Divided capital may be what is needed to unite the nation

Friday, July 6, 2012
The China Post news staff

South Korea inaugurated a new mini-capital, Sejong City, on Monday July 2, with 16 of the government's ministries and agencies to be relocated there by 2015. The mini-capital, with 120,000 inhabitants, is currently a miniscule creature compared to Seoul, a metropolitan area comprising a fifth of the country's population at 10 million people. However, the very concept of moving the capital — or transferring parts of the government apparatus to another city — is one that has been considered by Taiwan as well, with various proposals in the past suggesting a relocation of the nation's administrative organs from Taipei to cities in Southern or Central Taiwan.

The need to address housing prices, and to a lesser extent the divergent standards of living between the north and other parts of Taiwan is perhaps the most compelling reason for undertaking such a project. The skyrocketing costs of homeownership are hurting Taiwan's younger generation. Taipei is the envy of the rest of the country because of its command of financial institutions, transportation, and consequently resources such as elite universities and hospitals. Taipei is thus a magnet for foreign businesses, whose presence feeds the loop of resource monopoly.

To counter such a trend, with ill side effects such as overcrowding and unaffordable housing costs, plus the associated urban issues such as poor air quality and traffic congestion, dividing the capital is an option worth considering.

The same issues that South Korea is seeking to address should motivate Taiwan to carry out a serious re-evaluation of its own national urban and countryside development schemes, long bogged down by bureaucratic inertia and the tendency to dismiss the proposals as untenable due to the complexity of the enterprise. Premier Sean Chen in April offered a measured demurral, saying that he will carefully assess the proposals, and that the complexities of the potential project are daunting due to the country's established commercial systems being already in Taipei.

The United Daily News reported that as recently as June 24, former Vice President Lu talked about a certain secret government report that predicted the “impending doom” of both Taipei and New Taipei City if a rainstorm on the scale of Typhoon Morakot in 2009 were to make landfall in the north. Such sensational reports aside, what are the reasonable outcomes for a shift in administrative locales?

The relocation of Brazil's capital from Rio de Janeiro in the last century was a significant example of important national policy being carried out with an express target of ameliorating developmental imbalance. Brasilia was inaugurated as the capital of Brazil in 1961. The national relocation project served the purposes of spearheading economic development in the vast hinterlands of the country. The project is praised today as an architectural gem, successfully rebalancing educational, economic, and administrative resources throughout the nation, yet as late as 20 years after its inauguration, the government was still having to pay citizens to move there, according to urban planning lecturer Claudio de Magalhaes via the BBC. From a population of 200,000 at its inception to more than two million today, Brasilia has experienced remarkable growth, and South Korea's Sejong city is projected to grow exponentially as well within the next two decades — to 500,000 by 2030.

The full extent of the necessary investment for such a national project is a daunting one, and Taiwan should not compare itself to big countries like Brazil — with its 8 million square km of territory — in terms of the mindset of trailblazing. At 36,000 square km, it is not suitable to talk about creating a new “dream city” here because the radius to any given metropolis on the island is too narrow. The lack of space means that instead of building from scratch, rebalancing national development could be better undertaken by a decision to relocate the centers of government to a city like Taichung or Kaohsiung — or, given the realities of autonomous branches of government, to resettle important branches of government and thus operate on a “split” plane.

For its part, the government can demonstrate its commitment to sustained, equitable, and resilient national policy by hosting panels on the topic and inviting experts on urban policy and economics, as well as architecture and environmental protection, to forums dedicated to producing a long-term national development plan focused on addressing imbalance.

Sending a team of observers to study Sejong, perhaps in three years when much of the relocation is supposed to have taken place, can allow Taiwan to assess the results of South Korea's efforts at a difficult but potentially transformative project.

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