The Treasure of the Empire, or Just Collective Housing?

A look at one of the most recognizable symbols of wealth in Taiwan, and the legal problems faced by some of its residents
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Tony Chiu
By

In October 2013, I sat down with my friend Tim for a bowl of ramen. I hadn’t seen Tim in at least a year, so I casually asked him, “What is it like to have prosecutors constantly at your building probing your neighbors?”

Tim lives in the prestigious, and according to some infamous, Di Bao (帝寶) in Taipei.

“Di Bao” means “Treasure of the Empire.” The Hong-Seng (宏盛) group has actually two “Di Bao” high-end real estate developments, and many other real-estate projects in Taoyuan, Shihzih and elsewhere, also use the name “Di Bao.” But those are built by other developers.

However, if you ask any Taiwanese “Where is Di Bao?” they will answer, “At the corner of Renai and Jianguo.” Because that’s the Di Bao.

Di Bao lies on prime real estate. It is in close proximity to a major transportation hub, main commercial areas, excellent public and private schools, and decent-quality medical care (National Taiwan University Hospital is about 10 blocks away). It covers an area of approximately 6,000 ping (19,843 square meters). After the Japanese colonial era, the location became the property of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Mayoral candidate Sean Lien’s (連勝文) grandfather forgot to buy the land, and instead China Radio was built on the site. The land was sold to Hong-Seng in 1999. The first unit pre-sales took place in 2001, and the housing project was completed in 2005. Di Bao consists of six buildings totaling 168 units surrounded by a concrete fence and state-of-the-art, 24-hour security.

Three types of units were built: 160 ping, 210 ping, and 260 ping. In 2005, each ping cost NT$850,000. Today, each ping is believed to be worth up to NT$2 million. Translation: with my current pay, I could own a closet in about four years — that’s if I don’t eat anything during that period.

According to Wikipedia, the total net worth of the residents of D Bao is rumored to be more than NT$100 billion, or US$3.34 billion.

As one of the fine residents of Di Bao, Sean Lien has constantly encouraged Taiwanese to forget just how rich he is, and has tried to downplay the luxury and value of Di-Bao (technically his residential unit belongs to his father, former KMT chairman Lien Chan [連戰]). Lin Ting-chao (林鼎超), one of Lien Jr.’s spokespersons, has referred to Di Bao as “collective housing” — in contrast with the residence of Democratic Progressive Party chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) as “luxury housing,” because “she lives in a solo building.” Facing public criticism, Mr. Lin changed his assessment of Di Bao as “an apartment building with an elevator.”

Evidently, the remarks caused many a laugh on the Internet.

One enlightened mind has chosen to break with popular opinion and to agree with Lin’s controversial statement: yours truly.

When people think of “collective housing,” the first thing that comes to mind is that some of the residents may have had run-ins with the law. Here are some examples of immediate relevance to Di Bao.

 

Case #1: Tainted oil

In October 2013, Taiwan was hit by one of the biggest food safety scandals in its history when it was found that Da Tong Co’s “pure 100% olive oil” was tainted with gossypol and copper chlorophyillin. Then food giant Wei Chuan, along with majority shareholder Ting Hsin, were caught: 21 of their oil products were tainted. Four brothers from the Wei family are the owners of Wei Chuan and Ting Hsin. It is reported that Ting Hsin has an annual net income of NT$40 billion.

At first, the Wei family denied all knowledge and involvement of their companies and products with Da Tong oil. Then prosecutors asked them a few questions. It turns out the Wei brothers knew all along that their products used Da Tong oil.

Wei Chuan chairman Wei Ying-chung (魏應充) got away with deferred prosecution and a NT$10 million fine. Other legal processes are still ongoing. Ting Hsin and Wei Chuan have sued Da Tong, claiming they were “victims” of the tainted products.

How is this relevant to Di Bao? The four Wei brothers all own units in the complex. In fact between them, the four brothers, own nine units. The best part: they took out mortgages worth 99% of the total equity. That’s right: 99%.

