Taiwan's Political Gravy Train in Search of a Wild Lily

  Previous  |  Next  

Thursday September 04, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

While hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to show their displeasure with the ineffectual performance and potential betrayal of the country's sovereignty by MaYing-jeou in his first 100 days, other media headlines have been discussing the so-called "money laundering" scandal of the former president, Chen Shui-bian. Chen had wired (via his wife) some twenty million US dollars to bank accounts overseas. While it is being investigated as to whether it is actually laundering, some felt betrayed; some felt justified, and many others were shocked. Regardless of that, what this does is expose how Taiwan politics is and has been one big, long, and continuous gravy train.

Surprised? Shocked? You shouldn't be. It should be a wake-up call to examine the real problem that plagues Taiwan. It is a problem that predates Chen Shui-bian, an age old Taiwan problem that is three-fold, human, cultural, and historical.

Human? Yes, first is the simple human factor. Politicians are no saints; they should not be idolized. Their first inclination (besides seeking to get re-elected), is to look out for number one. In the United States, members of Congress have the best fail-safe retirement package and they yearly vote themselves a raise regardless of their performance. Even with such benefits within the law and a substantial salary, many still turn to fraud and corruption. Human nature rarely becomes more humble or more generous when it gains power. If this happens where there is greater transparency with many more checks and balances, then you can be sure that you will find the same and much more in Taiwan, a country that desperately needs the necessary sunshine laws to combat corruption. Why Taiwan lacks these needed sunshine laws is historical and where our search begins.

Cultural? All cultures have backdrops that facilitate perpetuating power and personal gain. In western countries, the rulers had promoted a belief in the "divine right" of kings to justify their hold on power. In Taiwan, Confucianism supports those in power by its system of unchanging hierarchical roles of superiors to subordinates and by promoting unquestioning trust in the benevolence of those in the superior role. This also creates a culture that craves an imagined cult figure at the top. To preserve such a fantasy, the crimes of past cult figures like Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Tse-tung must be glossed over. The unchanging character of the roles adds the additional element that those in power can feel they not only deserve privilege but are entitled to it for life. All this is anti-thetical to a democracy where people can be voted out of their roles in a second when they fail in accountability.

The result of a culture and society with a sense of fixed and assigned roles, leads to an individual's achievement, advancement and value becoming based more on relationships than performance. Life is not what you know, but who you know. Guanxi takes precedence over all. Who do you know in the top roles of the food chain? Where is your guanxi? This becomes the established order of things; and those who profit and have worked the system don't like it when someone questions or moves their cheese.

With guanxi comes the red envelope. Payment is expected for favors, attention and assistance. Extra help in school, the teacher gets a red envelope. Special attention in a hospital, the doctor gets a red envelope. Despite changes, everyone has experienced this red envelope system at some point in his/her past life. If this pervades at these lower levels of society, it will surely be present in the upper elements of politics. Add this to the previously discussed problems of human nature and you have a ready recipe for abuse. This brings us to the actual history of how the current political gravy train entered Taiwan.

In the late 1940s, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) retreated to Taiwan from China bringing with it all its political baggage. Though China was lost because of unbridled corruption; unfortunately that same system was transplanted to Taiwan. Mao had upset the KMT balance, challenged their hierarchy and sent them packing. Despite this, the KMT still thought that they were culturally superior and belonged at the top of the Chinese hierarchy; so began Taiwan's suffering.

The KMT did not want democracy. They added to the problems of human nature and culture by introducing another unchanging element, the one-party state replete with a megalomaniac leader bent on creating a cult image. No one needs to be told how Chiang peppered the country with his statues and used martial law to force all subjects to his rule. Taiwan had the longest stretch of martial law (till 1987) in world history.

To preserve this hierarchical one-party state system, rewards, pay-offs and punishments were placed at each and every level and now the search intensifies. The schools were controlled to maintain the propagandized version of KMT history; all printing was tightly monitored so no questionable or contrary ideas could be published. Transparency was not allowed and anyone who questioned it was either jailed or eliminated. Taiwan is still suffering from the effects of this system, primarily in the rewards of the gravy train.

