KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan -- The new mayor of Kaohsiung, a city in southern Taiwan, has signaled that he wants to relocate 20,000 people who have suffered decades of air pollution.
A little over a month after entering office in a special election, Chen Chi-mai presented a plan to relocate the villages of Dalinpu, Fengbitou and Bangkeng. The 154-hectare area became part of an industrial development zone in the 1970s, with factories and power, steel and petroleum plants moving in as part of Taiwan's drive to bolster its economy. Now, the three schools in Dalinpu are surrounded by more than 800 smokestacks.
Authorities have talked for decades about relocating Dalinpu, which used to be a bustling fishing town, but is now blocked off from the coast by industry. The city's government says surveys show a majority of residents want to move, and last year the Executive Yuan announced a budget of 104.5 billion New Taiwan dollars ($3.6 billion) to relocate the three villages and build a circular industrial park on the land.
Chen met Sunday with residents in a community center in Dalinpu and told them that he wanted the relocation to happen as soon as possible. "If we let this drag on for another five, 10 years, Dalinpu's environment won't improve," the mayor said. "If we say our Dalinpu residents are old and want to stay here, then what about the next generation? We want to take care of Dalinpu for generations to come."
In front of Chen, a model of the government's proposed relocation area -- a 12-kilometer-drive away -- was laid out, with a fire station, two police stations, and seven schools. Chen said that each household and store or other commercial business would get a same-sized piece of land, and he told people who don't own land: "I will make sure you have a home to live in."
While authorities say they want the residents to breathe cleaner air, residents are suspicious of the government's true motives. Their relocation would free up land for Taiwan's first circular industrial park. President Tsai Ing-wen has made developing the circular economy a key part of her government's national economic policy.
A statement put out on Saturday by Kaohsiung City Government said the New Material Recycling Industrial Park would "properly collect, regenerate and recycle the energy, resources, waste and wastewater discharged" by the plants and factories. It forecast that this "industrial transformation, upgrading and innovation" would "attract investment of NT34.8 billion, increase annual output value by NT69.6 billion, and create 7,650 jobs."
Herbert Yum, research manager at Euromonitor International, a market research provider, said that the transformation of an old-style, heavy polluting manufacturing site would be an "iconic move."
"The success of the transformation of Dalinpu would prove that other industrial areas in Taiwan can learn and replicate the model, hence speed up the entire transformation process and help the Taiwan government to attract foreign high value-added businesses to invest and station in Taiwan as their Asia HQ," Yum said.
Chen, who was previously vice premier, is a member of Tsai's ruling Democratic Progressive Party. He took office on Aug. 24 after Kaohsiung's previous mayor, Han Kuo-yu of the opposition Kuomintang Party, was recalled in a public vote. Chen has said his four major priorities are industrial transformation, job creation, major construction, and reducing air pollution.
Lai Jui-lung, a Kaohsiung legislator whose constituency covers Dalinpu, said that the air pollution was the driving force for the proposed relocation, and added that it was not a foregone conclusion.
"Only if there is a demand on the part of the residents to relocate will there be this industrial park," he said in an interview after the meeting. "If afterward the people decide not to relocate from the village, then none of it will happen."
On Sunday, city officials shared their plan to give land to residents to build property, or build homes for them at a below-market price. The proposed land is north of Kaohsiung International Airport, and managed by the Maritime and Port Bureau -- under the Ministry of Transportation and Communications -- and Taiwan Sugar Corp.
Chen promised hundreds of residents "your land will be worth more," at the meeting also attended by Minister of Economic Affairs Wang Mei-hua, dozens of city officials, and managers of state-run companies in Dalinpu, including China Steel Corp., Taiwan Power Co., and CPC Corp, Taiwan.
Residents said it was unfair that they had not been shown the plan beforehand to give them time to review it and respond properly. Some complained that the government's promise to give residents equivalent land did not include agricultural land. Others asked for compensation for long-term effects to their health from living in Dalinpu, with one holding up a sign saying "Stop pollution killing us."
Taiwan's Environmental Protection Administration said last year that Dalinpu residents had an increased cancer risk due to exposure to carcinogenic pollutants, including benzene and heavy metals. They came to that conclusion after a nine-month survey of air, water, soil, vegetables, and industrial plant emissions.
Hong Fu-xian, 55, a community representative, said: "You need to transform this industry, not make the residents move. If we move to another place, perhaps the pollution will be even worse because even more pollution will be produced here."
In the community center, a display said the proposed new Dalinpu would have intelligent and environmentally friendly buildings, and fifth-generation mobile network.
"Do you think it is meaningful for those elderly?" asked Wu Pei-fang, 42, an education professor from Dalinpu who attended the meeting.
"I don't think those are the things that they care about -- 5G and internet and shiny high buildings. I think they are worried about where are they going to move to, are they going to have enough money to move, and is their quality of life going to change?" she said.