Readers who would like to live in Di Bao should go to a bank and ask for the “Wei family loan plan.” You should be able to pay off your loan — in about 2,000 years.

 

Case #2: Tainted Bread/False Advertising

Actress, singer, and controversial talk-show host Dee Hsu (小S) and her husband Mike Xu (許雅鈞) are probably the two most famous residents of Di Bao. Dee is known for asking tough and provocative question on her show Kang Xi Lai Le (康熙來了). A good example of this occurred in 2004, when she asked her neighbor, the senior Lien, during his second presidential campaign, “What kind of underwear do you wear?”

In 2010, a group of investors, which included the Hsu couple, opened the Top Pot chain of bakeries, with stores in Taipei, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. The chain was marketed as an organic and healthy bakery, promising to use all natural products. With an enticing product line, reasonable prices, polished storefronts, and a giant celebrity spokesperson such as 小S, the bakery was a great success.

Except that in 2013, it was revealed that Top Pot used artificial additives in their products. They would have gotten away with it, too, were it not for those pesky bloggers.

小S was eventually subpoenaed as a witness, and denied all knowledge of wrongdoing. Prosecutors eventually (yes, again) deferred her prosecution. She is also currently involved in a NT$20 million class action lawsuit over her involvement with top pot bakery.

 

Case #3: Insider Trading

It’s the same bread company and the same people, but a different crime, so it gets a separate section.

Investigators found more wrongdoing with the Top Pot Bakery. In May 2013, the CFO of Top Pot Bakery sent a line message to 小S’s father in law, Xu Ching-hsiang (許慶祥). Top Pot Bakery was hemorrhaging money, with accumulated losses of more than NT$50 million. Over the course of the next several months and using multiple accounts, prosecutors claim, the Hsu family ditched the majority of their shares.

小S was subpoenaed as a witness and was granted deferred prosecution, but her husband and father-in-law have been indicted for insider trading and may face up top 10 years in prison and fines of NT$10 million.

 

Case #4: Sale of Banned Substances

This one involves the Lien family. In May 2014, Lien Hui-hsin (連惠心), the sister of mayoral candidate Sean Lien, was investigated for her role in the sale of a banned substance. She was spokesperson for a health product named 威力纖Plus, which was supposed to help people lose weight and, for male customers, enlarge their penis. It was later discovered that the product contained celistat, a banned substance.

When investigators first questioned Ms. Lien, she, like all the fine people mentioned above, denied all knowledge of any wrongdoing, and claimed that the nature of her involvement with the company was limited to her role as spokesperson.

Then this happened: Investigators found inconsistencies in Ms. Lien’s statements. At first she denied being employed by the company. She then changed her statement, claiming she was “executive in name only.” Later on, she claimed to be a shareholder, but added that she was not involved in decision-making. Investigators eventually determined that Ms. Lien held 70% of the company shares and made day-to-day decisions for the company.

Given such evidence, we would assume that Ms. Lien would have faced the full weight of the law. Here’s what happened instead. The Taipei District Attorney’s Office ruled that since Ms. Lien did not had past convictions, was willing to plead guilty, had had a good attitude after her criminal behavior, and agreed to donate NT$6 million to the National Treasury, she would receive … delayed prosecution.

Welcome to Taiwan.

 

Symbol of Wealth, or Class Warfare?

Much has been said about Sean Lien’s residence in Di Bao. Dr. Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), his opponent in the Taipei mayoral race, has gone on the offensive on this topic, asking, “How can Sean Lien afford to live in Di Bao? What businesses do the Liens own?”

Lien has spoken about the matter. After the “collective housing” argument failed, Lien Jr. spoke on radio with talk show host (and former mayoral candidate) Chao Shao-kang (趙少康). Lien described the questions about his residence at Di Bao and his family’s overall wealth as “class warfare.”

