TAIWAN—It started in 1990. Some may say it was in 1949 when the Chinese Nationalists retreated to Taiwan and imposed their tyranny and the governmental system that Chinese Communists would soon copy in Beijing. But this started in 1990 when CPC (中石化) built a gas line in Kaohsiung.
Gas lines can rust if not buried in the ground properly. CPC properly buried the line. But in 1991, the City of Kaohsiung put in a sewer passage that left the pipeline exposed, against building code. The city’s plans for the sewer complied with the code. But the construction company did not build according to the code—and the City of Kaohsiung approved the construction that was not to code and went against their own plans. Thirteen years later, on August 1, 2014, the line, rusted from exposure, exploded, destroying six kilometers of roadway, injuring over 300 and killing at least 30. There were plenty of warnings in the hours leading up to the explosion.
Some years ago, CPC sold the gas line to be used for CGTDC (華運) to send propylene to LCY (李長榮). CGTDC sent propylene by the ton to LCY through the underground gas line. But at 8:43 on the evening of July 31, CGTDC was receiving abnormal pressure signals and LCY put in a call that they weren’t receiving fuel. The company kept sending propylene. At 9:20pm, pressure was still low. CGTDC kept sending. Finally, after LCY was receiving nothing, the line was turned off and both companies went to check the pipeline. They both claimed that the line was in good working order. And at 10:15 pm, LCY requested that the propylene be sent once more. CGTDC turned back on the line. Altogether, at least ten tons of propylene had gone missing and LCY was not receiving.
At 11:35pm, after reports of smoke and calls from concerned citizens, Kaohsiung’s fire department and the Environmental bureau ordered the line shut down. Streets were flooded with puddles of propylene. A fire chief called a younger fireman, instructing him that the entire area would soon blow and to keep his truck away. That chief disappeared in the explosion, but because others had heeded his warning, he saved their lives and died a hero. His body had not been found.
The next day, Kaohsiung City asked for help from Taiwan’s Premier, Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺), the head a of the Executive Branch in a system almost identical to Beijing. The city made three requests, including emergency legislation and funding. Premier Jiang said, “No,” to all three requests. Later that day, after leaders from both political parties met with Jiang, he changed his rhetoric, but his famous “three no’s” remained unchanged.
As the investigation continued, the 1990 and 1991 construction projects involving the gas line were revisited. The mayor of Kaohsiung City during the 1990-1994 term was appointed, not elected, by the Nationalist-controlled Taiwan central government. His name is Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), currently the Vice President of Taiwan. Finally, after a week of investigation, Taiwan’s central government gave Kaohsiung City 1.6 billion in Taiwan currency. Torrential rains from August 10 had shut down recovery, repair, and investigation for the better part of a week.
There are many other oddities about the history. While this is Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) second term, Wu was not vice president in the first election. When running for his second term, Ma made a move that still baffles many, to choose a new running mate with little to no explanation. After Ma’s numerous pro-Beijing policies, his popularity had made his reelection almost untenable. Choosing a new running mate could have been a political tactic to be reelected, but only Ma knows his reason for choosing the new vice president to be the former mayor who oversaw the dubious construction that exploded under his watch.
Was Wu directly responsible? The investigation is ongoing. But one party that cannot escape indictment is the Nationalist party.
So, why didn’t Premier Jiang use kinder rhetoric in response to the explosion in Taiwan’s second largest city? His harsh initial response came days after he answered a court summons for Human Rights violations when students of the Sunflower Movement took his office a few months prior. During the demonstrations, he asked Kaohsiung and Tainan, the twin cities of the south, known for their opposition to Jiang’s same Nationalist party, to send police. Both cities refused. Was this payback? Or could it be that Jiang’s resume, having served as a professor, describes him inexperienced in having to deal with people. He is not and never was an elected politician and has no experience in business. Jiang’s entire life has been lived as an appointed servant who gives orders without having to answer to anyone.
The days of not having to answer are past. It’s not only Jiang or Wu who had to give answers in these last 14 days. Nor Ma who appointed both men. But Taiwan’s entire Nationalist party must now give answers that they don’t have. The coming changes in Taiwan will be as far-reaching throughout Asia as they are both inevitable and foreseeable.