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DPP makes merger moves on Hsinchu, not Changhua

In spite of Changhua’s plans to upgrade to special municipality, Tsai administration’s focused on Hsinchu

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Hsinchu Mayor Lin Chih-chien. 

Hsinchu Mayor Lin Chih-chien.  (CNA photo)

With the referendum over, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has with stunning swiftness moved on a proposed merger of Hsinchu County and Hsinchu City, possibly with Miaoli thrown in the mix, to form a new special municipality.

President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), and the party have thrown their weight behind the proposal and are currently pushing through legislation that would change the wording in the Local Government Act (地方制度法) that would allow the merger to happen in spite of the law currently requiring a minimum of 1.25 million people to qualify. Both Hsinchus combined only barely top 1 million, though if Miaoli were included it would pass the threshold.

Opposition parties are objecting and demanding the proposal be remanded back to the committee for more discussion, but the DPP appears determined to use their legislative majority to push it through.

The idea was originally floated by Hsinchu Mayor Lin Chih-chien (林智堅) of the DPP in September, but the administration did not give it much attention at the time with their energies focused on the referendums. Hsinchu County Commissioner Yang Wen-ke (楊文科) and Miaoli County Commissioner Hsu Yao-chang (徐耀昌), both of the Kuomintang (KMT), have not ruled it out, though they are hoping for more public discussion and planning first.

This has upset Changhua County Commissioner Wang Hui-mei (王惠美) of the KMT, who on Friday called on the president to “stop passing the buck” and called on Changhua lawmakers from both parties to back the plan for Changhua to be the next special municipality, ahead of Hsinchu. Changhua not only (barely) meets the population threshold and is not proposing a complicated merger with neighbors, they have already passed their plan through the city council, and it will be presented to the Ministry of the Interior in the next few days.

In short, Changhua’s plan is far further along than Hsinchu’s.

So why is the Tsai administration so enthusiastic about Hsinchu? Partisanship could be a factor, but most of the discussion is around the impact on the Hsinchu Science Park, which is scattered throughout both Hsinchu City and County with outposts in northern Miaoli.

This means that some companies have to go through different bureaucracies for different business units depending on which part of the park they are located in. Also, the three governments don’t always see eye-to-eye and sometimes prioritize different things, for example, traffic infrastructure around the park.

It does not appear to be a DPP political move intended to win Greater Hsinchu in the next election. KMT-run Hsinchu County is more populous than the DPP-run city, and if Miaoli were included it would tip the scales even more heavily toward the KMT. It’s also unclear, and perhaps unlikely, that the merger could be done in time for next year’s local elections.

There is also talk of merging Yunlin County, Chiayi County, and Chiayi City — but the leaders of all three seem keen to move more cautiously on the issue.

So, why merge?

The special municipality is an administrative construct brought over from China by the KMT. Special municipalities report directly to the central government and get access to larger central government cash handouts.

If a merger happens, all of the smaller cities, townships, and villages will be turned into districts and lose some local elected officials but still vote for the mayor of the special municipality and city councilors. That streamlines elections and bureaucracy but means a lot of local politicians lose their jobs.

Wang wants Changhua to be the seventh special municipality instead of Hsinchu. The first was Taipei, with Kaohsiung, New Taipei, Taichung, and Tainan following in 2010 and Taoyuan four years later. In all but Taipei, you can find yourself in a tiny mountain village but still be within the city limits.

If all three proposed mergers go ahead, that will bring the total to nine. This may provoke a discussion on distribution of taxpayer money and the disparities between the special municipalities and the remaining smaller cities and counties.

If all three happen, and Miaoli is included, then the entire west coast down to Pingtung would be special municipalities. This would leave the remaining counties, such as Nantou, Pingtung, the offshore islands, and the east coast, in an odd position both in terms of continuing small local elections and in terms of government financing.

Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report (report.tw) and former chairman of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce.