Even in Misery, This House is Divided

As 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
J. Michael Cole

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.

One Response to “Even in Misery, This House is Divided”

August 24, 2014 at 3:59 am, mike said:

I am not opposed to the criticizing of politicians – far from it. However, I think the point ought to be made that it is easy to denounce politicians for blaming each other when bad things happen. It is as easy as the cliched expression “shooting fish in a barrel”. The electoral mechanism incentivizes politicians to scrap over limited resources and it is therefore hardly surprising that they should do so, particularly given the weight of commercial and private interests to which their election prospects are attached. But this is a fault of having a large and powerful democratic State, and perhaps it should be recognized as such instead of implying that the narrow-sightedness (and therefore the personality) of specific politicians is at fault (or alternatively, that the blame lies with the public for not electing pedastalled angels). Other than cases of truly mesmerizing proportion, such as the 911 terrorist attacks in New York or the tsunami that hit Indonesia, it is difficult to think of disaster cases in any democratic state over which politicians did not squabble and bicker.

To the extent that political squabbling over such things as infrastructure maintenance is undesirable, then whilst it may be a weak argument for electing different, perhaps younger politicians with an obvious interest in distancing themselves from the currently incumbent generation, it is actually a stronger argument for swapping political responsibility over infrastucture maintenance for private and commercial responsibility. To support that point, we need only consider that it was through the political powers of the Kaohsiung City’s public works department that the original pipes were laid in an already densely populated area*. If LYC and CPC corporations had approached the residents in a private capacity to ask to lay such a pipeline under the roads** next to their residences, then there would have had to have been better safeguards and insurance arrangements requiring the involvement of independent third parties before such a thing could be done, assuming the two companies would have secured the agreement of the residents in the first place. Through the exercise of political power however, the concerns of residents can simply be dismissed or assuaged with poorly-enforcable promises and lies.

*Shortly after the explosions occurred in Kaohsiung city, I spoke to a friend who grew up in the area affected; she talked about feeling “weird” because the news pictures on TV were all so familiar to her. I took this to mean that many, perhaps most, of the buildings on the affected areas of Ersheng and Sanduo roads (and the streets in between) were built thirty to forty odd years ago when she would have been a child. If the gas pipes believed to have been ruptured by the explosions were laid down in 1990 or shortly thereafter, then that is only twenty four years ago. It would therefore follow that the pipes were put in after many or most of the buildings had already been built.

**My scenario pressuposes that the residents have some kind of property right extending over the adjacent area of public roads. If responsibility for infrastructure is to be political rather than private, then it is to be subject to the perverse incentives of whichever system of government, democratic or otherwise, that is in place.


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