and effect of Taiwan’s high housing prices.

AWW: Why do you want to become a legislator?

LHC: The Legislative Yuan has been hijacked by financial consortiums, and the current rank of serving legislators are unable to oppose pressure from lobbying. Illegal lobbying is a problem in every democratic country, but it’s especially severe in Taiwan. I believe my past experience fighting property consortiums in various social movements has made me very qualified to be a legislator.

I also cannot be bought out. I won’t betray my principles, or try to attain political power for my own personal gain. I want voters to be clear on that. I’m a self-made man who has become financially stable in his old age. I’m the former boss of the Yuloong chain restaurant (四海遊龍), and I have now left the company.

If I am elected, I’ll make sure things stay interesting in the Legislative Yuan. A number of years ago there was a legislator named Chu Kao-Cheng (朱高正). He used to jump on the tables in the Legislative Yuan. Just like this, he’d jump on the tables! [Lee slaps the table] What a sight that was! I can do the same!

AWW: Who are the legislative candidates in New Taipei City District 9 (Yonghe District, and parts of Zhonghe District)?

LHC: The ones I know of are sitting Legislator Lin Te-Fu (林德福) of the Kuomintang (KMT), and sitting Legislator Chou Ni-An (周倪安) of the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), who gained her seat through the non-districted party list selection. There’s also a candidate from the Scooter Party running in this district. [1]

AWW: How do you see your opponent, Lin Te-Fu of the KMT?

LHC: Lin Te-Fu’s strength is also his weakness, he’s been a legislator for too long, and Yonghe hasn’t changed at all. Just look at Yonghe, it’s unsightly. Who’s responsible for this? Lin Te-Fu. Yonghe District was originally planned to have a total of seven public parks for the people to enjoy. They planned it out like this because Yonghe is close to the central government district, and was meant to be a place for public servants to live. They even nicknamed the area Taipei’s ‘rear flower garden’. So what happened? Property tycoons and KMT party factions swallowed up the public parks, changing them to become apartment blocks. All that’s left now is Yonghe’s Ren’ai Park.

Lin’s wife is a board member on Sheng-Chi Construction (勝治建設), the largest construction company operating in Yonghe district. Lin’s brother is also a boss in the company, and so is Lin’s current general administrator. So this local KMT faction has left Yonghe in tatters, only a discerning eye is able to see that the cause of the problem is this kind of business-government collusion.

AWW: Chou Ni-An just recently announced that she would be running in Yonghe, correct?

LHC: Yes. But 8 years ago, Chou also ran unsuccessfully in this district. In reality, I think Tsai Ing-Wen supports my election bid more than Chou Ni-An’s. If Chou goes head to head with Lin Te-Fu of the KMT, she doesn’t have any possibility of getting elected because the TSU is pro-independence and Yonghe is a deep-blue voting district. She’s just running here to collect votes for the TSU non-party list selection. But I have a real chance of winning here because as an independent candidate, I can attract light blue, and even deep blue voters to cast their vote for me.

AWW: Do you think New Taipei City 9 could see a similar situation as last year’s 9-in-1 local elections where blue voters don’t show up to vote for the KMT?

LHC: This year it’s a real possibility. Last year’s Ko Wen-Ke phenomenon could have an effect. On top of that, Ma Ying-Jeou is totally incompetent as a leader. Meanwhile, the KMT is facing an internal collapse. That’s why Yao Li-Ming (Taipei mayor Ko Wen-Je’s former campaign manager) suggested I run in the district as an independent candidate, my hope is to represent all Yonghe residents, regardless of their political affiliation, to really resolve the problems residents here face.

IMG_9616Lee during the interview. Photo credit: Aaron Wytze Wilson

AWW: What problems’ do Yonghe residents currently face?

LHC: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), each person in a given country requires at least 8 square meters of green or park area in order to enjoy a comfortable living standard. But in Yonghe district, each person only enjoys 0.42 square meters, which puts Yonge district dead last in world rankings of available green space for its residents. Isn’t that a disgrace? Yonghe was designated as Taiwan’s flower garden city, Taiwan’s most beautiful city. But because of the machinations of party factions, it’s been heavily modified.

Of course, local factions and construction companies will say to Yonghe residents: “The value of your house has risen in price, so you’ve become a rich person!” My response to that is: “Yonghe residents have become millionaires living an impoverished life, similar to a homeless person,” because their housing units are old, and in desperate need of refurbishment. So their quality of life drops.

Also, the children of Yonghe residents can’t afford to buy a home near their parents. That’s why Yonghe’s annual population outflow is 8,000 people per year. So their children move to Tucheng, Sanxia, or Luzhou. Because of this outflow of young people, Yonghe’s median age is increasingly getting older, and facing severe populating aging issues.

AWW: I wanted to ask you what you thought about Hung Hsiu-Chu. She was exceptionally well received when she was a legislator in Yonghe. What do you think of her?

LHC: She doesn’t have much connection to Yonghe anymore, and I don’t want to criticize the presidential candidates. My opponent is Lin Te-fu.

However, I do find it strange that Lin is so chummy with her all the sudden. Lin went from supporting Eric Chu in the KMT presidential candidate selection, to suddenly becoming a Hung supporter. That strikes me as someone who’s a bit of a fence-sitter. So what if the KMT gets rid of Hung in favour of someone else? Does that mean he’s suddenly going to start taking photos together with the new candidate? He’s a chameleon. Voters hate this kind of person.

AWW: How do you view other candidates coming from the “third force”?

