Invisible forces that almost ruined World Games in Kaohsiung, Taiwan
After the World Games, a DPP opinion poll found that 91.6% of the Taiwanese population consider the Games a great success, with 97.4% of green supporters and 93.5% of blue supporters holding this view. Taiwanese have not had this level of agreement on many things.
Ma Ying-jeou gave the credit to China and thanked China, saying that they showed goodwill. Apart from their boycott of the opening and closing ceremonies, Frank Hsieh told the public that to secure the Games, he had to keep it very quiet and did not dare to celebrate until all the paperwork was signed. When it was announced that Kaohsiung won the bid, it was too late for China to influence the votes. The Chinese representatives then protested against the IWGA about this. Failing to change anything by the protest, they wrote to the International Olympics Committee (IOC), asking them to overturn IWGA’s decision. The IOC replied that they could not interfere with the voting and the decision of the IWGA. So China was forced to accept the outcome.
I heard on a TV programme where a sports journalist said that China did not use their full strength against Kaohsiung but I don’t buy this. China would not even let go of opportunities to suppress Taiwan in some very low profile and completely non-governmental organisations and events. I don’t believe they would when it came to the World Games.
The difficult birth of the stadium
Last month, I blogged about the major obstacles the former Kaohsiung Mayor, Frank Hsieh and the current Mayor, Chen Chu had to overcome to make the World Games 2009 happen in Taiwan. Today, I would like to talk a bit more about the miracle that made the building of the innovative world class main stadium possible. The stadium has received praises and a positive review from the New York Times. It is seen at least as good as, if not better than, Beijing’s Bird’s Nest while it cost less. I am going to talk about how it was nearly impossible and share this article. I am not translating word for word but would convey the main points in the article (those from the article are shown in blue).
In recent years, Taiwan has invited more great architects from other countries for major building projects. The Kaohsiung stadium was one of those projects which have gone international. However, it went through a bumpy ride. Liu Yu-tung, Professor of Architecture, pointed out the main obstacles for attracting international bidders in general. Basically, the government admin is too ill equipped for international standards and the legislations are too complicated and restrictive. In addition, a lot of consultancy companies lack the experience in working with foreign firms and some of their foreign language ability may not be able to meet the professional demands.
As to the Kaohsiung main stadium, when Fu Tsu Construction, Takenaka Corporation, the internationally renowned architect, Toyo Ito, and Ricky Liu & Associates jointly won the bid, the team in the second place immediately called foul play and started political manoeuvring with some blue legislators questioning the selection process. Public Construction Commission of the Executive Yuan, Government Ethics and the Prosecution service immediately launched investigations.
Even worse was the budget freeze in the blue dominated Kaohsiung City Council. The reason cited for the freeze was that the budget for the stadium was in violation of the Budget Act. The acting Mayor, Yeh Chu-lan, called an emergency meeting and decided that the construction of the stadium was definitely going ahead. The then Director-General of Public Works Bureau in Kaohsiung, Lin Chin-jung, talked to the president and CEO of Fu Tsu Construction about this. Luckily, they were both very supportive and agreed to go ahead with the work without receiving any payment upfront. Fu Tsu also had Takenaka Corp. and Mr. Ito’s trust.
Journalist and political commentator, Chen Li-hung, explained on his radio programme where the problem might have come from. The problem was likely to be that those firms traditionally associated with or known to the blue camp and those who usually ‘benefit’ from such associations were peeved that they could not get in on any of the deals and make ‘profits’ as before under the DPP Mayor. So they turned around making unfounded accusations against the DPP administration. The blue camp, blue dominated justice system and blue leaning media were of course happy to use any opportunity to slam the green camp. Hence, the investigations and media attack.
The budget was only completely through in early 2008. Director Lin and his colleagues had been under constant investigations and questioning in the Council for over a year by then. At the end, the investigations found nothing wrong in their conduct but their reputations were really on the line. Imagine what it does to someone’s mental health when they are wrongly accused and seen as guilty no matter what.
