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Interview with Key Contributors

Interview with former Premier Liu Chao-Shiuan


We're Counting on You: President Lee Teng-Hui

Tzu Chi Foundation set up the first service center three minutes after the 921 Earthquake occurred at about 1:47 a.m., and by 3 a.m. it had 30 liaison centers in place. One Tzu Chi brother arrived at a disaster scene next door 45 seconds after the powerful quake. Even though his own house was damaged and rescuers had not yet arrived, he immediately began to try to rescue those who needed help.

Vice Premier Liu Chao-shiuan, on behalf of the central government, receives the donation of NT$50 million from Ho Show-chung, board chairman of YFY Group. (Dec. 20, 1999 CNA)

After the 921 Earthquake occurred, I was put in charge of the rescue and relief operations in central Taiwan, in my capacity as vice premier. When President Lee Teng-hui asked, “What's the first thing that should be done,” I told him the priority was to obtain information.

Since information from the disaster areas was disjointed, I proposed setting up several communication lines to obtain and coordinate information about the damage and casualties, in order to effectively carry out the rescue and relief work. A heavy burden descended on my shoulders when President Lee nodded and said to me, “We are counting on you to manage the rescue operations.”

At my temporary office in the Taichung City Police Department, I received scattered information about the disaster and heard a lot of rumors. So we set up three communication lines to coordinate among the military, the existing reporting system, and the central government deputy ministers who were assigned to help seriously affected townships. The aim was to obtain reliable information that could be used in the decision-making process. The 10th Army Corps under the command of General Kao Hua-chu, who is now minister of National Defense, had already started the rescue work at the time.

We used a question-and-answer approach, instead of the normal official documents, to obtain information about the specific needs in the various disaster areas and deal more quickly with them. After two weeks, we had accumulated enough Q&A data to allow the government officials in charge of rescue and relief task forces to resolve almost all disaster-related problems. We also met with deputy heads of central government agencies every day to work out relief plans and we made quick decisions, which allowed for more efficient problem-solving.

Taiwan Was Fortunate to Have Military and Private Rescue Teams

While the central government was concentrating on dealing with disruptions in power supply and road transportation, collapsed bridges and destroyed buildings, the troops were busy rescuing victims. At the same time, civic organizations were providing hot meals and distributing cash to survivors in the disaster areas.

The military demonstrated that because of its autonomy it is the most effective force in major disasters. For example, military troops can repair damaged roads, build Bailey bridges to replace collapsed ones, and use their vehicles to deliver relief supplies to displaced survivors and evacuate them from isolated disaster areas.

But Taiwan is also fortunate to have such charity groups as Tzu Chi Foundation, which can mobilize large numbers of rescue and relief volunteers in an efficient and orderly manner. Even though we had no experience in dealing with catastrophes, I was very impressed with the deep concern shown by the people and government of Taiwan and their effectiveness in the aftermath of the 921 Earthquake.

We operated in central Taiwan for three months only, mainly carrying out rescue and relief work and temporarily resettling displaced quake survivors. Although we had well-planned reconstruction projects at the time, some of them were not implemented as scheduled, due to the presidential election the following year and the subsequent change of government.

The new administration also worked hard on post-quake reconstruction, and civic organizations rebuilt many schools that had been damaged in the earthquake, but the construction of homes for the displaced did not proceed as originally planned.

Most houses destroyed in the 921 Earthquake had not been well constructed and many survivors, who dared not return home because of aftershocks, chose to live in tents. However, some people judged the efficiency of the government's rescue and relief efforts by the number of tents, using the issue as a political one at the time. The original government plan was for the displaced survivors to be resettled in prefabricated housing units for one year. But that period was later extended to two years as the government's plans for community rebuilding ran into some problems.

Shintaro Yamashita (left), head of Interchange Association's Taipei Office, presents Vice Premier Liu with a model of prefabricated housing unit Japan donated to Taiwan for displaced 921 Earthquake survivors. (Oct. 16, 1999 CNA)

There is quite a difference between earthquake and flood damage, but the reconstruction goals are the same – to rebuild houses and schools and repair damaged infrastructure. In light of the post-921 Earthquake experience, the government decided after the serious flooding on Aug. 8 to erect fewer prefabricated housing units for displaced survivors of Typhoon Morakot so as to accelerate the rehabilitation work, and invited businesses and civic organizations to adopt various reconstruction projects.

