Thinking Outside the Capital

TAIPEI, Taiwan – An important conversation is just beginning here on the idea of moving the site of our national government from Taipei, the largest and northernmost city in Taiwan – which has served as the capital since 1886 – to a more southern city.

To some, the very idea of moving a nation’s capital from one city to another seems a little far-fetched. But it isn’t. Many countries have moved their capitals. Several have done so in recent decades. Others, such as Japan, are considering such a move.

The United States, for instance, moved its original capital from Philadelphia, in the North, to Washington, DC, in the South. But that was some 220 years ago when the United States was sparsely populated and a new country. So moving the national government to a secure location that was set aside specifically for that purpose, following an attack on the U.S. Congress by mutinous soldiers, was a good idea. A law was passed in 1790 authorizing the new capital, and a decade later, in 1800, America’s legislature held its first session in the new “federal city,” which retains its general characteristics to this day.

More recently, in 1960, Brazil – the largest country in South America, with a population of approximately 200 million people – moved its capital. Brazil didn’t just pack up its national government and move it from the original capital city, Rio de Janeiro, to another location. Instead, it hired the world-famous architect Oscar Niemeyer to design an entirely new city, Brasilia, in the center of the country. Prior to the move, the area was sparsely populated and resembled a desert, with little water and vegetation. Today, it is a thriving, modern showplace with a population exceeding 2.5 million.

Other countries have moved their capitals as well. Australia relocated its capital in 1927, to Canberra, another planned city. In 1999, following reunification, Germany moved its seat of government from Bonn to Berlin. And just last summer, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the president of Indonesia, announced that he is seriously considering moving the capital from Jakarta. He gave two reasons: the fact that Jakarta, a city of nearly 9.6 million inhabitants, is overcrowded, gridlocked, polluted and earthquake-prone, and the need to bring economic development to other parts of the country.

The list goes on: Belize, the Ivory Coast, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Nigeria and Tanzania all have moved their capitals in the past several decades.

The reasons these countries’ leaders gave for moving their capitals were diverse: geography, population density, gridlock, economic development, pollution, security.

Many of these same reasons are why Taiwanese leaders should give serious consideration to moving our capital.

As both the nation’s capital and the center of economic life in Taiwan, New Taipei City and Taipei City are home to 30 percent of Taiwan’s total population, or nearly 6.5 million people. With this concentration of population comes traffic congestion, soaring real estate prices, rising crime, and environmental pollution and degradation.

Moving the capital to the South not only would help mitigate some of these problems, but it would bring economic benefits to the residents of the new capital city and its surroundings, rectifying the long-standing imbalance between development of Taiwan’s North and South. It would also help spread political power – now concentrated in the North, to the detriment of the South.

There are practical reasons as well. Taipei is close to several volcanoes, vulnerable to earthquakes, and prone to flooding, due to the increased summer rains that the earth’s changing climate have brought. There also are three nuclear power plants located near Taipei, creating additional risk.

Should a catastrophic natural disaster occur in Taipei, like the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan earlier this year, Taiwan’s government and economy could grind to a halt. Just as the United States chose a safer location for its government, perhaps Taiwan should do so as well.
A new capital could be a showplace blend of modern architecture and traditional culture, providing new economic opportunities to residents of the South and relieving the overcrowding that threatens the quality of life in Taipei.

The idea of moving Taiwan’s seat of government from Taipei to the South deserves very serious consideration. In my opinion, a new capital would be a win-win situation for all of Taiwan. Such a move is not only doable, but an imperative.

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Winston Wong is a Taiwanese physicist, entrepreneur and philanthropist.