Corrupt with a capital ‘C’
Recently, the Lin Yi-shih (林益世) corruption investigation has been getting a lot of coverage from the media and generating a large amount of commentary on social media platforms. I very much doubt that the media will fixate on Lin’s self-confessed corruption for as long as they obsessed about former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) alleged corruption, mainly because the latter involved a former leader of a party that a majority of Taiwan’s politically biased media openly campaign against in every major election.
Another reason this scandal will soon lose the public’s interest is that the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office Special Investigation Division (SID) seems to be trying its hardest to limit the scope of its investigation. In contrast, when dealing with the Chen case, the agency not only publicly declared it would find Chen guilty at the onset of its investigation, but seemed happy to regularly leak rumors and allegations during the course of the proceedings, feeding the media frenzy and utterly undermining the concept of innocent until proven guilty. In essence, it was a public trial.
In Lin’s case, he fell on his sword quickly so as to limit the fallout impacting the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). The SID wants the public to believe that the corruption was confined to Lin and his immediate family. The implausible narrative it is putting forward is that Lin was “a bad apple.” An apple personally hand-picked by Ma and put in a very powerful government position, but a “lone gunman” nevertheless.
What is more interesting about this and other corruption cases in Taiwan is how they afford many people the opportunity to self-righteously moan about opportunistic politicians using their power to personally enrich themselves by breaching public service ethics and the public’s trust. Yet it has long seemed to me that corruption is an important part of Taiwanese and Chinese culture, the proverbial grease on the cogs of communication and business. It is a big part of many cultures in the world (Italy, Russia, the US, Japan and the UK, to mention but a few) but in Taiwan it seems more specifically tied to guanxi and the state of the rule of law.
I would characterize corruption in Taiwan as having two variants: “big C” and “little c.” Lin’s case is typical of the former, as it involved substantial sums of money, large-scale industrial contracts and misuse of government power and influence. As such, it gets special treatment in the media. However, “little c” corruption has become so mundane and normalized that it is barely noticed and almost everyone engages in it from time to time. It can be by running the red light when one is in a rush, it is the giving of a small red envelope to sustain or improve a relationship, it is buying votes or ballot rigging at the township level, it is hospital managers taking a cut from a pharmaceutical deal and it is institutions such as schools and universities ignoring the law for their own convenience. Both types of corruption exist because a majority of people regard the law as a general guideline rather than a red line they should not cross and because there is a general belief that working strictly according to the law is both inconvenient and commercially disadvantageous.
There are many complex roots to this public morality, but one might start by looking at the influence of the KMT-state dictatorship, and its literally criminal justice system, or the public’s contempt for politicians, political and judicial institutions, and its subsequent laissez-faire attitude to abiding by the law. Lin’s corruption should come as no surprise to anyone. What should surprise people is that their president would think it possible the public might believe his claim to want to stamp out corruption.
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