Legal Angle of the High Mountain Oolong Tea Story

Legal Angle of the High Mountain Oolong Tea Story
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
Listen
powered by Cyberon

Clarissa Wei’s Taiwan Is Destroying Its High Mountain Oolong Tea Farms has gained a lot of traction online since its publication last Wednesday.

While I applaud her effort to bring to the forefront important issues such as culture, tradition, farming, land use, and the environment to an English-speaking audience, I couldn’t help but notice that the article was lacking in details of the legal history and process that led to the ‘government’ destroying ‘virtually all high mountain oolong tea farms that are located 2,500 meters or more above sea level,’ including Song Lu Tea Garden established by Chen Jindi and later owned by his daughter Chen Limei, the protagonist of the story.

Did the government follow the proper legal procedure? What was the legal basis for the government takeover? Did the Chen family have an opportunity to defend itself?

So, I decided to do a little digging in the Chinese-language media to find more information on the legal background. Though there is conflicting information online, what I found generally paints a far more complex picture of the situation than Wei’s article.

Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between, but one can reasonably conclude that the family itself may not be as innocent as Chen Limei would like us to believe.

Here are some facts, some of which may obviously be in dispute, I found:

  1. Chen Jindi signed a contract with the Forestry Bureau in 1985 that allowed him to plant apple and pear trees, but not tea trees. The contract, which also mandated that Chen forest the land, was set to expire in 1991 and was designed to not be renewable. While the government may have changed its mind at some point about what constitutes a forest, as Wei’s story reported, the existence of this contract suggests that Chen should have understood the government’s position on the matter by 1985. Chen did not honor the contract requiring forestation and refused to return the land in 1991.
  2. The Forestry Bureau sent a letter demanding the return of the land in 2004 and initiated litigation in 2005. It is unclear what legal process took place between 1991 and 2004.
  3. Chen Jindi lost the case and exhausted all of his standard appeals in 2008, but still refused to return the land. After numerous legal maneuvers, the Supreme Court finally ruled in April 2015 that Chen Limei, who took over the plantation after her father died, had to return the land to the government by November 5, 2015. There are no allegations that the legal process was tainted.
  4. Chen Limei did not apply to Nantou County to turn the plantation into a cultural and research center until August 2015, but then blamed the central government for not delaying the dismantling process when Nantou did not have sufficient time to consider the proposal. Given the timing, one must wonder whether she was operating in good faith.
  5. Chen Jindi had unclean hands when he first started using the land in 1969. Only veterans were eligible to lease the land from the government, so Chen borrowed the identity of a veteran surnamed Yeh who formed the initial legal relationship with the government.
  6. Chen Jindi and later, Chen Limei, stopped paying rent to the government completely in either 1993 or 1999 but continued to use the land to produce tea and make US$3 million in sales a year, as reported in Wei’s article.

More details of what happened can probably be elucidated and clarified by reading the court decisions, which I may do at a later point, but for now, it is clear that there’s a rich legal angle to this story that has been missing in the discourse.

First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: Olivia Yang

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Taiwan Law Blog.