Former Cabinet secretary-general Lin Yi-shih (林益世) reportedly admitted to accepting NT$63 million (US$2.11 million) in bribes from Ti Yung Co, a metal-recycling company. This was news that shocked the political world. However, for the average person, such scandals are not all that surprising and are almost something to be expected because they are but a reflection of the darker side of Taiwan’s political and economic culture.
There is a popular Chinese saying that, “If you have guanxi (關係, connections) you will be okay, but if you don’t, then you have problems.” Having guanxi and using it to your advantage to get around normal avenues for doing things is part of everyday life in Chinese societies around the world — and Taiwan is no exception.
I live in Hualien and often have to book a train ticket to Taipei and back. Each time I need a ticket, I have to get up early to book tickets online the morning of the trip and even this does not work every time. However, there are always quite a few people that always manage to get a ticket anytime they want by making one simple phone call. When people are employing such methods to obtain a train ticket, is it any wonder they do the same thing when it comes to industries involving tens of billions of New Taiwan dollars?
To put it simply, when there is something to be gained, people will use their guanxi to get it. Supply and demand are what make guanxi possible. Those in business are fond of money and politicians have power. Taiwan’s guanxi culture is created when these two spheres mix and interests and benefits are exchanged.
Therefore, nobody was really surprised when Lin was accused of corruption, and they most probably think that this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to corruption involving government officials and businesses.
It is a well-known fact that elections are hugely expensive affairs. It is often said that it takes millions to get elected to a city or county council and tens of millions to get elected to the legislature. Stories of people who spend hundreds of billions on elections also abound. If that is what it takes to get elected, then who on earth can afford it, unless they are backed by massive family wealth? As a result, politicians often look to wealthy businesspeople for support. After they get elected, they are naturally happy to speak up for their business interests. Alternatively, they can use the power vested in them as public representatives to apply pressure or solicit bribes to cover their election costs.
Lin was elected as a legislator four times and after losing in the Kaohsiung County commissioner elections in 2005 and in the legislative elections this year, one can imagine he must have needed quite a bit of funding.
The whole Lin incident can be explained as a product of a culture that has developed for a long time between political and business circles, and it is therefore unsurprising. However, this is also what makes it scary and dangerous.
Taiwan has often been criticized as being one of the world’s ugliest and dirtiest nations — a key reason being Taiwanese are used to how things are and the government ignores things like illegally parked cars and hawker stands set up where they are not allowed to. If everyone is used to these connections between government and business, then this country is well beyond help. Given its domestic situation, how can Taiwan even begin to talk about boosting its international competitiveness or about catching up with Singapore or South Korea?
Hsu Yu-fang is an associate professor and chairman of Sinophone literature at National Dong Hwa University.
Translated by Drew Cameron
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