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Administrative Redistricting

The Rush to Change the Face of Taiwan


The controversial move to turn some of Taiwan's local governments into special municipalities has left many wondering if its benefits will outweigh the costs.



The Rush to Change the Face of Taiwan

By CommonWealth Magazine Editorial Department
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After 15 hours of deliberations on June 23, 25 members of a special review panel commissioned by the Ministry of the Interior decided the fate of Taiwan's future development at the local level.

They had been reviewing applications from nearly half of Taiwan's 23 counties and cities to join Taipei City and Kaohsiung City as special municipalities because of the far more generous share of central government resources allocated to districts with that designation.

The panel ultimately approved the upgrade of Taipei County and the mergers of Kaohsiung City and County and Taichung City and County into special municipalities. Six days later, the Ministry of the Interior also gave the merger of Tainan City and County a green light.

Although municipalities whose applications were rejected complained bitterly about the panel's decision, the most controversial aspect of the government's redrawing of Taiwan's local administrative map was its repeated shifts in policy, with the original vision of three special municipalities (one each in northern, central and southern Taiwan) giving way to five special districts, and the makeshift nature of the policy-making process.

"Of course the process was makeshift," admits Hsia Chu-joe, director of the Graduate Institute of Building and Planning at National Taiwan University and one of the members of the special review panel.

Knowing that the process was flawed, why were people like Hsia willing to participate on the panel and endorse the outcome?

"The redistricting of administrative districts was long overdue," Hsia says. Even though Taiwan was already tardy in undertaking the task at this point in time, Hsia feels that by participating, he could have some influence over the process.

The NTU professor firmly believes that global development is moving inexorably toward the creation of big metropolitan areas. Whether there are three, four or five special municipalities in the future, the policy direction of reducing fragmentation is the right one, Hsia says, "but this definitely cannot be the end of the process." 

He contends that the Ministry of the Interior should expedite a second round of administrative redistricting, because if the process fails to move beyond the decisions made at the end of June, "Taiwan will become an ungovernable country."

Governing the Ungovernable

Taiwan's administrative map of 23 counties and cities and two special municipalities (Taipei City and Kaohsiung City) will now be redrawn into 17 counties and cities and five special municipalities, and Hsia believes the counties and cities whose applications for status upgrades were rejected will be marginalized more quickly.

"There were also several counties and cities that didn't have the opportunity to submit an application. What are they going to do?" the NTU professor asks.

Also, Hsia fears Taiwan could be balkanized by the special municipalities, which have all the trappings of independent fiefdoms. "Take Taipei County. Today, the county head is a member of the ruling Kuomintang. But if the next head is a member of a different party, what happens if Taipei County refuses to supply water to Taipei City or help deal with the city's garbage?"

The Ma Ying-jeou administration, which hastily pushed through the plan, clearly has plenty of communicating to do.

The question now is, what are the potential positive and negative effects that this redistricting will have on Taiwan?

The Upsides:

1. The upgrade will create more internationally competitive metropolitan areas: Once merged, Kaohsiung City and County, for instance, will have a total population of 2.77 million, the scale of a mid-sized international city, which will give Kaohsiung a more globally competitive niche.

2. It will reduce levels of bureaucracy, align power with responsibility, enhance administrative efficiency and reduce expenditures: The most obvious example is that township-level representative councils will be dissolved. In Taipei County, for instance, the dissolution of township assemblies will save an estimated NT$7 billion over four years. Also, the upgraded special municipalities will have fewer elected representatives, with the total not allowed to exceed 52.

3. Revenues will rise, allowing local governments to undertake more projects and raise residents' quality of life: Taichung will be the biggest winner, receiving 83 percent more in central government allocations and subsidies than before. Kaohsiung will receive an estimated 28 percent more than at present.

4. Land should be allocated more efficiently, enhancing the competitiveness of the upgraded areas through integration: Aside from spurring the overall development of land that overlaps different administrative districts at present, the mergers will also encourage more efficient transportation services in the new municipalities.

The Downsides:

1. Though revenues will rise, local governments will still face financial burdens: Residents of cities and counties have part of their National Health Insurance premiums paid for by the central government. But in special municipalities, the local rather than the central government covers much of the government's contribution to health premiums, which will put an added strain on the budgets of the newly upgraded cities and counties. Similar problems will arise with some education fees.

Also, debts once covered by the central government will now revert to the special municipalities' accounts. Once the redistricting takes effect, Kaohsiung residents will have the heaviest debt burden, with per capita debt of NT$62,000. Taichung's per capita debt will be NT$22,000 and Taipei County (which will be renamed New Taipei City) will have per capita debt of NT$16,000.

