Saturday, May 29, 2010

Gangsters and Politics from AP

Deb Wu of AP turned in a doozy of a piece on criminals in Taiwan's local politics this week that was featured in both the Taipei Times and the Taiwan News (a more permanent link is at Yahoo News). Since the latter has the longer and richer formulation of it, I'll grab an excerpt from there, but be sure to read the whole thing, it is outstanding:
Taiwan expert Bruce Jacobs of Australia's Monash University says gangster governance is an important part of Taiwan's political glue, without which many people would lose a shot at fair treatment in what has long been a rigidly hierarchical society.

"They are providing services, and that creates respect within the community," he said.

Criminals rose to prominence in politics in the late 1980s, and their influence peaked in the mid-1990s, when a third of county and municipal councilors had criminal backgrounds, according to then Justice Minister Liao Cheng-hao. They included the legislative speaker in Pingtung county, Cheng Tai-chi, who was later executed in 2000 for gunning down a gambling den competitor six years earlier.

Today, the proportion in county legislatures has dropped to 15 to 30 percent, estimates political scientist Chao Yung-mao of National Taiwan University in Taipei. That's still large enough to have a major impact on local politics, he said.

"Gangster deputies demand that government officials give priority to projects in their constituencies or help arrange temporary jobs in the government for their supporters," Chao said. "They warn officials about 'consequences' if their wishes go unfulfilled."

Their names are widely known in Taiwan. People like Tainan county legislative speaker Wu Chien-bao, recently indicted for bribing professional baseball players. Or Nantou county power broker Chiang Chin-liang, whose murder and extortion convictions in the 1980s raised embarrassing questions for Wu Den-yih, now Taiwan's premier, after it was reported that Chiang had accompanied him on a trip to Indonesia in 2008.
The piece focuses on Yen Ching-piao, the gold standard for criminals in politics, who in his own self unites all the strands of political power in Taiwan -- influence over local temple associations, construction and gravel industry control, local political clout, organized crime, and close links to the KMT. The article goes on to give one of the most common explanations for the tight links between local gangsters and the KMT:

Wang Yeh-lih, another National Taiwan University political scientist, said that gangster governance in Taiwanese counties evolved from deals that then President Lee Teng-hui cut with criminal elements in the late 1980s.

At the time, Wang said, Lee needed a strong counterweight to influential elders in his Nationalist Party, who were trying to maintain the political dominance of the so-called "mainlander" faction _ people who had fled to Taiwan in 1949 when Mao Zedong's Communists defeated Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists in the Chinese civil war.

Lee himself was a native Taiwanese _ the descendent of families who had come to the island from the Chinese mainland in the 17th and 18th centuries _ and to neutralize the mainlander faction, said Wang, Lee "nominated many native Taiwanese gangsters to run in regional elections and for positions in the party's decision-making body."

It is common to blame Lee Teng-hui for the incorporation of gangsters into the KMT as local candidates, but the reality is that the KMT had been intimately involved with the local factions -- which are closely gang-connected -- since day 1. My background piece on irrigation associations and local politics has a number of quotes of how the farmer's associations were corrupted in the 1970s and became the power bases of local politicians, who, by the 1980s, were spending as much as US senate elections to gain the posts. Read the quote on vote brokers. Recall also that in 1984 gangsters under KMT government control killed author Henry Liu in the US.

But more: an article in Taiwan's Electoral Politics and Democratic Transition by Huang Teh-fu has a rundown on the statistics of the KMT's involvement in the local factions, which are heavily involved in all sorts of organized crime. It notes:
"How close was the relationship between the KMT and the local factions in these elections? In elections from 1954 to 1989, the average representation of factional candidates among all KMT candidates in Taiwan Provincial Assembly elections was 60.7%... Between 1954 and 1989, the factional representation of the KMT never dipped below 50%."
In other words, if Lee really was picking local gangsters for legislative posts, he was merely following an old trend. But the reality was that the trend of increasing factional influence was bottom up, not top-down. The KMT began its rule in Taiwan as an alien and unpopular colonial regime heavily dependent on local factions to sustain its rule. Over time this evolved into a mutually beneficial relationship -- the KMT arbitrated between factions, sometimes to the point of rotating seats between competing factions in the same area, and sent down resources to the local faction networks for distribution to help them maintain power, and in return its power at the national level -- the power of mainlander faction at its core -- went unchallenged. An important component of this KMT policy was that factions were not allowed to operate on the national scale -- no faction could operate across county lines, and local Taiwanese politicians could have only local-level posts in the KMT Party heirarchy. This ensured that no politician could acquire an independent power base big enough to operate at the national level and challenge the mainlander power structure. Divide and rule at the local level....

