Taiwan's young democracy struggles with gangsters

AP News
Posted: Nov 11, 2009 1:44 AM

Revelations that Taiwanese Premier Wu Den-yih traveled abroad with a former gangster have excited great interest among this island's sensation-seeking media, but left few of its 23 million people gaping in surprise.

Taiwan's six round-the clock cable TV news stations and its mass circulation newspapers have given prominent play to Wu's trip to the Indonesian resort of Bali last December with convicted murderer Chiang Chin-liang, a reputed extortionist and international gunrunner who was freed from prison in 2002 after serving 15 years.

But the average Taiwanese has not been fazed by the news, mindful that more than a decade after Taiwan's transition from one-party dictatorship to freewheeling democracy, local politics remains heavily influenced by close connections between officials and thugs.

The ties are particularly important at the county level, where gangsters use their wide-ranging associations to help politicians gain advantage over factional rivals, and position themselves to receive lucrative favors in return.

Taiwan expert Bruce Jacobs of Australia's Monash University says that's a big change from 20 years ago, when most of the action was at the center, with the ruling Nationalist Party using influential gangs like the Bamboo Union to harass political opponents.

In one particularly celebrated case, Union members assassinated Taiwanese dissident Henry Liu at his Daly City, California home in 1984. Liu had offended senior Nationalist officials with his critical biography of political strongman Chiang Ching-kuo, son of Chiang Kai-shek.

Now, says Jacobs, the gangster-politician nexus is likely to be strongest in peripheral localities like the southern counties of Chiayi or Yunlin, where gangsters provide much needed services to a generally grateful population.

"Look at Chiayi and (former county assembly speaker) Hsiao Deng-biao," he said. "Hsiao uses money he amassed in government to help people in need, doing things like assisting kids who get into trouble or providing aid for people who get sick. It's a very important function."

Jacobs says many of the gangs at the local level are "native Taiwanese" _ descendants of the people who came to the island 250-350 years ago from China's Fujian province and now make up the majority of its population.

They're easily distinguished from "mainlander" gangs _ families of people who followed the defeated armies of Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan after the Communist victory in the Chinese civil war in 1949 and served the Nationalists so faithfully during the martial law era.

Jacobs says a particularly colorful Taiwanese gangster is Yen Ching-piao, an independent lawmaker known pejoratively as "Mr. Pumpkinhead."

Given to wearing dark designer suits, Yen, who stands at the confluence of politics, business and religion in the central county of Taichung, was paroled from prison earlier this year after serving nine-months for his role in masterminding a murder attempt.

A short, owlish looking-man with a fierce, penetrating gaze, he is probably best known for presiding over an annual religious festival at the ocher-roofed Chen Lan temple in the gritty industrial town of Tachia _ a role that helps him amass scores of political IOUs and brings considerable wealth to his temple.

But Taiwanese gangsters do far more than just involve themselves in local politics or supervise religious rites.

Last month authorities identified nine professional baseball players as suspects in a probe centering on allegations they had thrown games in exchange for payoffs of up to $90,000 from local gambling interests.

The affair shocked the public in a way that Wu's Indonesian foray never did, and now threatens the future of Taiwan's top professional baseball league _ already reeling from previous gangster interventions _ not to mention the integrity of its favorite sport.

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has committed himself to keeping the league afloat, but with only four remaining teams _ one at the heart of the game-fixing allegations _ he may come up short.