The convenor of the selection panel, Lin Sheng-feng, Associate Professor of Architecture and former Minister without Portfolio, commented that it would have been absolutely impossible for the stadium to be on time for the World Games 2009 if it wasn’t for Fu Tsu Construction. Dr. Lin pointed out the two main reasons which make high quality public construction work in Taiwan difficult. One is corruption where people’s representatives and civil servants at various government levels take bribes or kickbacks. Another is actually the law that is meant to prevent corruption. The legislations are either overly complicated or too loosely defined and both can be subject to very different interpretations and applications. Any dispute can turn into political arguments or media trials and the justice system ends up persecuting the good guys who take initiatives and have done nothing wrong. This discourages civil servants and professionals from going for quality and consistency and everyone would just try to play safe. Politicians’ vision could never emerge or be realised and outstanding architects and construction companies wouldn’t touch public projects with a barge pole. As a result, progress and innovation are stifled, the quality of public construction and infrastructure suffers and the public loses out.
We have witnessed the obvious double standard of the justice system and the majority of the media in Taiwan where they let the blue camp get away with things that they would kill the green camp for. It seems that the blue politicians, the blue leaning justice system, the media and certain private firms have formed some sort of alliance. As long as someone is in this structure, they can get away with corruption or get off lightly. The media would be rather quiet about those cases. If someone else gets in their way, they’ll use this alliance to persecute and smear the other camp with unsubstantiated accusations or unreasonably strict and rigid interpretations of the law which would never be applied to one of their own. However, when those persecuted and attacked by the media got cleared by the justice system, the media rarely report the outcomes or give the same huge coverage as the way they smeared those people. The current legal framework and narrow mindedness probably help this alliance and tend to breed firms and architects that place ‘networking with the right people’ above professional judgement and standards.
Frank Hsieh was the Kaohsiung Mayor when the plan for the renovation for the whole city, the plan for the World Games, the training of personnel and the decision to go international were made. A lot of the work was already underway, not to ignore that the Hsieh administration started preparing for the bid years before they actually won the bid. The renovation of the city was part of the package presented to IWGA to support the bid. Not to take any credit from the hard work of the current Mayor and how well she coordinated and executed the Games and the ceremonies, it is fair to say that the majority of the work was done under Hsieh, including the support he gave while he was the Premier. Without the solid foundation he laid, the World Games would not have been the same.
Hsieh had vision for Kaohsiung, a city of the ocean, and planned it around this theme, embedded in his beliefs in placing Taiwan, the culture and the environment in priority. Over the years, Kaohsiung has never received as much funding from the central government as Taipei but his administration was creative enough with the resources they had and made the most of it. His administration saw the World Games as the goal they had to reach and worked on the renovation package towards the goal. Politicians should not care too much about whether they would be there at the completion to take the credit but have the long term benefits for the people in mind. Hsieh worked very hard to bring the World Games to Kaohsiung and laid solid groundwork for it, knowing there was no way that he would still be the Mayor in 2009 or use the success of the World Games in the 2008 presidential election campaign. Ma Ying-jeou, on the other hand, rushed the Maokong Gondola so that he could claim credits in the presidential election and what’s the current state of the Gondola?
What makes Hsieh different is that he would observe the culture, be sensitive to people’s needs and seek out designs which would meet the needs without imposing his ideas that actually destroy the culture. The reservation of the old Kaohsiung Train Station was one example. He had also envisaged the needs beyond infrastructure: the personnel and the knowledge and therefore started the training programme for the personnel and volunteers as soon as Kaohsiung officially won the bid. A clear contrast was Ma Ying-jeou’s arbitrary decision to take down the entire old Jian-cheng Circle, replacing it with a modern but poorly designed and user unfriendly building. Local people were sad to see the old circle go and business died completely but Ma’s response to people’s complaints was that he couldn’t do anything if the products they were selling were not popular.
Ironically, Hsieh’s vision, which led to the success of Kaohsiung and the World Games and has given Taiwanese something to be proud of, was nearly killed along with his political career while Ma got elected President and continues to be protected. Hsieh and his administration were left to deal with the media attacks and investigations on their own while completing the tasks they set out to accomplish. Fortunately, the World Games in Kaohsiung turned out well. But what about the future?
Acknowledgement: many thanks to a good friend, Jay, who brought my attention to the article on which this post is based and shared his thoughts.