2. The local election system will change, leading Taiwan into a new era of "separate fiefdoms" that will challenge the central government's ability to govern: Former premier Su Tseng-chang of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party argues that under the new system, the heads of the special municipalities will have more resources and represent more voters than central government leaders. As a result, the central government will have a hard time controlling local leaders' attempts to exact the greatest benefit for their jurisdictions, and local chieftains could have more legitimacy than national leaders.

3. The urban/rural divide will grow wider: Counties and cities that are not upgraded will grow increasingly marginalized. Furthermore, the report on redistricting undertaken by Kaohsiung City acknowledged that even if a city's status is upgraded after merger, there remain concerns about whether funds will be fairly allocated to different areas within the special municipality.

"Before the benefits of the merger become evident, (there is the question) of how to balance the efficient use of public resources and principles of equity within the district," the report states.

4. A wide gap exists in the development level of cities and counties that will be merged, and bringing them together, at least in the near term, will be like trying to unify the former East Germany and West Germany: Kaohsiung City's report on redistricting notes that the city and county have followed divergent urban vs. small-town development models. After the merger, differences in population, commerce and industry, cultural traditions, and geographical environment will make the transition to a cohesive special municipality a more difficult challenge than was originally anticipated, the report indicates.

Aside from three big metropolitan areas, the Cabinet also formally proposed the concept of seven local development areas, perhaps offering some insight into the direction of the next round of administrative redistricting.

The groupings were (from north to south): Taipei and Keelung cities and Taipei and Yilan counties; Taoyuan, Miaoli and Hsinchu counties and Hsinchu City; Taichung City and County, Jhanghua County and Nantou County; Yunlin, Jiayi and Tainan counties and Jiayi and Tainan cities; and Kaohsiung and Pingdong counties and Kaohsiung City. There was also Hualian and Taidong counties in eastern Taiwan and the outlying island grouping of Penghu, Jinmen and Mazu.

National Taiwan University's Hsia warns, however, that those groupings, based on rigid geographical criteria, "represent the thinking of 20 years ago and have been outdated for a long time."

He explains that with Taiwan's second north-south freeway, the high-speed railway, the Syueshan Tunnel and many new expressways, mountains and other geographical features are no longer barriers. In this traditional model with seven regions, "none have adequate capacity and none are of sufficient scale," Hsia asserts.

To ensure political stability and an adequate scale of development, the NTU professor suggests that Taiwan be divided into eight special municipalities: northern Taiwan, central Taiwan, southern Taiwan, eastern Taiwan, indigenous peoples autonomous areas, and each of Taiwan's three island counties, Jinmen, Penghu, and Lianciang (Mazu).

Northern Taiwan Special Municipality: Hsinchu would be included in northern Taiwan. According to Hsia, a drive on Taiwan's Highway No. 3, running north to south, reveals that the area north of Hsinchu has essentially become integrated into the greater Taipei area. Four-fifths of Taiwan's high-tech industry – the so-called Taipei-Hsinchu high-tech corridor – is located along the Taipei-Hsinchu stretch of the highway, Hsia says.

Central Taiwan Special Municipality: To reflect the complementary nature of industrial sectors in this area and the existence of a greater Taichung region, Hsia suggests central Taiwan should include Taichung City, Taichung, Jhanghua and Nantou counties, and southern Miaoli County. Under Hsia's plan, voters in Yunlin and Jiayi counties and Jiayi City would cast ballots to decide whether to join the central or southern Taiwan special municipality.

Southern Taiwan Special Municipality: Hsia says the cluster of high-tech companies and the cultural dimensions of Tainan City and County effectively complement the commercial port of Kaohsiung City and County. To avoid having two competing special municipalities in the south, Tainan should eventually be folded into the Southern Taiwan Special Municipality after its city and county merge.

The proposed Special Municipalities of northern, central and southern Taiwan all lie along the west coast, the most competitive half of Taiwan. Hsia envisions Hualian and Taidong counties on Taiwan's east coast merging into a "special locality" based on the model of Hokkaido, Japan, which receives central government resources to develop as an ecological preserve and tourism center.

The designation of the three island counties as special municipalities would be aimed at solidifying Taiwan's hold on the three areas. Otherwise, Hsia says, "after a certain amount of time, they will definitely be drawn away from Taiwan by China."

The latest effort to reorganize Taiwan's administrative districts has been touted by the government as an attempt to improve their competitiveness and make their unique characteristics stand out. But in an intensely competitive world, Taiwan's government in fact needs to respond to the challenge faster and in a more comprehensive way.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier

Chinese Version: 【決策幕後】台灣為何急急推縣市升格?