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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

WAR ON CORRUPTION

Though popular, Taipei’s clean-up drive hurts the ruling Kuomintang

By Tim Healy and Laurence Eyton / Taipei


Go to an interview with Justice Minister Liao Cheng-hao

Nine months ago, Taiwan’s popular justice minister, Ma Ying-jeou, was abruptly replaced by an obscure subordinate, Liao Cheng-hao. Speculation immediately flew on the true meaning of the shift. Was it a move by President Lee Teng-hui to undermine political rivals linked with Ma? Was Lee jealous of the spotlight that was constantly on the minister, who had movie-star looks? Or did the transfer signify a bid to derail an anti-corruption campaign, led by Ma, that was closing in on stalwarts or supporters of Lee’s own ruling Kuomintang?

The jury is still out. But the last theory, which at the time seemed plausible, now looks less likely. Minister Liao has been targeting Taiwan’s endemic corruption with special vigor (see interview, next page). The past three months have witnessed the indictment of hundreds of people from the government and private sectors. High-profile cases include those involving two elected county chiefs (for influence peddling and receiving kickbacks) and the mayor of Taoyuan city (taking kickbacks on land sales). Standing trial for murder is the deputy-speaker of the Changhua county council, in central Taiwan.

Most of the indictments were of relatively local figures, however. In the past two weeks, Liao’s ministry has caught bigger fish. Tsai Ching-chu, a member of the Control Yuan -- a cabinet-level watchdog body -- was indicted on two counts of influence peddling. One involved trying to pressure the Securities and Exchange Commission to list a telecommunications company. The other accusation had Tsai and a partner using their positions to influence an army procurement of missiles. Soon after, Tsai Yung-chang (no relation), a National Assembly deputy, was arrested on charges of kidnapping and racketeering. Liao followed up these moves by warning Taiwan’s legislators that his anti-corruption campaign was only starting -- and they were the next targets.

How worried should they be? It is common knowledge in Taiwan that many KMT politicians have solidified their grip on power through vote-buying. According to insiders, the process works like this. Underworld figures use their extensive networks in local communities to fix elections. Once the politician takes the designated seat, the gangs are paid off. Authorities often turn a blind eye to illegal businesses. Land owned by gang members is re-zoned to increase its value and public projects are channeled to underworld-controlled companies.

The ruling party, with its vast wealth and extensive business empire, has been the biggest beneficiary of the vote-buying and influence-peddling that characterize Taiwan-style “money politics.” Last week, however, the KMT lost decisively to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party in local elections, deemed among the island’s cleanest since democracy began to take root in the early 1990s. Given the seriousness of the ruling party’s setback -- the DPP is now thought to rule just over half the population at the local level -- observers suggest that pressure may begin to build on Liao to ease up on his anti-graft crusade.

“The government says it wants to sweep the gangs away but this would actually damage the KMT,” says Tsai Ming-hsien, an opposition lawmaker. “So they just grab the small fry.” Independent legislator Liao Hsueh-kuang, who was kidnapped last August, also questions Taipei’s commitment. “We know who was responsible [for my kidnapping],” he says, “yet nothing has been done.”

Indeed, the skeptics point to another development to bolster their claims that the anti-corruption effort is but window-dressing. Legislator Lo Fu-chu, widely suspected of being the godfather of the same gang that kidnapped lawmaker Liao, recently cut a deal with the legislature’s KMT caucus and was appointed co-chairman of the assembly’s Justice Committee.

Others are more appreciative of the government’s anti-graft drive. Says Theo Stiftl, chief executive of the European Council of Commerce and Trade in Taipei: “We can only applaud the efforts of the justice minister in this direction.” Stiftl’s group had been highly critical of corruption in Taiwan.

The real test of the government’s sincerity will come late this year, when elections for county chiefs are to be held. Minister Liao’s current campaign damages the KMT in two ways. It shines a lurid spotlight on officials who are indicted, and it stands to rob the party of a key electoral weapon -- vote-buying. Will the KMT’s bosses be able to resist the temptation to try to rein Liao in? The approach of the polls may signal a particularly tough stretch in the minister’s war against graft.

‘We Must Heed the Law’

Taiwan’s top graft fighter speaks his mind

Before he became justice minister last June, Liao Cheng-hao did not even rate a mention in Taiwan’s Who’s Who. Now he is perhaps the government’s most respected member. Liao, 51, is known for his straight talking. He recently shared some of his thoughts with Reporter Laurence Eyton. Excerpts from their conversation:

Is there a link between the battle against gangsters and the crackdown on official corruption?

Organized crime, drugs, vote-buying and corruption are all connected. To improve social order, you must attack all of them in a coordinated way. The final goal is to have a society where people heed the laws.

Why is the Justice Ministry acting so vigorously now -- and not before?

Previous ministers have not really understood how to utilize and coordinate resources. Being the head of the ministry’ s investigation bureau and having been in different government departments, I know how to do this. My background in law helps too.

But gangsters renouncing their ways does nothing to dismantle the business organizations they have created.

Recently, we had a [two-month] amnesty in which 44 gangs disbanded and 1,528 people sought pardon. We will monitor them closely. If they are still involved in criminal activities, they will be punished all the more severely.

There was a public outcry over the overturning of a bribery case involving provincial assemblymen.

Not only the public found this unacceptable, we did too. I am asking to revise the laws. We have to make them clearer and to let the courts understand what people expect from them.

Given the key role of KMT members in vote-buying and graft, are your activities working against party interests?

The party does have a share of responsibility for [these problems]. President Lee Teng-hui and Premier Lien Chan want me to pursue [my activities] thoroughly and completely. I have actually helped the KMT gain support, as you can see from recent polls.

Do you think your activities may be curtailed nearer election time?

The KMT realizes that it cannot use the old ways to win elections. When we want to stop these crimes, we should not think about the party, but about the country and about society. This is a trend I don’t think anyone can stop.

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