We can certainly empathize with Mr. Lien’s concern with security. However, I will conclude this article with a reassurance to Mr. Lien: Rest assured, there is no class warfare. If there were, the have-nots would be completely wiped out. And such a war would not be called the Seven-Day War, because it wouldn’t last that long. It would probably be a Seven-Minute War. After years of ingesting tainted oil, non-natural breads, and taking health supplements with banned substances, us plebs just aren’t healthy enough to fight off the 24-hour security at Di Bao or climb the two-meter concrete walls that surround it.

 

Tony Chiu is a geriatric psychiatry attending in northern Taiwan. A graduate of the National Taiwan University of Medicine, he advocates for the independence of Sanchong District in New Taipei City and the paving of the Taiwan Strait. You can reach him at tonychiupsy@gmail.com. He comments on the PTT board under the handle “IronChef.”

6 Responses to “The Treasure of the Empire, or Just Collective Housing?”

September 02, 2014 at 5:56 pm, mike said:

“But your suggestion that justice does not require equality of opportunity… seems a very blinkered statement.”

Perhaps that is because I did not delineate the reasons for this, however you should note that my reference to “equality of opportunity” had nothing to do with justice, but with helping out poor people – so let’s make sure that’s clear first: justice is not the same thing as merely helping people.

There are two reasons as to why I have no time for “equality of opportunity”. The first of those is that it is not apparent, either immediately or upon extended analytical reflection, what the term actually refers to. What “opportunities” are being referred to by the use of this term? Is it just the opportunity to generate an income, or is it more than that? Don’t you see? People go around talking about “equality of opportunity” without any commonly accepted definition; as a result, it may quite often be the case that they literally do not know what they are talking about, but at best have something like a vague feeling that it is a “Good Thing” and maybe has something to do with helping poor people. The second reason I have no time for the term “equality of opportunity” is that, whichever way I imagine defining it, there seems to be problems with it that, whilst maybe not “obvious”, are nonetheless not all that hard to see.

Let’s consider the first problem, the vagueness of the term.

Is “equality of opportunity” just a reference to the opportunity to generate an income, and that that opportunity is what should be “equal”? Or is it that everyone should have some opportunity to generate an equal level of income? Or is it both – i.e. that everyone should have an “equal” opportunity to generate an income equal to everyone else’s? Or is it perhaps a modification on that – that everyone should have an equal opportunity to generate an income equal to the highest income, or merely to the average income, or some minimal income? Clearly there are definitional questions with “opportunity” if we think of it as in some sense connected to income or wealth. But what if “opportunity” is taken to mean more than just mere income, since after all, money famously “does not buy happiness”? Then our problem takes on a whole second aspect. We might be tempted to refer to quality of life research and claim that we are speaking of opportunities that are “significant” in terms of expected quality of life – since after all, income is only one aspect of that and perhaps not even the most important one. But there are questions to anwer. One aspect of quality of life (for most people at least) is marital satisfaction, or at least, having a significant other with whom one typically enjoys sexual relations. Yet how we can possibly speak of “equality of opportunity” in this context? It strikes me as obvious that naturally beautiful women and handsome men are *usually* at an advantage in attracting mates over people who are less beautiful or less handsome. Would you chastise a friend for rejecting the advances of a man she consideres unattractive? If not why not? Surely she is being unfair to him and denying his “equality of opportunity”, no? And the feminists may not interject here either because for men too, it can be a somewhat awkward and uncomfortable experience to have to reject the advances of women we consider unattractive – but it does happen. There are many people, perhaps increasingly so these days, who go without a spouse and remain unmarried (or otherwise unattached) and not necessarily because they don’t want to marry (or want to become attached). There are many more such examples that could be raised to show that “opportunity” carries a considerable weight of definitional problems.

