UPDATE: Protests Delay Xindian Cemetery Demolition

UPDATE: Protests Delay Xindian Cemetery Demolition
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Protests helped push a decision on the demolition of greater Taipei's last flatland cemetery to a public meeting.

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Preservation activists held a press conference in front of New Taipei City Hall in Banqiao District last week to affect change in the city’s decision-making processes prior to a meeting with officials from the city's Cultural Department over a controversial cemetery development project in Xindian District.

At the heart of the matter is the activists’ mistrust of the city’s intentions over the ancient cemetery land, which contains tombs dating as early as the reign of mid-Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong (1735-1796).

The press conference was intended to pressure the city away from its typical “black box” meetings, a style of hearing in which public participation is strictly limited.

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Credit: James X. Morris
Activists led by Wu Bo-wei stand surrounded by police at the front doors of New Taipei City Hall. A tombstone from Xindian First Public Cemetery sits at Wu’s feet. Pan Han-chiang of the Tree Party displays photographs of the cemetery for a television camera on March 26, 2018.

Local activist Wu Bowei (吳柏瑋) organized the conference with the assistance of a coalition of preservationists, including activists from Taiwan’s Green Party and Trees Party, as well as historians and representatives of Xindian’s oldest clans. Various stakeholders assembled to talk about the importance of preserving the cemetery as a historical green space.

Wu arrived at the meeting with an abandoned tombstone dating from 1817, during the reign of Emperor Jiaqing, which had been discarded after earth-moving machines began destroying tombs on Feb. 28 and March 1. “I believe that taking the tombstone into the New Taipei City Government is an unprecedented act of cultural protest,” Wu said.

The cemeteries were transferred to the jurisdiction of the city’s Economic Development Department following New Taipei’s elevation from a county to a city in 2010. The land is especially coveted for development because there are no infrastructure systems on such sites, making development easier. Preservationists said that they had heard mixed reports from the city about the end use of the land at the Xindian First Public Cemetery, including a public park, an industrial cluster and commercial and residential buildings.

The city divided the 7.5 hectare site into two sections when demolition began in 2016. The first half was completely destroyed by March of that year. Outcry by preservationists and a series of low-level meetings helped to halt destruction of the second half of the cemetery until early 2018, when demolition began again on Feb. 28. A moratorium was imposed following protests the next day.

Activists said the cemetery was divided to avoid having to conduct an environmental impact assessment, mandatory by law for sites larger than 5 hectares, a move that has recently caught sparked ire among preservationists.

Trees Party representative Pan Han-chiang (潘翰疆) said, “The government officers who have cheated in favor of development should go to jail. They did break the law. There should be punishments. There was no exchange of money, so maybe a commuted sentence [would suffice], but they need to make an example of it. There are so many stakeholders, this can’t be hidden.”

Preservationists are disappointed with the lack of motivation shown by the Culture Department on the issue of cemetery preservation. They hoped a meeting on Dec. 22 intended to emphasize the importance of the cemetery as a cultural site would serve as a showdown between the interests of the Culture Department and the Economic Development Department.

“It was not a very open meeting” said Linda Arrigo, an American human rights activist who has been active in Taiwan for decades and who has been involved in bringing awareness to the importance of the cemetery.

Arrigo, who attended the December meeting, said it was more like a job interview on the merits of the case, that the Culture Department deferred to the Economic Development Department, and that no decisions were made. Moreover, Arrigo did not receive any replies to inquiries lodged with the city government about the case, and only learned that go ahead had been given for destruction from a reporter weeks later.

These types of black box meetings are commonplace, according to Arrigo. “Typically, the city departments would have a meeting on an issue, evaluate it, and get it approved. Those who appear would already be on the industry side, so they were stuffed. It could happen at any time, they could hold a meeting, get it done, and make it a fait accompli. They could say, “oh, we held a meeting” [but] not even the neighbors would know about it.”

Following the press conference Wu and his colleagues from the Trees Party attempted to rush the tombstone into the building to make a statement but their progress was stopped at the doors by police.

City officials relented and allowed a total of four people and the tombstone to enter the meeting. Clan representatives Gao Bao-tang (高寶堂) and Liu Wen-chou (劉文川) were selected to join Wu and Xindian historian Shih Chi-yang (施其陽), who were initially the only two members of the public invited to the meeting.

The result was that the Culture Department made no decision. Instead they passed the issue up to a higher-level meeting, which they promised would be open to the public. Certain black box features still apply, however. The next meeting will be scheduled for some time in April 2018 – no date has yet been set. City officials indicated that they would post a notice online seven days beforehand, and that anybody interested in attending must register with the city ahead of the meeting.

Shih said, “They’re not promising anything, but it looks better. Now, after this meeting maybe the second section can be saved in its original place. The next meeting will be open because we gave the government high pressure.”

Xindian First Public cemetery is the last of its kind in the Taipei Basin, now featuring the highest cluster of Qing Dynasty tombstones from the earliest period of the region’s settlement by Han Chinese.

Officials from New Taipei City did not respond to requests for comment.

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TNL Editor: Morley J Weston

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