A former president jailed for graft, a retired head of military police indicted for embezzlement, three top judges accused of taking bribes — the list goes on. Taiwan has a problem with corruption.
At stake, two decades after Taiwan emerged from authoritarian rule, is Taiwan’s reputation as a viable democracy, with observers warning clean government is no longer taken for granted.
“Social values are distorted to the extent that being clean has come to count as a plus for a civil servant rather than a basic requirement,” said George Tsai (蔡瑋), a political scientist at Chinese Culture University in Taipei.
Latest in the new was the resignation of Judicial Yuan president Lai In-jaw (賴英照) last month amid a public outcry over a bribery scandal involving three Taiwan High Court judges and a prosecutor and civilian law enforcers have been caught on video frequenting a venue run by gangsters.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has promised to set up a special government body charged with monitoring and curbing corruption, saying that: “We will not allow a handful of corrupted officials to humiliate all civil servants and damage the government’s image.”
Tackling the problem is important not just in its own right, but also if Taiwan is to be taken seriously as evidence that a Chinese society can develop a healthy democracy, analysts said.
“Corruption in Taiwan is at a critical junction and the government and people have to do more,” said Sonny Lo (盧兆興), an expert on corruption at Canada’s University of Waterloo. “Otherwise, politically how can Taiwan say to the world that its democracy should be followed by others, especially China.”
Commentators on China have jumped on the corruption in Taiwan, using it as an argument against adopting democracy.
“Has Taiwan democracy solved the corruption problem? No, and [former president] Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) is the best proof of that,” a blogger wrote earlier this year on Sina.com Web site.
To be sure, China itself has enormous problems with corruption, leading some analysts to argue that an age-old culture favoring guanxi (關係) — personal networks — is to blame.
“The major problem is that guanxi as a cultural phenomenon has degenerated into a political tool for the corrupt elite to benefit themselves,” Lo said. “But if we look at Singapore and Hong Kong, they prove that even without Western-style democracy Asian regimes can establish good governance.”
Some look back at the period before democratization — when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) ruled unchecked by any major opposition — as a time of better government ethics. However, even back then corruption occurred locally as the KMT ceded control over economic spoils, for example in public transport, to native elites, said Christian Gobel, an expert on Taiwan at Sweden’s Lund University.
This ensured the support of these elites, which was crucial for the KMT’s attempts to make up for its weakness in grassroots politics, and it also gave the party more clout over the local power holders.
“If local elites challenged the KMT, they would be hauled before court on corruption charges,” Gobel said.
Democratization has allowed graft to move to the center of the political system, partly because politicians now have to compete for office, and the temptation to buy votes can prove irresistible. Even so, the head of Transparency International’s Taiwan chapter Chilik Yu (余致力) believes that neither cultural nor political factors predetermine if a society will be more or less prone to corruption.
“Democracy does not necessarily or automatically breed clean government,” he said.
“Democracy doesn’t make a country worse — I want to make that clear — but when we observe Taiwan’s development, what we get in terms of government integrity is an unhappy result,” he said.
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