What you need to know
Despite now being a 'city,' Pingtung residents would be better represented, better funded and better organized as a part of Kaohsiung.
Earlier this year, a dozen or so protesters stood outside the brand-new Pingtung Train Station (newly elevated and electrified), holding signs calling on the central government to extend the High Speed Rail (HSR) to Pingtung City (屏東市).
“Pingtung is dying. We need transport.” “Give justice to Pingtung! HSR now!” the signs read. The issue has since come up in question sessions, with lawmakers representing Pingtung demanding an HSR link and a subway (MRT) connection with Kaohsiung. Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) administration transport officials have pledged to “look into the matter.”
Let’s be honest: The HSR will not be extended to Pingtung in our lifetimes. A quick look at a map shows how unfeasible the plan would be. The Kaohsiung MRT says there are plans to extend the Orange Line from Daliao (大寮) to Pingtung, which would entail a short hop over the Gaoping River (高屏溪) and this seems like a logical and workable option.
But trains or planes (remember the now-closed Pingtung Airport?) are not a magic formula for this county-controlled city with a population of roughly 200,000. Much bigger ideas are needed for this 66 square-kilometer “city.”
Maybe the best one is euthanasia.
Kaohsiung’s Fengshan District (鳳山區) is home to over 350,000 residents and was a proper “city” for centuries until it merged into Greater Kaohsiung City in 2010. Now as a part of Kaohsiung, Fengshan has better access to resources, is included in wider city infrastructure plans and is seeing net increases in population year-on-year as well as a robust housing market.
In comparison, Pingtung is in a decades-long downward spiral. A significant percentage of the city is elderly, and as these residents pass on, they are not being replaced. Republic of China (ROC) stats claim Pingtung City had 189,000 residents in 1981, and by 2016, the figure had anemically inched up to 201,000. Fertility rates in the city are the lowest after Keelung City. Pundits on TV discuss rumors the number of legislators representing Pingtung City will again be cut in the next election cycle due to population.
Beyond the literal "dying" of Pingtung City, politically, it’s a mess. Mayor Lin Ya-chun (林亞蒓) and her husband have been indicted on corruption charges, with prosecutors seeking long jail terms for both. Lin has been suspended until the courts’ final verdict. Adding to the chaos, Lin is a member of the Kuomintang (KMT) while the Pingtung County Magistrate, Pan Men-an (潘孟安), is a rising star in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and looks set to win re-election next year.
As a city resident explained: “This is a county-controlled city. The mayor dislikes the magistrate and vice-versa. Any proposal – no matter how good or bad – will be shot down by the other side, just because they hail from different parties.”
This is obviously not a formula for success.
So, why not kill Pingtung City?
Pingtung City could easily be merged into Kaohsiung and become a district like Fengshan. Many of the younger folks who live in Pingtung commute to jobs in Kaohsiung anyway and with the proper resources, Pingtung would be an ideal satellite district where rents and costs-of-living are cheaper … just 30-minutes by train from downtown.
By re-designating Pingtung City as a district of Kaohsiung, Pingtung County will be able to focus on the rest of its massive area, most of which is rural and facing a host of unique challenges. As a district, Pingtung will be able to elect city councilors who reflect their politics, and those who side with the KMT might actually end up having more representation than they do now. Programs such as subsidies for child and elder care and city discounts for buying electric scooters would be extended to Pingtung where they are currently not able to compete with Kaohsiung.
Pingtung has just the right blend to be a workable part of Kaohsiung. Alone, sandwiched inside a county where real power lies with the magistrate, Pingtung City looks set to continue its decline.
Pingtung City doesn’t need an HSR station, but it does need people, resources and a functioning government; things that may only be achievable by breaking free of Pingtung County.
Meanwhile, residents of Kaohsiung’s northeast districts such as Liougui (六龜區) and some other mountain areas have been vocal in calling for their mountainous regions to be ruled by Pingtung County. Proponents argue Pingtung County has a better understanding of rural areas – and is in a better position to comprehend their needs.
Do we have an interesting opportunity here? A little land swap, perhaps? Whatever happens, it needs to happen soon. Despite pumping untold millions into Pingtung, the city continues to atrophy.
Despite now being a “city,” Pingtung residents would be better represented, better funded and better organized as a part of Kaohsiung. Such a move wouldn’t even be revolutionary, as the entire area from Tainan to Kenting was once known as Fongshan before becoming part of Hengchun (Japanese: 恆春廳). In 1920, the now-Pingtung City was ‘upgraded’ to Pingtung Town (Japanese: (屏東街) and governed by Takao Prefecture (高雄州). Takao, of course, is Japanese for Kaohsiung.