It seems like this will be a lost year for Frozen Garlic. I have lots of things that I would like to write about, but I just don’t seem to be able to find any free blocks of time when I have the energy to write. I don’t know how other bloggers find the time and energy to write regularly while still balancing full-time jobs, family, and other considerations. Let’s just say that I’m no Michael Turton.
A few weeks ago, I took a quick spin around the island, looking at all the mayoral races. Since then, I have changed my mind about the two highest profile races, Taipei and Taichung, in important ways. Taipei hasn’t unfolded as I expected, and I think my previous understanding of the Taichung race was simply wrong in a critical way.
(By the way, I’m not particularly embarrassed or ashamed to say that I was wrong or I have changed my mind. On the one hand, “predictions” are simply guesses; there is no shame in not being able to see the future. On the other hand, what I am really trying to do is understand the underlying processes. Errors indicate deficiencies in my understanding of how things fit together. To put it another way, errors are an opportunity to learn. I don’t want to be wrong all the time; that would indicate that I don’t have any idea how to understand politics in Taiwan. However, I want to be wrong sometimes. More importantly, when I am wrong, I want to seize that opportunity to learn. The absolute worst thing is clinging to mistaken beliefs simply because I don’t want to lose an argument or lose face. I would be a terrible talk show guest, wouldn’t I?)
In Taichung, I still think Lin Chia-lung 林佳龍 will win, but I think I was wrong about the extent to which this indicates a party triumph rather than a personal triumph. I think the DPP might be slowly making gains, but this year’s election result is mostly about Jason Hu 胡志強 and Lin Chia-lung.
I have made a couple of brief visits to Taichung in the past few weeks, and I had to the opportunity to see Taichung’s new bus rapid transit (BRT) line. I’ve read about it in the newspapers, but it was quite a jolt to actually see the line in person. For the benefit of readers who haven’t been to Taichung recently and also to explain my gut-level negative reactions, let me describe the system. Keep in mind that I did not actually take a BRT bus, so these are observations from the outside. This puts me in a similar position to a large majority of Taichung residents who have also not yet taken a BRT bus but nonetheless have opinions about it.
The blue line operates on what used to be called Zhonggang Rd 中港路 (or Taichung Harbor Rd) and has now been renamed Taiwan Boulevard 台灣大道. This is one of the main arteries in Taichung, going straight from downtown out past the new shopping district and Tunghai University to Taichung Harbor. In most places, it has three express lanes and two slow lanes separated by an island going in both directions. During rush hour, it can become quite congested. The BRT system has taken one of the express lanes and turned it into a dedicated lane used only by the BRT busses. Stations have been built on the islands between the slow and express lanes. These stations mimic MRT stations, so that you pay your fare when you enter, not when you board the bus. The stations have glass doors that should open only when a bus arrives to protect riders from falling into the street. (They were always open on the days I was in Taichung, so that system might not be working correctly.) The BRT busses are double-length bending busses. This gives them significantly higher capacity than normal busses. The busses seemed to run every five minutes or so. As a bus line, it seemed to work quite well.
What are the negatives? For one thing, regular city busses can’t use the BRT lane. They are still stuck in the slow lanes. This must infuriate passengers on those busses. For another, there are now only two express lanes instead of three. This makes congestion worse for all the other traffic. That might convince people to take public transportation, but, again, the other busses are still stuck in regular traffic while the BRT lane is only used once every five minutes. The biggest problem is that Taichung was promised a rail system, not a bus system. We all know what a rail system can look like. Taipei and Kaohsiung both have very nice systems, and Taichung wants one, too. Busses, even very nice ones, are still busses. They are still on the street competing with other vehicles for scarce road space. In Taipei and Kaohsiung, traffic is moved off the surface to underground rail lines, and this has made surface traffic flow much, much more smoothly.
There are reasonable arguments for the BRT system. If I understand correctly, Taichung was never considering building an underground train system. Rather, they were considering street level light rail. If that is correct, the trains would have also competed with regular traffic for road space. BRT is a real thing; many cities around the world use some variant of it. It is far cheaper to buy busses than to build rail infrastructure, and big busses can move around people nearly as efficiently as small rail cars. The Hu administration may actually have done thorough research and concluded that BRT was simply better public policy than a MRT system.
Unfortunately for Hu, that argument is nearly impossible to sell. It also doesn’t look like that’s what happened. Hu and the KMT promised for years that a MRT system was coming, and suddenly the trains were replaced with busses. I can’t pinpoint exactly when this decision was taken, but I think it was after the 2010 election. I don’t remember people complaining about busses four years ago. It just feels like a case of bait and switch. It leaves me asking, why can’t Taichung have nice things like Taipei and Kaohsiung?
