Taiwan: Who’s Afraid of an Independent Commission against Corruption?

Giving their Respects: Lee Teng-hui arrives at TSU Fundraising Dinner, July 1, 2011

TSU Fundraising Dinner, July 1 (click picture)

How far would president Ma Ying-jeou and the ruling KMT go to win the legislative and presidential elections in January? The question seems to be hanging over the island – be it since the trial of Ma’s predecessor Chen Shui-bian, be it since last Thursday, when the only other  (surviving) previous president, Lee Teng-hui, was indicted. I’m not sure that I would have voted for Ma in 2008, if eligible, and I am  quite sure that I wouldn’t vote for him next year – but you might think of certain policies (not Chen’s trial or Lee’s indictment – I’m leaving these out for the moment, trying to think of them as mere judicial matters) as wrong, and still respect the politician himself.

What’s more, to devise an intelligible foreign policy that would best serve Taiwan’s national interest, given the pressure Taiwan is facing from China – and from China’s political accomplices (ASEAN, the European Union, and to quite a degree even the United States) – is a difficult task. To devise one that would really satisfy most of those who care about foreign affairs may actually be impossible.

No wonder that from the beginning, Ma focused on domestic policies, and within that area, on economic policies. To many voters, his approach must have come across as a refreshing contrast to his (DPP) predecessors excessive ideologisation of Taiwanese politics, where the correct naming of the postal office had – or that’s how it could appear –  become more important than the latest unemployment rates.

In terms of growth, the Ma administration’s achievements leave nothing to be desired. But satisfaction with its effect on most of the populace appears to be flagging. And much of the growth was generated by intensifying trade and investment relations with China – and that’s an uneasy relationship, when it comes to sovereignty issues. China’s ultimate goal is to “unite China”, and it thinks of Taiwan as its territory. Nanfang Shuo, who may count as a rather independent observer of Taiwanese politics (and certainly not a vitriolic commenter at that), had no friendly words for China-generated growth, either, in May this year.

A Global Views Survey Research Center (GVSRC) poll of June 20th suggests that compared to one month earlier, 40.8 per cent of the respondents trust Ma Ying-jeou (-1.2 per cent), while 39.6 per cent do not (-3.3 per cent). As both numbers have gone down, there seem to be more people than in May who can’t make up their mind.

34.3 per cent approve of Ma’s performance (+0.4 per cent), while 50.8 per cent (-3.5 per cent) disapprove. The support rate has been going up for Ma Ying-jeou (from 38.9 to 42.2 per cent), and down for his challenger Tsai Ing-wen (from 38.6 to 36.3 per cent). A United Daily News (UDN) poll in April had shown 37 per cent support for Tsai, and 36 per cent for Ma.

Numbers like these don’t spell doom for the incumbent. But they are surprisingly dull, given recent economic growth in Taiwan.

Trust in the country’s institutions – or the lack of it -, especially in the judiciary, seems to have inspired the president a year ago. However, when he introduced the idea of an anti-corruption commission on July 20 last year, to be working under the ministry of justice (MoJ), the KMT-leaning China Post, according to an Asia Times article, argued that such a commission would be a “toothless tiger”. Contrary to Hong Kong’s Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) or Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), a Taiwanese commission couldn’t build on a “fear factor” in Taiwan’s government bodies, because parliament, i. e. the Legislative Yuan, was the real monitor of government practice. Partisanship would hinder effective action against corrupt members of the judiciary.

But if partisanship is the problem, the China Post should have worried much more about the KMT, than about the DPP. Bickering within the Legislative Yuan aside, the KMT had a (albeit narrow at times) majority there, even during the eight years of Chen Shui-bian‘s presidency. And reportedly, it made use of it by blocking DPP plans to build an anti-corruption commission with what might be translated as “specific” or “dedicated”  responsibilities (专责的廉政单位). I’m not really in a position to judge the sincerity in that DPP approach, but it is frequently forgotten that Taiwan’s bureaucracies had continued to be KMT-dominated, as demonstrated in a standoff between then minister of justice Chen Ding-nan (DPP) and the Ministry’s Investigation Bureau (MJIB), in 2000. Under these circumstances, it is easy to believe that the DPP had – and still has – a more genuine interest in a truly independent commission against corruption, than the KMT.

Did the KMT push Lee Teng-hui‘s indictment? Many Taiwanese – and foreigners – seem to believe that. I have my doubts. Many of those who belonged to Lee’s classical constituency in 1996 wouldn’t actually care if their president embezzled money, or if he didn’t. It is not unusual among Taiwanese people to shrug, worldly-wisely, and to say something like “let’s be realists”, and “as long as things in general are fine…”  (which is a pretty universal prespective in China, too). But that’s exactly why I believe Lee’s indictment will create more problems than opportunities for president Ma’s election campaign. Any “realist”, tolerant of corruption as he frequently is, will resent the idea that Lee – more often perceived to be a dignified 君子 or 閣下 than Chen Shui-bian, for example – is going to face trial, in his late eighties. If the “realists” don’t believe that the SID acted independently in Lee’s case, it could break Ma’s, rather than Lee’s neck. The “realists”  may not believe that Ma or his proxies respected the judiciary’s independence to the extent Ma claims they did.

