by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Scout7/WikiCommons/CC

An Object of International Spectacle

WHAT ARE WE to make of the Tainan earthquake, six days later? The earthquake, registering a 6.4 on the Richter scale, struck in the early morning hours of Saturday morning. With 62 dead, close to 600 injured, and close to one hundred still missing, survivors are still being sought in the rubble.

The disaster has been an object of public spectacle in international media, with the human drama of searching for survivors in the some 12 buildings that collapsed during the earthquake. In particular, images of the collapsed Weiguan Jinlong housing complex in which most of the currently missing are thought to be trapped under have circulated worldwide, becoming fodder for “disaster porn” in light of how the building folded and collapsed in such fashion as to look like a folded accordion.

It is that a disaster such as the Tainan earthquake is far from simply being an act of God, but was in itself a manmade disaster. To begin with, as has received the most news coverage, the builders of the Weiguan Jinlong housing complex seem to have ignored safety standards in construction, with the discovery of large cans of cooking oil used as building material in the building after its collapse. 53 of the 55 dead in the quake died because of the Weiguan Jinlong collapse and most of the survivors are thought to be trapped within the collapsed structure.

Built in 1994, the two companies which constructed the Weiguan Jinlong building have since gone out of business, but this has not prevented prosecutors from detaining Lin Ming-hui, chairman of the out of business Weiguan Construction Company that built the complex. That the building seemingly collapsed into itself during the quake would seem to point towards a failure to follow building construction codes.

Questions of Crony Capitalism Behind the Weiguan Jinlong Collapse?

NAMELY THE Tainan earthquake raises longstanding issues of crony capitalism in construction companies in Taiwan, in which companies cut corners to drive down costs even if this violates standards for building constructions. Indeed, in the case of the 1999 Nantou earthquake which killed 2,300, cans of cooking oil were also discovered to have been used as building materials within collapsed buildings. But many times, because of the close ties of construction companies and politicians and even organized crime, companies are able to get away with this.

Certainly, Lin Ming-hui and the Weiguan Construction Company would seem to have been involved in rather shady dealings in the past, Lin having actually been kidnapped by then-Weiguan CEO Tseng Ching-hsiang during a debt dispute in the 1990s. But actually, simply detaining the executives of construction companies involved in the construction of the Weiguan Jinlong complex and pinning the blame on a few culprits runs the risk of effacing the larger structural political issues at work here.

Lin Ming-hui. Photo credit: Apple Daily

Other contributing factors seem to point to a broader failure to enforce safety standards. Columns on floors one through four of three of the buildings in the Weiguan Jinlong complex were removed by the landlady in order to increase the square footage in the apartments, so she could increase the rent. This likely also played a role in weakening building integrity. Though this was reported to authorities at the time, no action was taken. Along such lines, soil liquefaction likely was also a factor contributing to building collapse, as a product of a failure for long-term urban planning.

And it transpires that while locals were aware of the dangers of the Weiguan Jinlong housing complex, many of the residents of the housing complex were underprivileged transplants from out of town who were not aware of the dangers of the housing complex. Such residents lived there because of the cheaper housing price. This raises larger issues of class regarding the Weiguan Jinlong collapse, where increasingly unaffordable real estate prices in Taiwan are concerned.

A Politicized Affair In International and Domestic Politics

THE TAINAN earthquake disaster became a politicized affair in international relations as well. Japan rapidly pledged aid, donating one million USD, sending rescue workers, and pledging to help out in whatever way Taiwan needed. Apart from that Japan probably aims to build closer international ties with Taiwan to counter China’s military rise in the region, Japan also is in some way repaying Taiwan for the large amount of aid contributed by Taiwan to Japan after the 311 earthquake in 2011. To this end, local governments in the Tohoku region affected by the 311 earthquake have also sent donations.

The US has donated 500,000 USD to aid efforts through the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). China donated 2 million yuan (approximately 300,000 USD) and offered to provide aid when needed through its semi-official body to conduct cross-strait relations, the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS). Although the most publicity has gone to China and Japan’s contributions, it is that these countries all needed to make some form of contribution in order to maintain relations with Taiwan. But the respective amounts donated by each country is likely not insignificant as an indicator of where each country stands relative to Taiwan in international relations. Ironically, in China, much attention has gone to Lin Ming-Hui’s arrest for violating construction standards in the construction of the Weiguan Jinlong complex, seeing as flagrant violations of building construction codes is also an endemic problem in China, but the culprits are rarely prosecuted.  

Within Taiwanese domestic politics, the KMT and DPP made rare showings of solidarity in regards to the earthquake. President-elect Tsai Ing-Wen pledged one million NTD to earthquake relief efforts, and the DPP established a special fund for contributions to the earthquake. The KMT pledged to donate one day’s worth of salaries, though this would seem to be a much lower amount than the amount DPP pledged. Ma Ying-Jeou has also praised DPP Tainan mayor William Lai for his leadership of relief efforts, to which Lai responded by thanking Ma for his own involvement in relief efforts, Ma having flown directly to Tainan after the quake. Lai and Ma are otherwise at loggerheads, given Lai’s reputation as a pro-independence firebrand and Ma’s reputation as an unabashedly pro-China president.

In the Aftermath of the Tainan Earthquake, What Action Needs to Be Taken?

IN THE AFTERMATH of the Tainan quake, the struggle to find survivors is not over yet. And it remains that bodies still have to be lifted out of the rubble. At present, the focus of recovery efforts is upon finding survivors, with bodies being left where they are because recovery efforts would need to be entirely halted to retrieve bodies—costing valuable hours for every body found. The seventy-two hour long “golden period” in disaster relief for finding survivors has long since passed, but there may still be survivors.

Fifty buildings have been labelled as dangerous following the earthquake, following reports by local residents. The earthquake raises broader questions of lax enforcement of building construction codes, short-sighted urban planning, and crony capitalism in the Taiwanese construction industry. But though it remains for such questions to be worked out, in as seismically volatile a country as Taiwan, in order to prevent future tragedies as the Tainan earthquake we can conclude that action will need to be taken.

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