Robin Winkler: "Taiwan needs a government capable of self-reflection"

Thoughts on events surrounding the third phase expansion of the Taiwan Central Science Park. This is from an interview conducted by Bryan Chuang for the industry journal Digitimes and was published on 11 February 2010

The Supreme Administrative Court recently decided to cancel the environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the third phase expansion of the Central Taiwan Science Park (hereafter “third expansion”), and now businesses invested in the expansion project can no longer pull out or forge ahead with the development. This case highlights problems with the EIA process, and makes us wonder if the government believes it has the responsibility to self-reflect. If the National Science Council (NSC) and government officials decide not to abide by court decisions, how can ordinary citizens be expected to follow the law?

EIA for new development projects evaluates impacts that the development could have on three levels: social environment, natural environment, and economic environment. The first and second phase developments of the Taiwan Central Science Park all quickly passed EIA, but the third expansion EIA took much longer for two main reasons. The first is that EIA for the third expansion plan came during the first time conservationists actually sat on the Environmental Impact Assessment Committee, and during the EIA process, those committee members were more insistent on clarifying aspects of the project than their predecessors had been for the earlier projects.

The second reason EIA for the third expansion took so long to pass is that it came against an important backdrop. In 2005 the World Economic Forum (WEF) published the environmental sustainability index (ESI), which included 146 countries.

Evaluating the ability of a country to sustain itself in terms of natural resources, economic structure, ocean resources, population pressures, government honesty, and other aspects, Taiwan was ranked 145.

Taiwan's EIA Committee considered the WEF report a serious indictment and took a particularly cautious approach in evaluating the third expansion. At the time, the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) put strong pressure on the EIA Committee because the case had been dragging on for too long. Without passage of EIA the NSC could not begin construction, and that affected the businesses that planned on setting up shop in the science park. Members of the Legislative Yuan and county legislative council members persistently lobbied the administration, demanding that construction on the expansion project begin as soon as possible.

Environmental Impact Assessment Requires Complete Information

During EIA for the third expansion, the EPA already had the latest air pollution report for central Taiwan, and as EIA commissioners we needed that information to assess how building a new factory in the region would impact the environment. But the EPA insisted that the report had not yet undergone the official publication process and thus could not be used as background information for the EIA. We were expected to use data from five years earlier, resulting in relying on background data that departed significantly from the actual situation.

Actually, people could accept development plans such as nuclear power plants and the Su'Ao-Hualien Highway, but only if complete information is made available and civil society has a chance to participate. The third expansion included two sites, Hou-li and Chi-Hsing Farm. During the EIA, environmental information was insufficient and the people were deprived of the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process.

The Supreme Administrative Court has already ruled, but the NSC has determined there is no need to halt construction and development continues. This act makes the people wonder if the NSC intends to engage in the common but illegal practice of proceeding with a prohibited act, later coming up with some way to obtain retroactive legality through e.g., lobbying legislators or an executive action. Here we have an Administrative Court decision calling into question the reasonableness and legitimacy of the third expansion. Taiwan has a constitution, we have laws and we have administrative regulations, all with different levels of authority. If Taiwan puts policy at the highest level of authority, it is a throwback to authoritarian times. No matter what passes the Legislative Yuan or what the law says, if the executive wants something to happen it will make it happen. This violates the basic principle of rule by law.

Presently the businesses invested in the third expansion are stuck in limbo, but actually the court decision did not require developers to halt or continue construction because that is a decision for the EPA and National Science Council. The EPA has already stated that the decision to halt construction lies with the NSC. The NSC should ask itself: Is the court decision to cancel EIA on the third expansion justified? Should the NSC apply for government compensation on behalf of invested businesses?

Taiwan Needs a Government Capable of Self-Reflection

Once an incinerator project in Lin-nei Township, Yunlin County was already 98% completed when administrative permits for the project were cancelled by the court. The developer ultimately decided to not complete the remaining 2% of the project, and the government was left to compensate and clean up. Regarding controversy surrounding halting construction on the third expansion, it's as if you originally planned to drive from Taipei to Kaohsiung and upon entering the highway discover you're going the wrong way. Would you keep driving all the way to Keelung?

In practice, EIA examinations result in one of three outcomes: "Development not permitted", "Conditional Approval", and "Enter Second Phase EIA". The third expansion should have entered a second phase EIA. Currently all work on the third expansion is illegal, it has not passed EIA, and all development permits are void because the EIA was cancelled. It's as if this plan had never been permitted in the first place. If the NSC and government officials decide not to abide by the court decision, how can ordinary citizens be expected to follow the law? Throughout all of this I have not observed any government organs with the ability to self-reflect; there is no trace of acknowledgment that “maybe all those farmers, environmental groups, academics, lawyers and justices are on to something?”

Government officials often say that the third expansion will bring many employment opportunities and significantly increase GDP. Actually, during the EIA process questions of employment are addressed under the heading of "social impacts". I must point out that although the new development will create some employment opportunities, it will also sacrifice agriculture and small factory employment opportunities. Government must not only consider large corporations and ignore the value of small businesses. Furthermore we can't help but wonder what kind of work will be offered by these so-called new employment opportunities.

Regarding big electronics corporations, they often seem to offer more employment opportunities to foreigners. In the past, 5~6% of the workforce at the Hsinchu Science Park was of foreign background, now it's probably more. As businesses hope to continue opening Taiwan to foreign labor, will such a policy actually increase employment opportunities in Taiwan? Taiwan, like the USA, has long been brainwashed into thinking that expansion of agriculture is undesirable, whereas factories are obedient and easy to manage. Therefore we want more factories and fewer farms.

GDP Growth Comes at a Cost

During the third expansion EIA examination I asked government officials, since the government's Industrial Development Bureau owns over 1000 hectares of undeveloped land, why must an industrial park be built in the green fields of the Hou-li and Chi-hsing Farms? The officials told me that businesses want to build factories there. Since the government cooperates with business in zoning for science parks, why doesn't the government also cooperate with business to secure for them additional methods and policies? For example, transportation to the highly underutilized but already built Chang-bin Industrial Park is inconvenient, so why doesn’t the government consider addressing that problem? Now, the developer wants a particular plot of land, so the government gives it to them while other tracts remain unused.

In addition to importing over 98% of its energy resources, how much of Taiwan's food supply must be imported? Should Taiwan only focus on developing industry, while overlooking food production? Taiwan's manufacturing industry is increasingly concentrated, increasingly similar to that of South Korea. The petrochemical industry, LCD industry, and semiconductor industry all exhibit this phenomenon.

Taiwan government officials have been calling for a "low carbon economy", but that is not really relevant to addressing emissions unless and until there is consideration of a cap on total of emissions. You can't simply consider only the energy and emissions of a single industry. For example, green energy is supposed to comprise 12% of Taiwan's installed electricity capacity, but as Taiwan expands the use of solar and other renewable energies, thermal power plants are still being built. Only if Taiwan sets a limit for annual emissions would a renewable energy policy have any significance.

Taiwan's land is being continuously opened up for development because it is said that it will encourage economic growth, but is economic growth always a good thing? Many countries are finally discovering that GDP was never meant to be anything more than a reference tool. Is simply referring to GDP growth enough? Media once surveyed happiness levels in all different parts of Taiwan and found that people in Penghu are the happiest. Even though Penghu is an outlying and relatively poor island, Penghu's people are still very happy. GDP comes at a cost, but regarding this our government reports only the perceived benefits of a project rather than giving the whole picture and letting the people make up their own minds.

The government hopes to improve the investment environment to attract foreign investment, but foreign investment isn't necessarily a good thing. Taiwan's government should resolve to attract good foreign investment. And what do good foreign investors like? They like freedom, democracy, rule of law, and high environmental quality. And what do bad foreign investors like? They like no regulation; if pollution control laws and basic labor protections are abolished they will immediately invest in Taiwan and establish factories. Myself included, many foreigners very much like Taiwan. When I began working in Taiwan I appreciated the quality of life and developed concern for Taiwan's society and environment. While the government pursues economic development, it really must pay attention to these related concerns of deeper significance.

In university Robin Winkler studied sinology and law. He is an American IPR lawyer and founder of Winkler Partners. He is currently devoted to the environmental protection movement and was an EIA commissioner for the examination of the third phase expansion of the Taiwan Central Science Park.