Even in Misery, This House is DividedAs long as officials and lawmakers see catastrophes as an opportunity to score points against their opponents, they will fail to earn our trust, and preventable accidents will continue to occur
The series of gas explosions in Kaohsiung on July 31, which killed 30 people and injured ten times as many, turned parts of the nation’s second-largest city into scenes that would be all too common in, say, Gaza following the latest incursion by the Israeli military. Sadness abounded. Heroes disappeared. The economy, which is hugely reliant on the petrochemical industry, could be seriously undermined. As is almost always the case when disaster strikes, Taiwanese across the nation and overseas donated generously to help the victims rebuild their lives.
But while ordinary Taiwanese came together, politicians and pundits once again failed to behave like they are members of the same community and instead exploited the crisis to score political points. The battle lines were the same: north versus south; central versus local government; and Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) versus Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
No sooner had the dust settled on the city than the political parties went on the offensive — not to ensure the survival of the victims or mitigate the effects of the disaster, but to undermine their opponents. That isn’t to say that good deeds were not done, but they often were a secondary consideration. The main object was political. Early on, rather than work with officials from the DPP administration, the KMT sent its own separate delegation, while the DPP, fearing accusations that it was politicizing the crisis, had to secretly fund groups that provided assistance to devastated areas. For its part, the KMT-dominated central government quickly reminded residents of the southern city that they would not receive any “special favors.” And judging from the premier’s remarks at the weekend, officials in Taipei saw no need to hurry with reconstruction, as if Kaohsiung were somehow trying to cut in line.
Meanwhile, opponents of Chen Chu (陳菊), the popular Kaohsiung mayor who is running for re-election in November, saw in the catastrophe an unexpected opportunity to attack her. Many from the blue camp have tried to pin the explosions on her, even though evidence has come to light suggesting that critical information — the missing Polypropylene that caused the explosions — was kept from Chen, who is of the DPP. Others in the KMT camp, including officials in the central government, who technically should be above party politics but rarely are, have called for Chen’s resignation on charges of negligence.
As it struggles to counter the attacks, the green camp has responded in kind, seeking to pin the blame on former Kaohsiung mayor and now Vice President Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) of the KMT. Facing a political crisis in the once-secure city, DPP central has also been forced to play crass politics by adopting strategies that are aimed first at making the central government look bad rather than maximize the help for the residents of Kaohsiung.
Good old economics also reared their ugly head. Thanks to intemperate remarks by some DPP members, who threatened a shutdown of petrochemical refineries in the city, the party was once again assailed by accusations that a return into the Presidential Office in 2016 would be “catastrophic” for the nation’s economy (shutting down refineries and the pipeline network in the south would indeed risk causing untold damage to the nation’s economy, given that the petrochemical sector accounts for approximately 30% of national GDP and creates as many as 400,000 jobs). While those remarks certainly do not reflect official DPP policy, they nevertheless gave ammunition to the other camp and created an unnecessary debate at a time when minds should be focused on immediate problems.
While coming elections have made finger pointing almost inevitable — hugely attractive, in fact — we should acknowledge the reality that in the end everybody was responsible for the catastrophe in Kaohsiung: Yes, the laying of the leaking propylene pipeline owned by LCY Chemical Corp that blew up was “approved” when Wu was mayor; and yes, the Kaohsiung City Government probably, as alleged, failed to conduct proper inspections during the past 16 years of DPP administration.
But the problem is far more complex, and the blame can probably be attributed evenly.
The private firms, which cannot afford the financial losses resulting from any interruption in the provision of petrochemical components, and which probably cut corners to save money or didn’t use the proper pipeline materials to avoid erosion, share some of the responsibility.
So do the state-owned firms like CPC Corp and city governments that are all part of this highly complex hodgepodge of companies, operators, systems and sub-systems (to get an idea of the terrible mismanagement and inefficiencies that stem from such Frankenstein monsters, one need look no further than the London public transportation system).
Urban sprawl, which inevitably occurs as cities expand, is another factor; areas that years ago were cleared for potentially dangerous pipelines may now be urban centers with high population density, thus creating risks that didn’t exist before.
In the end, we must accept the fact that no highly complex system is 100% safe. Rather — and this applies every time you take the MRT, the high-speed rail, or board an airplane — we inhabit a world of risk management, one in which private operators and governments invest no more than what is necessary to ensure the stability of their systems and keep catastrophes in the realm of the unlikely. Only when things go terribly wrong do we realize how lucky we all were that disaster didn’t hit earlier.
There are things that can be done to minimize the risks of accidents. Among them, we can pressure the private sector, government regulators and state operators to do more to ensure our safety by making them accountable, encourage closer cooperation between all the players involved, and compel them to improve oversight mechanisms through investment in better technology and redundancy systems. This, above all, is what is needed in Kaohsiung and elsewhere across Taiwan as greater attention is paid to similar systems (the nuclear energy sector comes to mind). It is unfortunate that disasters are often necessary for us to tackle the unknown dangers that lie in our midst and below our feet, but thus is our nature. We manage, we ignore, or are oblivious to the many threats that are part of life in our increasingly complex world; only when things go deadly wrong do we call for action. We’ve now had one such reminder, and we must act.
None of this, however, will be possible as long as politicians look no further than the chance, born out of catastrophe, to skewer their opponents in the court of public opinion, or to oust officials who were not responsible for the misfortune of others.
If a tragedy such as the Kaohsiung blasts cannot convince this nation’s politicians to work together, one wonders what will. An invasion from China, perhaps, but this is something we’d rather not test. The political spectacle that has unfolded since July 31, the silly diatribes of the talking heads on TV and radio, give us little reason for hope, and once again help explain why the Sunflower Movement which occupied the Legislative Yuan earlier this year did its utmost to distance itself from all the political parties.
The victims of Kaohsiung and their families, along with the future victims of preventable accidents that nevertheless occurred because lawmakers and cabinet officials were too busy sniping at each other, deserve better representation — more responsible representation — from those we entrust with power.
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.