However, as Chen Ming-tong relates in a paper on local factions in Taiwan's Electoral Politics and Democratic Transition, after Chiang Ching-guo died the local factions, who had been increasing in power since Chiang himself accelerated Taiwanization -- bring native Taiwanese into the KMT at increasingly higher levels -- began forming groups to operate across regional boundaries. Chen writes:
"After Chiang's death, local factions made a series of nationwide coalition moves aimed at undermining the KMT's domination over central government agencies. Such moves included the establishment of the Wisdom Club, the emergence of the DC club, and the Yi Lan Conference prior to the KMT's thirteenth national conference in 1988, in which the speakers and vice speakers of 21 cities and counties demanded more political power from central authorities."
Chen reports that in the 1992 Legislative Yuan election Lee nominated the highest proportion of factional candidates ever, 59%, a figure not exactly out of proportion to the importance of local factions in KMT politics. The DPP responded by claiming this was pure money politics -- which it was -- but it was also recognition of the evolving power of the factions within the KMT and their thrust for national prominence. In the 1992 elections the KMT took a beating, apparently for corruption, and consequently, in the next round of city and council elections, under Lee Teng-hui the party fielded the lowest proportion of faction candidates ever in such an election, 42%. The KMT got thumped anyway.

In other words, Lee accepted a situation of increasing local factional power he was handed, and ran with it. He was capable of nominating lots of local faction politicians, or few, as the case demanded. Involvement of local organized crime/factions in KMT politics is an old, not a new situation. The claim that Lee "nominated many native Taiwanese gangsters to run in regional elections and for positions in the party's decision-making body" with the implication that this number was somehow a disproportion or something totally new that caused a new social trend is completely false.

I can't resist pointing out one more thing. At this point in time, in the early 1990s, Lee's Minister of Justice was one Ma Ying-jeou, who was carrying out a crackdown on corrupt local politicians that earned him much enmity in the 1990s. Lee eventually removed him from that post. Now that you understand the role of faction politicians in the KMT of that period, their rising power after the death of Chiang, and their importance to the KMT grip on Taiwan, ask yourself whether Ma was earnestly trying to clean things up, or whether he was simplying carrying out the old KMT policy of suppressing local factions attempting to operate at the national level, by jailing them for corruption, with the added bonus of knocking out Lee supporters. And then look at the current program of attacking DPP politicians for "corruption" under the Ma Administration, and ask yourself if it is just a case of, as far as political strategies go, plus ca change...
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Anonymous said...

Excellent piece!

I think the answer to your final question lies in not only how the MoJ prosecuted organized crime heads, but also the manner in which it punished them. Many of the figures imprisoned under Ma's tenure were given relatively light sentences; 4-7 years. In most cases these sentences were cut in half after the first year of incarceration.

Michael Turton said...

Thanks, anon. I often wondered what Ma's goals were. Obviously rooting out corruption was not one of them. But looking at faction politics has really helped illuminate them for me.

Tim Maddog said...

Michael, although it does contain some good info, how can you call a piece about which you spend several paragraphs deconstructing the stuff about Lee Teng-hui "outstanding"?

When I saw it in the Taipei Times (and the content seems quite similar to that of the Yahoo version, but the paragraphs are in different order), I called it a "fluff piece" because of that stuff about people saying Yen was "just like a god," about him being a "go-to guy for settling local disputes," about how he "devotes much of his energy to leading local charity efforts as the temple chairman," and gently describing his past as "colorful."

The sentence with which the Taipei Times ended the piece really pissed me off:
- - -
“Sometimes he complains to me that no matter how hard he tries to do good works, people still criticize him,” Hsu said.
- - -


Tim Maddog

Michael Turton said...

Maddog, how many pieces on the involvement of gangsters in local politics have you seen in the international media? Zero. But it is a central fact of Taiwanese political life.

I didn't deconstruct the piece, but the common explanation.

kocha said...

Actually, it has come up a couple times in Belgium. We did receive some (relatively short) news about the corruption in Taiwan and how Ma dealt with certain individuals.

JoRees said...

This is a great article and a compelling read. I wonder if gangsters are a part of academic culture as much as politics.

Tim Maddog said...

Michael, you asked:
- - -
Maddog, how many pieces on the involvement of gangsters in local politics have you seen in the international media? Zero. But it is a central fact of Taiwanese political life.
- - -

What matters isn't just that it's covered -- the quality of the coverage is even more important.

Let's say that it was 80% completely good info, 15% "inaccurate" info, and 5% "deification." Such writing would actually deserve a grade below 60, since the latter two aren't of equal value with simply getting it right.

I have no problem if someone wants to recognize AP for getting something right or for covering something that isn't normally covered by the English-language press, but since they usually include that lie about Taiwan and China having "split in 1949 at the end of a civil war" (despite not being together in the first place), AP has got to do a helluva lot better.

To be clear, other than your use of the word "outstanding" in the first paragraph, your post is (IMHO) outstanding. ;-)

Tim Maddog

Anonymous said...

By the way, Henry Liu was actually killed in Daly City, by the mainlander Bamboo Union gang.

Anonymous said...

I would add to the comment about Liu that the hit was carried out by the Bamboo Union on orders from Chiang Wei-guo, CCK's younger adoptive brother and Special Advisor to the President and Secretary General of the Council of National Security.

bazzrg said...

Doesn't the involvement of gangsters in Taiwan politics go back to Shangahi and the Green Gang who helped Chiang Kai Shek hold power in his very early days through to his flight to Taiwan?