Under the reconstruction plan, the first new community of a few hundred units of permanent houses, scheduled to be completed by the end of 2009, will be a model cluster of green, eco-friendly and energy-conserving homes, an approach that could be integrated into the development of tourism and quality agriculture in the future. I hope these elements could also be included in the rehabilitation of other flood devastated communities, thus creating a turning point in the crisis.

We Must Empathize with Disaster Victims

In retrospect, we know we could have done much better in the aftermath of the 921 Earthquake 10 years ago. It is quite natural for disaster victims to complain about government rescue and relief efforts, no matter how much has been achieved, because they are usually in deep misery. And no matter how quickly the government launches the rescue efforts, the victims would always feel that help came too late and was too little. But we must empathize with the victims when we're carrying out rescue and reconstruction work because they may have lost loved ones or personal property in the disaster.

On my visits to disaster areas, I have been very patient with the victims and I always listen to their complaints and problems. We have to understand that they are in a special situation. Otherwise, we would feel they are being irrational, complaining too much or asking for too much. Even if it seems that they are making excessive demands from a legal perspective, we have to explain very patiently to them the legal restraints and try to find alternative solutions. We cannot just say “No” to them.

Donate Your Wisdom

After the Aug. 8 flooding that devastated southern Taiwan, we revised some of the post-disaster reconstruction approaches. For instance, we have changed the regulations to grant displaced survivors the right to own the houses that charity organizations build for them on state-owned land provided by the government. These houses, but not the land, can be inherited by the survivors’ children. Besides, charity organizations will be able to build the houses better and faster because they will not be bound by procurement and other related laws, as government agencies are.

In addition, private enterprises involved in reconstruction work can combine civic service, business and other factors. I told Terry Gou, founder of Foxconn Technology Group, and other entrepreneurs, “Now I'm asking you to donate your wisdom, ideas and executive skills, not your money,” to help the flood victims. I believe that such an arrangement is the best integration of the efforts of government, charity organizations and businesses.

However, no one thought of this approach in the wake of the 921 Earthquake. Many prefabricated housing units were assembled by charity organizations at the time because they were not thinking of providing quake survivors with permanent homes. Of course, there have been many changes in the society over the past decade and newer construction technology has made it much easier and quicker to build permanent houses, which takes almost the same time as erecting prefabricated housing units. That's one of the reasons why we can now do some things that would not have been possible in the past even if we had thought of them then.

People Display Strength

Most people gain strength in a major disaster. I have always said that, in most cases, people cherish their lives more after they recover from the grief caused by a disaster. According to an ancient Chinese saying, “Much distress regenerates a nation,” which means a society can achieve positive development even when it has experienced much sadness. In other words, in a crisis, men have the ability to find a turning point and new opportunities. People with no such instinct tend to be more vulnerable to crises, and that's why it is very important for us to provide spiritual rehabilitation as part of post-disaster efforts.

I wish to talk about something not directly related to disasters. Our decision to issue consumption vouchers last Lunar New Year was criticized by many economists who claimed it would not help pull us out of the economic recession caused by the global financial crisis. However, I stuck to that measure because we had to take into consideration some factors other than economics.

Even so, from an economic perspective, the consumption vouchers did have some effect because many people might have chosen to end their own lives if they thought they could not survive through the Chinese New Year. This was a time when our economy had shrunk by 10%, exports were down more than 40% and the unemployment rate was rising in the first quarter. With NT$3,000 worth of consumption vouchers for each person, a family of five could do some shopping for the special Chinese New Year holidays. From this perspective, the consumption voucher program was quite a success. So I do feel that social psychological adjustment and spiritual rehabilitation are very important, especially after a major disaster.

In reality, many people find a turning point in crises. During my term as premier from May 2008 to September 2009, I had to introduce some measures to deal with a series of crises. Apart from the short-term results of those measures, what would be more important to me is whether they produce significant changes in the long term.

For example, Taiwan once relied on some conventional low-tech industries that had to put a lot of effort into making small profits. If they were facing collapse because of a decline in orders, it would have been easy to persuade them to revamp. But if they were making huge profits from plenty of orders, it would have been impossible to convince them not to put all their eggs in one basket by relying only on exports. When industries have few export orders, they are willing to listen to suggestions for starting promising new businesses.

I do feel that the government, many entrepreneurs and even individuals will also see disasters in this light, bringing into play the positive and optimistic side of human beings. The Taiwanese people have always done well in this regard, so it is not surprising that we can rise time and time again after major disasters.

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