A recent media allegation that some Democratic Progressive Party legislators attended late-night gatherings at a Taipei guesthouse in the company of female escorts has brought to back into the limelight the existence of a "guesthouse phenomenon" in the country's political culture.
While what exact happened is under investigation, the report itself showed how the "guesthouse phenomenon" was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the questionable relations between politicians and businesspeople.
"Almost every big business group in Taiwan has its own guesthouses, which are not easily recognized as they are often located in residential areas," said Cheng Sheu-shin (
The guesthouses have a reputation as places where under-the-table deals can be done.
There have also been incidents where politicians got themselves into hot water by taking part in gatherings at guesthouses.
For example, the October 2003 Shark Fin scandal in which Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou (
The company had just acquired the city-owned Taipei Bank.
Ma was accused of attending several high-profile banquets held by the head of Fubon group and deciding afterward to undersell Taipei Bank to Fubon without going through a public bidding process.
Ma denied the allegation.
In July of that year, Taiwan Solidarity Union Legislator Liao Pen-yen (
Prosecutors dismissed the case against Liao for lack of evidence and because eyewitness statements said Liao had been too drunk at the time to be able to carry out an assault.
Cheng said that socializing with businessmen at night is so common in the legislature that quite a few male lawmakers like to joke that they become "call boys" at night.
"During the period when we were having elections for legislative speaker and deputy speaker, we had to be especially aware of escorts [at nightclubs] because they might have been sent by the rival side to spy," a legislator said on condition of anonymity.
With the rise of feminism, however, society has become less tolerant of politicians appearing at social functions in the company of escorts.
The introduction of paparazzi-style media coverage in recent years has also contributed to the move to hold such social activities in privately-owned guesthouses instead of nightclubs.
"In the past, they used to go to nightclubs," political commentator Frances Huang (
"But to gain more privacy, the practice has changed, and such gatherings are increasingly being held at private guesthouses," Huang said.
However, the practice of businessmen hiring female escorts to entertain political figures on such occasions remains unchanged, said a legislative aide who declined to be identified.
"A guesthouse is usually equipped with luxury sofas, a bar and karaoke facilities. Sometimes, the owners would have a club DJ or a piano player stationed there," the aide said.
"The cost of the escorts is paid by the businessmen," the aide said.
Huang Shu-ling (
Huang mentioned former presidential aide Ma Yung-cheng (馬永成), who resigned from the Taipei City Government in 1998 because of an escort-related incident.
"It is a vestige of traditional patriarchal society and younger political figures have copied the abuse that has existed in the world of male-dominated politics," Huang said.
Based on interviews she has conducted, Huang said many businesspeople often use private parties to build up their personal relationships with politicians, and those relationships can lead to collusion later on.
Ku Chung-hwa (顧忠華), a sociology professor at National Chengchi University, however, said that such private parties should not be judged by "moral standards" as they are part of a "subculture" that exists in other places as well.
"It's two different things -- demanding that politicians behave well in politics and morality," he said.
"Talking about morality would be too hypocritical," Ku said.
The thing that needs to be investigated, he said, is whether there are illegal exchanges behind the scenes between politicians and businesspeople.
The government needs to draft laws and regulations that are as complete as possible to help establish the norms for interactions between the world of politics and the business world, such as the "sunshine laws" and the "Legislators' Conduct Act" (
* In July 2003, Taiwan Solidarity Union Legislator Liao Pen-yen was accused of sexually assaulting a woman at a guesthouse owned by a lawyer. The case was dismissed for lack of evidence and because eyewitness statements said Liao had been too drunk at the time to carry out an assault.
* In October 2003, Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou was spotted at a guesthouse owned by the Tsai family, who also owned Fubon Financial Holding Co, which had just acquired Taipei Bank. Ma was alleged to have attended banquets held by the Fubon group and then deciding to sell the bank without going through a public bidding process. He denied the allegations.
* Former presidential aide Ma Yung-cheng resigned from the Taipei City Government in 1998 because of an escort-related incident.
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