In the end, public trust in the judiciary’s independence should be in the interest of the DPP and the KMT alike.


» Lee might Face Fresh Indictment, Focus Taiwan, July 2, 2011


7 Responses to “Taiwan: Who’s Afraid of an Independent Commission against Corruption?”

  1. I wonder if making speeches like this is the wise thing for Ma to be doing. (http://taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2011/07/03/2003507276). It is possible that Ma is not behind the indictment of Lee. I will grant you that. However, if Ma is not behind it, he is doing a very poor job of convincing people that he is not. In fact, based on the above speech, Ma almost sounds as though he aims to emphasize his “clean” credentials in this race and is happy to use the Lee case to do it.

    On a separate but related note, from all of the stories I have breezed through about the KMT’s nomination of Ma at the party congress, Ma seems to have turned away somewhat from his previous attempt to appear as though he understood the pain of the average Taiwanese. The message so far has almost entirely been about the supposed irresponsibility of Green politicians and the real possibility that relations with Beijing would worsen if Tsai won the presidency. Blue unity is also important, although it seems as though Soong is serious about upsetting the legislative apple cart.

    This is where Tsai needs to step in and show how she is different. There is significant room for her and the DPP to take the discourse about Taiwan’s future to a new level, as long as they can avoid being distracted or divided by the Lee case. In the end, if anything happens to Lee, it will be a slap on the wrist. He is too old and too respected, and the crime, if it truly exists, hardly outweighs his contribution to Taiwanese society. I am confident most people will recognize this. Yet, the charges could be a useful distraction. The news that a second indictment is in the works makes me believe that the motivation really is distraction. Remember how indictments of Chen were handled? Every time it seemed as if the news of Chen was dying down, we would be treated to yet another indictment, then the blue media would have a field day for another month or two.

    In short, whether Ma is the puppeteer or a behind-the-curtain observer who sees the strings, there is no reason to believe that Ma is not seeking to capitalize on the Lee case. The larger question is just how beneficial this will be for him in the end. Sensationalism only works when an audience has an appetite for sensationalism.


  2. As you said, the Lee indictment will only be useful if the public has an appetite for sensationalism. And if Lee Teng-hui should indeed be found guilty, more questions will come up – one about if he actually had a fair trial, and one about the pre-democratic practice in the zongtongfu in general. How did Chiang Ching-kuo or Chiang Kai-shek handle the fund in question, or similar budgets? How involved was Ma,Ying-jeou as Chiang Ching-kuo’s First-Bureau deputy director? And if such old issues are no longer legally relevant – how about opening the records for historians?
    The problem is that when it comes to the top-level, only people who oppose the KMT have much to fear from its judiciary. That, too, would support the suspicion that the judiciary is indeed being used as a tool. One can’t say that Taiwan is a “mature” democracy yet. Sri Lanka isn’t, either (not meant in a derogatory way – but democracy without rule of law won’t last).

    A lot will depend on public awareness. Taiwan’s democracy has come a long way, but it’s still a long way to go before there can be trust in the judiciary. And in a way, it seems to me that I have always hoped that they would indict Lee. Despite being an “oppositional” now, he is so deeply rooted in the KMT’s history that the indictment should lead to more questions than the KMT will wish to answer. Maybe these questions will rise, and linger.

    Meantime, the DPP should keep bread-and-butter issues in mind during the election campaign. I think it’s good that Tsai ran for mayoral office before becoming a presidential candidate. The city-level provides lots of info concerning “the people’s livelihood”.

    The Taipei Times article you linked to in your comment mentions that Lien Chan was overseas, and therefore didn’t attend the KMT’s national congress. Is that routine, or would you think that is there something to read into it?


  3. Regarding LIen, I don’t know if I am the most informed one to respond to your question. I only know what the TT and LT were reporting about tensions between Lien-Wu(Po-hsiung)-Soong and Ma. It seems that if Wu is willing to publicly state that a lot of KMT people are unhappy and Soong is willing to run candidates in the LY races, then it would not be surprising if there were more to Lien’s absence besides the inconvenience in returning to Taiwan. Ma’s nomination was clearly not important enough for him to attend.


  4. I’ve just tried to answer my remaining questions, Tommy. But as to where the honorary chairman was spending his time, I’ve found no answer, either.



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