The revitalization of Taipei’s Songshan Airport is Taiwan’s KMT government’s gift to the voters of Taipei. President Ma Ying-jeou and Taipei City Mayor Hau Lung-bin turn the old downtown Songshan Airport into a major business hub by establishing direct flights not only to Shanghai but also to Seoul and Tokyo. As President Ma talks about the creation of “Northeast Asia’s Golden Triangle of business”, Taipeiers are flattered seeing their city breaking out of decade-long isolation on the international stage.
A look at Songshan Airport reveals about Taipei’s past and possibly the city’s days to come.
It’s a piece of authoritarian architecture made in times when KMT-Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek ruled over Taiwan with an iron fist. In striking contrast in front of the airport’s main entrance is a newly built modernistic MRT station. Glass, steel and ponds with fountains guarantee good fengshui and therefore an unobstructed inflow of money into the city, as the Taiwanese believe. However, Taipei’s taxi drivers wait in a never ending line as they have always done. Passengers on the newly launched cross-straits flights might bring investments but don’t take cabs, the taxi drivers say.
The airport upgrade is needed to secure the KMT’s lead in the year-end mayoral election race. Apart from being popular with city dwellers, the flights to Shanghai, Seoul and Tokyo complicate matters for Taiwan’s opposition party’s (DPP) mayoral candidate Su Tseng-chang. His party has long wanted the airport to be closed down. Now, Su breaks party line since opposing the project would slim his chances to become Taipei Mayor. Forced to accept having Taipei City ever closer connected to mainland China through direct flights, Su has no choice but to counter the KMT government by applying a last resort strategy – the search for little flaws in the airport.
Whether or not Su’s plan is going to work out remains questionable. Nonetheless, Taiwanese media has daily been running stories on Songshan Airport’s notoriously slow luggage conveyor belts, overpriced tickets and even a cockroach discovered in noodles sold at the airport’s canteen.
Since the opening of Chiang Kai-shek International Airport –now called Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport- in 1979, Taipei’s downtown Songshan Airport has functioned as a domestic hub. After the inauguration of Taiwan High Speed Rail in 2007, both passenger and load volume dropped significantly. Then-president Chen Shui-bian’s administration planned to turn the airport, which covers an area of 1.82 km², into a huge plot of urban parkland.
At that time, it was Ma Ying-jeou who held the position of Taipei City Mayor. Ma had long pressed to turn Songshan Airport into Taipei’s main cross-straits terminal. However, the DPP vehemently opposed the plans since launching direct flights from Taipei’s domestic airport to mainland cities implies that Taiwan and China are one country. Apart from ideological issues, the DPP also cited security concerns since the opening of Songshan Airport means that Chinese planes could come close to Taiwan’s Presidential Office Building.
Finally on June 14, after years of Taiwan’s hallmark fierce political wrestling, direct flights from Songshan Airport to Shanghai Hongqiao Airport were launched. As both locations are city airports, commuting between Taipei and Shanghai within a day has now become possible. To counter the DPP’s nagging complain that direct flights from a Taiwanese domestic airport to the mainland manifest Beijing’s claim that Taiwan is part of China, Taipei City Mayor Hau Lung-bin promises that later in the year there will also be direct flights to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport and Seoul’s Gimpo International Airport.
More in accordance with the laws of geometry than President Ma’s ‘Golden Triangle of Business’, Mayor Hau calls this a ‘one day living circle’ since business travelers will theoretically be able to visit Taipei, Shanghai, Seoul and Tokyo in one day.
In the eyes of Hau Lung-bin, the convenience of significantly reduced travel time is bound to attract international businesses to set up operations in Taipei.
However, Hau’s argument of more convenience obtained through the possibility of hopping on a plane in downtown Taipei instead of traveling 51km to Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport doesn’t work with DPP’s mayoral candidate Su Tseng-chang. Su claims that any time saved is to be entirely consumed by waiting at Songshan Airport’s old and slow luggage conveyor belts. Apart from criticizing Songshan Airport for not being in shape to handle international flights, Su has yet another case to make: From 2013 on, a new MRT line is going to connect Taipei with Taoyuan International Airport. Then, Songshan Airport becomes pointless anyway since travelers will be able to reach the much larger airport at Taoyuan in 35 minutes, so Su.
The reason why the Songshan Airport project nonetheless can be seen as an ace played by the KMT is to be found in mathematics.
“Seven million people live in Taipei and Xinbei [the name of Taipei County after the upgrade to a special municipality], that’s a third of Taiwan’s population. The voters there simply want their airport to be located in Taipei”, explains Professor Yao Li-ming, commentator and former pan-blue lawmaker often seen on Taiwan’s political TV talk shows in an interview with Asia Times Online. “Furthermore, the political balance between KMT and DPP on the municipal level has changed during the past weeks. With help of Songshan Airport the KMT makes sure Taipei won’t be lost in the year-end five special municipality elections.”
About 60% of the 22 million Taiwanese live in the five special municipalities Professor Yao refers to. They are Taipei, Xinbei, Taichung, Tainan and Kaohsiung. It’s there where crucial elections will be held later in the year. According to most observers, the results will either make or break Ma Ying-jeou’s current policy of cross-straits reconciliation since a DPP-win in three or more out of the five special municipalities would effectively turn President Ma into a ‘lame duck’.
Since the southern cities of Kaohsiung and Tainan are traditional DPP-strongholds where DPP candidates enjoy comfortable leads, particularly the races for Taipei and Xinbei are seen as keys to Taiwan’s political destiny.
The fifth municipality, Taichung, was a city the KMT could take for granted. Prof. Yao brings into account that this circumstance has somewhat surprisingly changed. He says: “Only two months ago, it was unthinkable that Taichung’s mayor Jason Hu (KMT) would lose in the five municipality elections. This has changed through the recent Taichung shootings.”
Taichung Mayor Jason Hu has seen his approval ratings dropping from 56% to 36% within two weeks. The reputation of the once immensely popular politician took a major dent when in the end of May gunmen walked into a Taichung shop and killed a local gang leader. Ironically, the shop’s surveillance camera caught four police officers hiding under a table while the shooting occurred. The following investigations clearly exposed connections between underworld and Taichung’s police force. It is far from certain that the local KMT until November 17, which is the date of the five municipality elections, will be able to recover from having been on the receiving end of public outrage.
In Taipei, incumbent Mayor Hau Lung-bin is believed to have a lead of 5 to 9% over Su Tseng-chang. Taipei’s ‘internationalization’ achieved through the launch of direct Shanghai, Seoul and Tokyo flights puts the KMT politician in an even better light with the electorate.
The race for Xinbei, however, is closer. Here, DPP party chairwoman Tsai Ying-wen runs against the current Vice Premier Eric Chu. Observers prognosticate a neck and neck race.
Prof. Yao predicts an, according to him, imminent event that is bound to develop into a major disadvantage for the DPP in the Xinbei race; an event which will work out more negatively for the party than the KMT’s Songshan Airport-revitalization coup in Taipei.
“Very soon, Chen Shui-bian will be freed. If Tsai Ying-wen refuses to rehabilitate Chen, she will lose support in the south; if she’s seen as being good friend with him, the important political centrists in Xinbei will be turned off”, Yao expounds. “Chen Shui-bian is a bigger obstacle to the DPP than Songshan Airport”, he says.