BRT might be cheaper than rail, but the average Taichung voter won’t be as swayed by that argument as the average Taichung mayor will. Cities don’t have the authority to levy taxes, so the BRT system won’t allow Taichung people to pay lower taxes. Much of the extra cost would have come from central government subsidies. If I were a voter, I would be asking why those subsidies can go to Taipei, Taoyuan, and Kaohsiung, but not to Taichung. Moreover, if Jason Hu can’t use his clout as a leading KMT figure to sway cabinet spending decisions, what’s the point of electing a KMT mayor? The real benefit of saving money is that the Taichung City government will have a large amount of money to spend elsewhere. Unfortunately, that’s a problem, too.
Traffic is one of the most important responsibilities of local government, and failing to effectively deal with traffic could significantly damage a mayor’s reputation. However, the BRT case is not simply a matter of traffic. There a broader narrative that Taichung has been stagnating under Jason Hu for the past 13 years. The 2010 election was critical in crystallizing this argument. At the beginning of 2010, Hu was widely thought to be a wonderful mayor. By the end of the campaign, the DPP had effectively demolished that reputation, and Hu squeaked into a third term by a razor-thin margin. The DPP’s attacks were most effective in the realm of pubic security, where several high-profile violent incidents and a renewed focus on crime in Taichung created the impression that Hu was either uninterested in fighting organized crime or outright collaborating with them. In 2001, Jason Hu came to Taichung as a KMT superstar, a widely liked former Foreign Minister with presidential aspirations and untainted by the dirtiness of local, factional politics. By 2010, he was transformed into just another KMT politician, deeply embedded in local faction networks, sullied by contact with organized crime, surviving by spreading around city money to politically useful projects rather than on public policy merit. Why did the Taichung City government need to scrimp on the transportation system when Kaohsiung did not? It might be because Hu has been spending money on other projects designed to keep the local factions happy. Unfortunately, he hasn’t finished enough of these or convinced normal voters that they are that important. For example, the newly opened Taichung Opera House took far longer than planned, entailed large cost overruns, and DPP figures suggest that it still isn’t completely ready but Hu is opening it before the election anyway.
The cynical way to view the opera house and the BRT is that election day is coming, Hu didn’t have enough to show for his time in office, and he had to come up with something. Thus, the opera house opens early, and busses are substituted for trains. This may not be what actually happened, but it’s a plausible story and there are a lot of cynical voters in Taiwan these days.
Once you open your mind to a narrative, it is easy to find support. In academia, we call this confirmation bias. You find things that you are looking for. For example, I visited the Chunghua St. 中華路 night market. I lived in this neighborhood over 20 years ago (wow, I’m old!), so I remember what the night market used to be like. It is now a shadow of its former self. There are probably only about half as many stands and customers as there used to be. Conclusion: Taichung is stagnating. Taiwan Boulevard 台灣大道 is another example. Changing a street name is no small thing. People and businesses have a lot invested in their addresses. The cost of changing signs, letterheads, business cards, property deeds, and especially their sense of place is not a small consideration. This is one reason that DPP mayors have refrained from changing roads with Chinese nationalist names such as 中正路、中興路、莒光路 and so on. The most notable exception is in Taipei, where Mayor Chen Shui-bian changed 介壽路 凱達格蘭大道。Of course, that road is very short, and the only people who needed to change their letterheads were the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (I learned that you don’t mess with people’s addresses in high school, when we tried to change the name of our very short street from Oakdale St. to Chester Nimitz Ave. and the local residents came out en masse to the city council meeting to scream at us. It is still Oakdale St.) Taiwan Blvd. is a very long street with tens of thousands of addresses. Why were all these changed? Just to make it look like the city government was doing something? Conclusion: the Hu government pursues superficial and unnecessary achievements. The point is not that these are necessarily the right or best way to view Jason Hu’s record, but simply that once you start looking critically, you can almost always find something to support your new story. I think enough Taichung voters might have crossed that tipping point, and they are now looking cynically at Hu’s record in office.
In sum, I’ve come to believe that Jason Hu’s problems in this election are more a reflection of his own poor record in office than of a massive shift in partisan preferences. I was probably also underestimating Lin Chia-lung’s personal appeal as well.
What does this mean in the larger context? This is good news for the KMT. If Hu is losing because of his personal failings in office, a Lin victory has weaker implications for 2016. Remember, winning parties always say they won because they had better ideas, and losing parties always say they lost because they had lousy candidates. I still think Taichung is gradually tilting toward the DPP, but after thinking more carefully over the past few weeks, it looks like the process is moving more slowly than I had originally thought. The DPP will probably win this mayoral race, but the underlying tectonic plates might still slightly favor the KMT. For the DPP to win in 2016, they have to win Taichung. That means that the tectonic plates have to move a bit more, or Tsai Ing-wen will have to move the surface ground by being a more attractive candidate than whoever the KMT runs.
As for Taipei, maybe I’ll get around to discussing that soon, though my recent record suggests that you shouldn’t hold your breath. For now, suffice it to say that whoever was writing the Frozen Garlic blog last month is an idiot.