Earlier this month, Berlin-based Transparency International (TI) released its Global Corruption Barometer (GCB), an international survey on corruption, in which Taiwan ranked pretty far down among a total of 107 nations and territories. In East Asia, we fared better only than Cambodia. The reason for the low ranking was that, according to the survey, 35 percent of respondents in Taiwan answered that they personally, or a member of their family, had paid a bribe to a judicial institution over the past year.
This report ruffled quite a few feathers in Taiwan, with officials having the fiercest reaction and demanding both a clarification and an apology from TI. In latest developments, TI said that it regretted any offense caused, but insisted that its findings were correct, adding that if Taiwan felt it necessary, it could always conduct its own study, and that TI would consider holding a joint press conference to further explain their findings.
Naturally, the opposition were delighted with the report’s findings, and had a field day with them in the print and electronic media for the best part of a week. However, even Transparency International Chinese Taipei (TICT), the Taiwan-based chapter of TI, which the government has not always found too palatable, had serious concerns about these findings, and sent several enquiries to its Berlin headquarters as to how exactly the survey had been conducted.
TICT has yet to receive a clear answer on this: Berlin said that it commissioned the WIN/Gallup International Association to carry out the work, and they sub-contracted the work out to a China-based agency called WisdomAsia, although WisdomAsia has not admitted to having taken on the case. Berlin then said that it had commissioned another Chinese market research agency, which conducted an online poll, although it has been less than forthcoming on the details of that poll.
Not many people in Taiwan will be impressed with their government’s record on corruption, especially given the landmark corruption cases that have erupted since the blue camp wrested back power following the corruption scandals surrounding former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). These cases include corruption scandals involving former Nantou County Commissioner Lee Chao-ching (李朝卿), former Cabinet secretary-general Lin Yi-shih (林益世), and former Taipei City councilor Lai Su-ju (賴素如).
Nevertheless, few would believe that the government in Taiwan is, in East Asia, less corrupt only than Cambodia’s, and thus falling behind Philippines, Indonesia and even China. In fact, in the annual Corruption Perception Index released in early December each year, and also compiled by TI, Taiwan has consistently ranked between 30 and 40 among over 170 countries and territories, and, in Asia, being behind only Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan, and leading all the other Asian countries, South Korea included.
Last year, for example, Taiwan ranked 37th, in front of South Korea in 45th place, Malaysia in 54th place, China in 80th place and Thailand, Philippines and Russia, which ranked 88, 105 and 133 respectively. These results are consistent with the general impression of Taiwan. Now, this global corruption trend report seems to turn this impression on its head, without providing an explanation that anyone finds acceptable, so of course people are asking questions.
There are two possibilities that could explain the results. First, the China-based agency was unfamiliar with Taiwan, so the survey findings were seriously flawed, and there was no effort to deal with potential problems at the time. The second possibility is more serious — in TI’s decision to use an online survey.
Respondents to online surveys tend to be from a certain group of Internet users, with their own specific traits which introduce systemic survey bias. While true that these surveys help keep costs to a minimum, they are not used in very stringent studies. TICT should now conduct a more stringent survey of its own so that findings closer to the true situation can be obtained.
That said, even if Taiwan’s performance turns out to be better than the findings published with this report, the government departments concerned should still resolve to clear up the corruption that is found in the customs, the judiciary and the tax authorities and in the construction sector, and to reflect upon why there has been no discernible fall in corruption since the establishment of the Agency Against Corruption under the Ministry of Justice.
It is worth noting that even countries less developed than Taiwan, such as Uruguay and Chile, are ranked under 20 and that even Africa’s Botswana is above Taiwan. So we cannot say that combating corruption is an impossible task.
Tu Jenn-hwa is director of the Commerce Development Research Institute’s business development and policy research department.
Translated by Paul Cooper