Suspicion and Anger in Hualien as Earthquake Donations Diverted to Industry

Suspicion and Anger in Hualien as Earthquake Donations Diverted to Industry
Credit: Morley J Weston

What you need to know

Online rumors have swirled over the management of donations offered by private citizens.

After the Feb. 6, 2018 earthquake, donations from around the world flowed into Hualien County’s coffers, but the use of these funds to bail out local industry has proven controversial.

On March 16, 2018, an unverified post on Taiwanese online forum PTT declared that the donations had surpassed NT$2 billion (US$60 million), of which 43.5 percent were spent on disaster victims, 40 percent on bailing out the stoneworking and tourism industries, with the remainder spent on other projects.

One philanthropist going by the name Chen Zhi-han (陳之漢), who said he donated NT$1 million because of his own experience in the 1999 earthquake in Jiji, in Taiwan's Nantou County, expressed his anger in a widely-viewed online video, accusing the Hualien government of misusing the funds intended for immediate disaster relief and reconstruction: “This wasn’t intended to subsidize industry; companies can always turn a profit again, but once people’s hearts are lost, they can’t be restored.”

Read more: Hualien Tourism Revival Effort Debuts to Confusion

Former Taiwan Premier Chang San-cheng (張善政), who oversaw the collection effort, defended the use of funds. He said that the central government offered to bail out Hualien’s stone and tourism industries and government funds would ultimately go towards these industries, not private donations. He added that relief would be in the form of loans, so the only real losses would be in terms of foregone interest payments.

Chang added that the expenditures had not been confirmed and that figures posited by online commentators had been fabricated. He later posted a message saying that this was not the first time that a disaster relief committee had used donated money to bail out disaster-affected industries.

How much did the sightseeing and stoneworking industries lose?

In the February earthquake, raw and worked stone in the Meilun and Guanghua industrial zones were damaged, affecting about 40 percent of existing inventory. The Ministry of Economic Affairs estimated that the total losses amounted to NT$638 million.

Meilun and Guanghua industrial zones mostly produce marble and granite, accounting for 90 percent of the nation’s supply, with an estimated annual output of NT$30 billion. Many of the stones, which were stacked on their side, fell over during the earthquake and could no longer be sold. Each one had a value of NT$5,000 to NT$10,000.

Likewise, the tourism industry has also been affected, with losses estimated at up to NT$8 billion.

Local media quoted Hualien County Hotel Tourism Association President Liang Ai-ti (梁愛迪) as saying that they estimated that the average tourist spent NT$4,500 per person per day in Hualien, and that based on hotel cancellation rates of 60 percent, the industry was losing NT$50 million per day.

Hualien has received fewer donations than past tragedies; after the 2014 Kaohsiung gas explosion, the city received more than NT$4.5 billion from private citizens. After Tainan’s 2016 earthquake, the city got NT$4.3 billion from the public.

Read next: INFOGRAPHIC: Hualien's Tremorous Week

An unabridged Chinese-language version of this article can be found here.

Translation: Morley J Weston

Editor: David Green