But the vaguness of “equality of opportunity” gives us other problems. How far should “equality” extend? Let’s assume a geographical limitation to begin with, e.g. the population within the borders of a country, in this case Taiwan. Within that boundary you cannot seriously mean “everybody” because that would mean talking about young children, adults and the elderly as occupying a level playing field in terms of opportunity to generate an income – but we do not expect young children or the elderly to generate an income. We expect young children to be dependent on their parents until they reach some vague inflection point (usually stipulated in law as 18 years old) beyond which they are legally recognized as adults. Similarly, we expect the elderly to draw upon previously acquired financial assets such as a portfolio of bonds and stocks, real estate rental income or a pension or to become dependent upon their children. There are also of course those people who are unfortunately afflicted by various diseases that affect their ability to live independently and to generate their own income. It is not reasonable to expect the children and elderly and otherwise infirm to have the same chance to generate income as healthy adults. There are also geographical differences that have a bearing on the matter; do children born in Yunlin County have an “equal” opportunity to those born in Taipei City? Of course not; Yunlin is still a largely agricultural area of Taiwan and Taipei is the major political, financial and cultural capital. The differences between the two areas are considerable and may very well have a large effect on what “opportunities” the children born in each respective area will grow up to have. Then there is the problem of considering “equality” in non-demographic terms. Intelligence and talent is not equally bestowed across all people at birth, and nor is it purely a matter of social conditioning. Are we to be outraged that some people have better opportunities than others because they are more intelligent or more talented in a valuable area? Is it an injustice that some people are good at basketball whilst others are not? Is it an injustice that some people have the aptitude to start their own financial or trade businesses and others do not? What about those people who are talented in things for which there is relatively low market value, such as particular types of artist or obscure academic? There is such a vast natural variation in human propensities that it seems to me to be, ahem, *difficult* to pick any aspect and apply the concept of “equality” to any one of them in a meaningful way. I could raise more instances, but that should be sufficient to establish a minimum of a definitional problem with “equality”.

But we are not yet done. Let’s consider the second problem, which is that any given definition of “equality of opportunity” seems to have serious problems when you look into it.

Let’s say that by “equality of opportunity” we mean something like everyone within certain limits (i.e. within a given country and of a certain age and with no extraneous medical problems and so on…) should have an “equal” chance to earn an income above the national average (or some other standard). How on earth could you possibly go about trying to make those chances *equal*? Not only is there great variation in background resources people have to draw upon whilst growing up (family, district, wealth, educational resources, and so on) and it is hard to see how these things can be forcibly made “equal” (without a government granted close to totalitarian powers), but there is also huge natural variation in people’s talents and preferences. People who are sufficiently attracted by higher mathematics to become skilled in finance can earn much more money than people who are naturally attracted to mechanical engineering, and yet the mechanical engineer would not be happy if you put him in finance and the financier would not be happy if you put him in a repair shop. I prefer to spend my weekends in the countryside photographing rivers and reservoirs but not only does this generate no income for me, but it actually costs me half or more of my disposable income, i.e. it makes me poorer. Yet switching to another hobby, e.g. stamp collecting, that would make me richer would not necessarily make me happier – in fact, it might actually make me miserable.

And now let’s look at it another way. Say we drop the ambitiousness of including “everybody” and merely content ourselves with the idea that we take the poor people in society and say – here, we want these people to have just as much opportunity as everyone else to have a decent life. What’s wrong with that? Well for a start, it can be very difficult to know what would be the best way to help any given person. For some people, just giving them cash might work to some extent if they already have a good plan to do something valuable that will generate an income for them, but for others, giving them cash might well be a mere temptation for them to squander it on crap. For some people language lessons might be a help, but for others they might be a hindrance. And so on. A still larger problem is that many poor people don’t even have a clue what would be the best way to help them. It is a conceit on anyone’s part to think that he knows how to solve somebody else’s problems when that person cannot solve them himself. There is also the very real danger of hurting people by trying to help them by undermining their remaining sense of pride. This is a very tricky problem and I know this because I have experience of trying to help homeless people myself. It is very difficult.

I could go on but I must stop there, because I am typing this up well after midnight on a Tuesday night and I have an early start tommorow. I hope it suffices to show that there are good reasons to think again about what you would actually like to mean by the phrase “equality of opportunity”.

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