Loyalty to the system was bought up and down the hierarchy. One of the greatest abuses that had to be overcome in the struggle for democracy was the KMT iron rice bowl Legislative and National Assembly seats finally eliminated in 1992 and then only after the Wild Lily Protest. Can you imagine anyone elected in 1947 claiming the privilege to hold office for a half a century or till death without having to run again? Can you imagine anyone who came in 2nd or 3rd in the 1947 election in China being given the privilege to replace the incumbent member in Taiwan upon his death? That is guanxi and gravy train to the extreme. This is only the tip of the ice berg in Taiwan's politics. Downstream were the special and discretionary funds for each office that still exist today, a veritable tribute system of treasure for all politicians. Add to this the under the table abuses in military purchases, infrastructure projects etc. and you begin to see the historical reality. When you grasp that you begin to see how extensive the pay-off system is and how easy it is to accumulate millions of US$ dollars for many in the gravy train to transfer overseas.

The gravy train extends beyond the political. Two classic examples of bought loyalty are Taiwan's teachers and military. Their unquestioning loyalty came at the price of tax-exempt status. This guaranteed propagandized education and military support. Only now as the country buckles under this large economic burden are these tax-exempt privileges finally being coughed up.

That is the tip of the iceberg of the moneyed political gravy train. Enter now Chen Shui-bian and the blind hatred some KMT have for him. To understand this, think of how some hard core Republicans in the USA unswervingly hate Bill Clinton and you will have a sense of KMT hatred for Chen. Why? The reasons are varied and numerous but relate to culture and history. Chen challenged and exposed the anti-democratic nature of the KMT one-party state in the trials of the Kaohsiung Incident. With a power split in the KMT, Chen became the first DPP mayor of Taipei. And finally by the same way he had the audacity to take the presidency from the KMT.

Chen upset the established order of KMT superiority, privilege, and sense of entitlement. He did this not as a rival KMT aspirant to the throne but as a lowly farm-born DPP Taiwanese from outside the system. It was Mao re-visited once more.

To add insult to injury, Chen now used the system the KMT had set up, and profited highly from it. Chen is guilty, guilty of using what the KMT created. Caught between their hatred for Chen and the risk of exposing the reality of their system, the KMT has taken the risk that the public will be blind to that greater reality.

A prediction is in order. After all of the hullabaloo over laundered money, corruption etc. the only thing that Chen Shui-bian will be found guilty of is the transferring undeclared income and have to pay taxes on it. James Soong, a breakaway KMT was found guilty of the same several times. His fault was that he would not wait his turn in the system and so he was exposed. He paid the minimal taxes and walks the streets.

To be sure, the KMT will try to milk the corruption accusations and shame for all they are worth, but in the end, the KMT system will ironically protect Chen. This is not laundered money, this is system money.

Does anyone recall the years of scandal accusations and rantings of Chiu Yi over Chen's wife and the famed Sogo Coupon Caper? The end result was that those Sogo Coupons were all part of the red envelope system, verdict not guilty. Now Chen is even trying to escape the taxes part as Ma Ying-jeou did, but so far he does not have a secretary to take the fall for him.

There are nave waifs who say that Taiwan has changed, that was the old KMT etc. but that is nonsense; parts of the system are gone, but the core remains. Another Wild Lily movement is needed against the system and hard cultural and historical questions must be asked.

Who created the gravy train system?--the KMT.

Who profited most over the years by this system?--the KMT and later the DPP.

Who hopes that exposing Chen distracts from the system?--the KMT.

Who has always controlled the Legislative Yuan and preserved the system?--the KMT.

Who still blocks sunshine bills with teeth passing?--the KMT.

Who sells their vote for a mere NT$5,000 or less and preserves the system?--The Public.

And finally the most difficult question of all to face. Which party still holds the stolen state assets that make the playing field of Taiwan's democracy uneven?--The KMT.

Is this one-sided? For those with the courage to face it, the reality of Taiwan's history is and has always been one-sided. The sons still profit by the sins of their fathers. True, human nature will never change. Culture, however, can be adjusted and history, history can be revoked. Is there a Wild Lily movement out there willing to take all this on?