China and Taiwan: Two Chens face two systems

High-level criminal charges on both sides of the Taiwan Strait illustrate how the two countries manage corruption.

As recent corruption scandals have ensnared top politicians on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, the differences between democratically ruled Taiwan's approach to corruption and mainland China's have been on graphic display in "the tale of two Chens."

In Taiwan, allegations in the media that President Chen Shui-Bian had misappropriated money from a special presidential fund led to huge protest demonstrations and an investigation by prosecutors that has seen the island's first lady indicted for embezzlement.

But inside Beijing's corridors of power, it is the fear of such public outcry and unrest that has driven official anti-graft campaigns.

Rumors that Shanghai's provincial Communist Party Secretary Chen Liangyu was mixed up in shady business were confirmed only after Party investigators sent from Beijing wound up their secret work last September, and Mr. Chen was summarily dismissed.

The most senior Chinese official to be sacked for corruption in 11 years, Chen reportedly misused $400 million from Shanghai's pension fund, but he has not yet been charged with any crime.

"In China it's a top-down process," says Andrew Yang, who heads the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a Taiwanese think tank. "Here the anticorruption campaign has been bottom-up."

It has been messy, too, with indictments not only for the Taiwanese president's wife but also for his son-in-law, two of his top aides, and two cabinet ministers. Prosecutors said they had enough evidence to indict Mr. Chen himself, but he is protected by presidential immunity.

The official press in mainland China clearly took pleasure in covering Taipei's scandal. But clean-government campaigners in Taipei are not embarrassed, pointing instead to the prosecutor's courage in indicting members of the first family.

"People say this is a disgrace for Taiwan's democracy, but in a few years we may say that this is when Taiwanese democracy began to mature," says Emile Sheng, an aide to Shih Ming-deh, a former chairman of Chen's Democratic Progressive Party.

The way prosecutors pursued evidence against some of the most important people in Taiwan "was very educational," says Dr. Yang. "People have learned how to respect due process, and it has taught politicians a very precious lesson," he argues. "If you want to move on in your career, you have to face accountability."

The lessons of the Shanghai Chen case are less clear on the mainland, where corruption is systemic, according to Ren Jianmin, deputy director of the Anti-Corruption Studies Unit at Beijing's Tsinghua University.

"There is no guarantee that the new official appointed to replace Chen Liangyu will not fall into the same habits," warns Professor Ren, nor is there any certainty that if he did, he would be punished.

Corruption is such a grave problem in China – from the village level to the Communist Party Politburo – that it is no longer a taboo subject. Ren's department is one of nearly a dozen such study groups around the country, advising party leaders on how to root out corrupt practices.

The problem, Ren says, is that only the biggest cases are pursued. Since party officials at all levels enjoy the protection of somebody at a higher level, any investigation of one man is seen as an attack on his patron, who can generally block the initiative.

That means that corruption investigations are also inevitably political weapons, wielded to destroy opponents. Suspicions about Chen Liangyu first surfaced three years ago, when President Hu Jintao apparently did not feel powerful enough to launch an open attack on a protégé of former President Jiang Zemin.

"Now he does have the power," says Ren, who believes the Chen case presages political reform driven by the top party leaders.

Other analysts are less optimistic. "Trying to use the party's supreme power to control corruption in the party is like trying to lift yourself up by your hair," says Li Datong, former editor of a Communist Party publication, who was fired earlier this year for publishing a controversial article. Only a separation of powers and an independent judiciary can tackle the problem, Mr. Li says, though he expects neither development soon.

Taiwan's experience offers a salutary lesson, suggests Yang. It was the Kuomintang dictatorship's reputation for corruption that largely led to its downfall, he points out, and after nearly 50 years as the sole legal party, it was obliged to gradually liberalize Taiwan's political system.

"The Communist Party will inevitably have to follow the Kuomintang's steps," predicts Yang. "They are fully aware that a one-party system involved in corruption will topple the regime eventually. They witnessed the Kuomintang fall."

There are no signs yet, however, that Beijing is ready to countenance democratic reforms. More likely in the shorter term are changes to make investigative organs less dependent on their immediate political superiors, suggests Ren.

In Taiwan, meanwhile, where the president's wife is due to go on trial later this month, it is unclear how the case will go, and whether judges would dare to find her guilty.

Both government officials and opposition figures express doubts about the courts' independence from politicians, but this, they say, is the judges' opportunity to prove their critics wrong.

"Whenever the judiciary has faced people with power, it has bowed to the crown," says Mr. Shih. "But this is the first time a member of the first family has been prosecuted. Is this a one-off, or the beginning of something that will become normal?

"If I live to see an independent judiciary in Taiwan," he laughs, "I will go to my grave happy."

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