LHC: We’ve been talking about the “third force” for over 20 years now. Frankly speaking, the third force still hasn’t been able to escape the ideological constraints of independence and unification. The only party I can see that is totally free of this ideology is the Tree Party. The other third force partieslike the New Power Party (NPP) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP)are associated with Lin I-Hsiung (林義雄), and independence ideology. All the NPP and the SDP can hope to do is carve off votes from the DPP. Candidates who are truly concerned with the people’s livelihood’s are still a tiny minority.

If I’m elected, I would slowly try to diffuse this kind of thinking, because in all honesty, the KMT’s eventual goal of unification, and the DPP’s goal for independence are both a sham.

AWW: How would you resolve the problem of the rising cost of housing?

LHC: You know, in England, in 1915—in the midst of World War I—a lot of men went over to the European mainland to fight in the Great War. Meanwhile on the British Isles, the women’s suffrage movement was flourishing. In that same year, property prices in London unexpectedly shot up. So women began to mobilize, protesting for the right to vote, while simultaneously protesting the high prices of housing. This was social mobilization of a massive scale that forced the British government to surrender. After the war, the British government made housing a civil right for all people under the Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919. Europe followed suit soon after. The act said that it doesn’t matter if your salary is high or low, as long as you’ve contributed to your city or country, then you have the right to find a suitable place to live to raise your family. That is your right.

So 26 year ago when we started the ‘Snails Without Shells’ social movement in Taiwan, we had a flag with the slogan that said “housing is your basic right”. Since you’ve contributed to the city and country’s development, than the government has a responsibility to provide housing that is suitable to your needs.

In addition, social housing should be affordable. In the past, Taiwan used to have social housing, and it was cheap. But in 1999, during the Lee Teng-Hui administration, the social housing policy was shelved. When Chen Shui-Bian took over in 2000, the policy was not revived. So Taiwan no longer has a concept of housing as social justice. The current administration doesn’t care about this problem, and has turned housing into a market commodity. Taiwan’s available land is so small, so it’s easy to be monopolized by financial consortiums who drive up the prices.

Now, back to the question, if we want to resolve the problem, we need to think about it from that standpoint.

When I was in high school, we had a compulsory class on Sun Yat-sen’s Three People’s Principles, one of those principles being based on assisting the people’s livelihood, or welfare. A part of Sun’s people’s livelihood principle says that the added value of property price increases should be returned to the public.

For example, if you want to build an MRT line to service a part of the city, you have to use money collected from taxpayers to pay for it. After the MRT is complete, life is more convenient, so the value of your home will increase. Since the value of your home increased because of the contribution of Taiwan’s taxpayers, then the added value your property receives should be returned to the government.

But that’s not how it works in Taiwan. Now, anywhere a new MRT line is built, the property in that district immediately skyrockets in value, and the added value is collected by the individual. That’s fine in principle, but because of government collusion with property developers in Taiwan, corrupt politicians and property magnates buy up all the property in the region where the new MRT line is going to be built. So the extra value of property goes into their pockets.

So Sun Yat-sen’s People’s Livelihood principle of returning profits made from real estate to the public is an extremely important principle. That’s why I’ve always been an advocate of a tax levy based on the actual price (net price) of the property, with the full return of the tax imposed going back to the public.

AWW: Your idea of tax levy based on the total net price of the property has appeared a lot in your campaign material. Have there been other countries that have implemented a similar levy?

LHC: I’m not sure what other countries have done. All I know is that Taiwan’s housing prices are skyrocketing, even though there’s a huge supply of empty housing on the market. Generally, house prices rise when there’s a serious imbalance in supply and demand. Taiwan’s situation is different: the rise in house prices is due to people speculating on real estate. According to a population census carried out in 2013, Taiwan had a total of 1,559,604 empty housing units. These empty homes are concentrated in the hands of a few individuals. Why does Taiwan allow these individuals to speculate on the market like this?

In addition, the property tax levy in Taiwan is extremely low. In California for example, the property tax is about 1/100th of a percent. But in Taipei and New Taipei cities, the housing tax and the land tax combined is only about 5/10,000th of a percent. In southern Taiwan, it’s about 1/1,000th of a percent. But when it’s been this low for so long, it’s impossible to request a property tax hike.

However, what I’m willing to demand is a VAT tax on the actual net worth of the property, similar to what Sun Yat-sen talked about in returning the added revenue of property value rises to the public. Also, that tax should be a 100 percent tax. An extremely heavy tax number. That would make anyone who wants to buy or sell a home unwilling to jack up the overall value of the property or land.

I firmly believe that if the government does institute a VAT on the added value of property, that the government wouldn’t actually collect a cent from such a tax. What it would do is lead to those 1,559,604 empty homes to be put on the market. There would be no point in hoarding or speculating on property if you couldn’t benefit from added value. Property magnates would dump it all onto the market, the market would collapse, and continuously decline.

AWW: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

LHC: I want to make clear that I’m not a candidate ideologically aligned with either the independence or unification camps, and I hope to get votes from both sides. I want the people of Yonghe to know that I care about them and the next generation of Taiwanese. Everyone wants their children and grandchildren to live a good life, but it’s difficult when their economic pressures is so huge. If I can’t get people between the ages of 20 to 40 to vote for me, I must be stupid. I want to show voters that the unification/independence issue is fake. Being able to live in a good home is the only issue that’s real.

Post-Interview note: A member of the MKT party (民國黨) has also recently been announced to be running in the district.

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