Any long-term observer of Taiwan’s political scene can’t help but feel that many local politicians and members of the elite feel that the right to be corrupt is inalienable. Questions of ideology or political alignment seem to have no bearing on the integrity (or lack thereof) of a public figure. Green or blue, it doesn’t matter — politicians of all shades are fond of black gold.
So the cynical observer watches as the president’s son-in-law, Chao Chien-ming, is detained for insider training, and he or she feels no shock. Instead, the cynical observer can’t help feel a morbid sense that his or her pessimistic beliefs about human nature are justified.
Politicians are ethically challenged the world over. But in Taiwan, there is a culture of corruption and unthinkingly amoral behavior that is surely the sign of a much deeper malaise. The political elite of this country has an almost inhuman ability to swiftly gravitate from idealistic pomposity to gluttonous materialism and dissolute expediency. Today’s crusaders may well be tomorrow’s convicts.
It may be that this is the indelible residue of nearly six decades of authoritarian rule. During the years since the death of dictator Chiang Kai-shek, Taiwan has followed a tumultuous path toward democracy. The kingmakers of a decade ago must now beg to get someone to listen to them. The muzzled dissidents of yesteryear now appear daily on cable television.
All of this progress toward democracy was not accomplished without sacrifices, without compromise. And if there is one thing that the political elite of Taiwan is exceptional at, it is compromise: Compromising its ideals, compromising its integrity and compromising itself. Remember, the diehard pan-blue of today was probably demonstrating for independence when he or she was younger; the pan-green veteran of today was probably a member of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) just a decade ago.
So no one should be surprised when a public figure — or his or her family members — goes astray. It will take time to purge this young democracy of the tainted elite that now troubles it.
The bright side is that at least Taiwan is doing exactly that. It was not so long ago that no one would have dared to go after Chao because of his close relationship to the head of state. Fifteen years ago, if someone tried probing into this matter, he would likely have ended up face down in a river, like navy Captain Yin Ching-feng, who tried to expose corruption involved in the Lafayette-class frigate purchase.
Every corruption scandal invariably turns into fodder for the clamoring throng in the Legislative Yuan, and gives the television news crews something to do except blink and try to look pretty in front of a car crash. So the cliche that “it is an ill wind that blows no one any good” holds true.
Nevertheless, one hopes that Taiwan will gain more from this incident than simply another round of partisan bloodsport. A fundamental question that all of the talk show hosts and legislators should be asking is how to prevent the rich and the powerful in the political establishment from acting unscrupulously.
This is not accomplished by calling for President Chen Shui-bian to resign because of what his son-in-law did. It is ridiculous. Why hold Chen responsible for the actions of another individual? Shall we begin to execute the parents of murderers as well? Throw the children of spouse abusers in jail?