A problem of epic proportions often needs a hero, or at least someone who resembles one. For Taiwan, that problem is systemic corruption, and the man to solve it - at least in the public's eyes - is Minister of Justice Chen Ding-nan.
Mr. Chen heads up an aggressive new campaign by Taiwan's three-month-old government to clean up the legacy of the Kuomintang (KMT), which controlled the island for more than 50 years until its presidential candidate was defeated in elections this past March.
Many consider Chen to be a modern-day version of Song dynasty folktale hero Judge Bao; known for his uprightness and ability to dish out swift justice without impunity.
The comparison follows Chen wherever he goes. Earlier this week, a group of supporters stood outside the entrance to the Justice Ministry, cheering him on as he struggled to squeeze into his black government sedan.
Brandishing a sword and helmet made of cardboard and tinfoil, some two-dozen middle-aged men and women, in white Izod shirts and baseball caps, handed Chen the makeshift weapon, on which was inscribed: "The sword to wipe out black gold" - a reference to Taiwan's own brand of money-and-gangster politics.
As he's whisked through the capital in the leather-upholstered car, Chen calls the comparison to a thousand-year-old legend "too feudal." Judge Bao had both the "power of lawmaker and law enforcer," Chen adds. "How would that work in a democratic country? This is not an individualistic thing."
But Chen has plenty of deputies working for the cause. Before the crackdown really picked up momentum two weeks ago, 17 chief prosecutors were re-assigned, in an effort to circumvent a common occurrence during Kuomintang crackdowns: suspects being informed before authorities arrived. For the first time, Taiwan's prosecutors are aggressively pursuing public officials suspected of wrongdoing. In the past, KMT crackdowns focused more on gangsters because the political cost of pursuing their own was too high.
Over the past decade, Taiwan's democratic transformation has set it apart from many other Asian countries. After the 1949 defeat by the Communists in China, the Nationalists (who later became the Kuomintang) fled to Taiwan. Taiwan has since peacefully moved from authoritarian rule to direct democratic elections, to its most recent milestone, the peaceful transfer of power to the opposition this past spring.
But while this dramatic transformation has brought Taiwan praise, the process of democratization has long been overshadowed by corruption. Under former President Lee Teng-hui, Taiwanese gained the right to elect their president. But Mr. Lee, a native Taiwanese in a party mostly made up of mainlanders (those with roots in China), had to struggle to maintain his power base. Problems like vote buying, stock manipulation, bid-rigging, and bribery expanded in Taiwan. Justice Ministry statistics show that more than 200 public representatives in Taiwan have prior criminal records.
Enter Chen and his network of prosecutors, working from new centers across Taiwan specifically established for the anti-black-gold campaign. In the most high-profile cases, two lawmakers have already been indicted; their alleged crimes involve share manipulation, kickbacks, and a land scam. Offices of two other KMT legislators have been searched for evidence of other crimes. On Friday, prosecutors in the southern city of Tainan issued an indictment against the mayor for a coverup of bribes allegedly accepted by subordinates in a reconstruction project. The mayor is not KMT, but a member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which won in the presidential elections.
President Chen Shui-bian has also personally reopened the investigation into a high-profile military corruption scandal, the 1993 murder of a naval captain. It is believed by many that the officer's death was connected to possible bribes involving Taiwan's purchase of six Lafayette frigates from France for $2.7 billion. As a member of the legislature's defense committee in the early '90s, Chen Shui-bian pursued the case diligently. He now says that Yin's death and the corruption surrounding it may have helped his candidacy. "Perhaps it was ... Yin Ching-feng's spirit in heaven that helped me get into the presidential office," Mr. Chen said in July, when he announced a task force would be formed to investigate the matter.
Many believe that is just the case. Chen's new government, elected with 39 percent of the votes at the ballot box and facing a Kuomintang-led legislature, has been perceived as being weak since its appointment. On July 22, a botched effort to rescue four riverbed workers before they tragically drowned nearly toppled the Cabinet and forced the vice premier to step down in response.
A test for new government
In such a tenuous bind, putting energy into the crackdown on corruption is the most effective thing the new government can do to increase its popularity and show its effectiveness, says Antonio Chiang, longtime journalist and commentator.
The public really shouldn't expect much from the new government's financial, cross-strait, or public policies, but cracking down on corruption is crucial for the new government's present and future survival, Chiang says. "The only thing they can do is clean up black gold - that's the reason why they got the votes."
Pressure on the new government to push through with its efforts to crack down is building. After having just returned from an overseas trip to six of the countries that recognize Taipei over Beijing, President Chen has been talking about domestic goals. Minister of Justice Chen Ding-nan leads in public popularity polls - scoring above President Chen - a direct reflection of the public's high hopes that "Judge Pao" can enact justice.
Nobel laureate Lee Yuan-tseh is also pushing the new government from behind the scenes. Many believe that the respected scientist's support of Chen in this year's elections was the watershed event that helped President Chen win the race. Lee stood out because he felt Chen was the only candidate who could seriously address the problem of corruption, political analysts say.
If problems aren't addressed the new government could face the fate of becoming as corrupt as its predecessors and being seriously hurt in the next elections, says Chiu Hei-yuan, a sociologist at Academia Sinica, a state-funded think tank headed by Mr. Lee. Mr. Chiu, along with other DPP allied scholars, recently published a critique, 25,000 Chinese characters long, of the new government's first three months in office. Black gold is listed as one the government's crucial challenges. "If they are not successful, they [the DPP] will be dead," Chiu says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society