Gangsters and politics shake hands in Taiwan
By Jens Kastner
TAIPEI - In Taiwan, the borderline between the realms of politics and organized crime has always been murky; some people say that gangsters on the island do not bribe politicians but become them. Yet a recent mass attempt by outlaws to become members of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has perplexed observers.
The pro-independence party's offices in second- and third-tier cities were each suddenly overwhelmed by hundreds of membership applications filed by reputed gangsters belonging to the Celestial Alliance gang, one of Taiwan's most notorious crime syndicates.
If no one had blown the whistle, the DPP would have by now been
infiltrated by thousands of criminal elements well trained in violent intimidation, extortion and the covert pulling of strings in economic life.
About the only thing clear so far is that the story harms the DPP. But what sinister force was at work - apparently in order to manipulate a party chairman election to be held next year in July - is everybody's guess. The vote will effectively function as the DPP primary for the 2016 presidential elections.
Some guesses are more intriguing than others.
"Eighty percent of Taiwanese gangsters run businesses in China. They hide there in droves and are controlled by mainland intelligence agencies," wrote DPP Taipei City Councilor Liang Wen-chieh on his Facebook account. "Beijing understands well the DPP's intra-party games and can relatively easily manipulate these. It's indeed hard to believe that there is no such connection."
Politics inside the dog cage
Like its peers, the Celestial Alliance gang has legal operations, such as in construction, entertainment, hotels, waste disposal and real estate, just as it has illegal ones, such as extortion, logging, prostitution, cybercrime and trafficking in persons, arms and drugs. Some members have long become elected officials on the local level, from their constituencies' perspective generally getting things done quicker and better that their righteous counterparts.
A self-admitted spiritual leader of the Celestial Alliance is former independent lawmaker Lo Fu-chu, who, as the US news wire Global Post impressively described, "infamously attacked a female legislator during a live TV broadcast and allegedly had another lawmaker abducted, blindfolded, stripped naked, locked in a dog cage and dumped on the side of a road".
Lo has been on the run since April 2012 and is believed to be hiding in mainland China. He reportedly has hotel and entertainment investments in Shanghai and Beijing, despite mainland prosecutors saying that he will remain a fugitive on the wanted list until December 2030.
That should leave Lo, and people in similar circumstances, fully at the Chinese intelligence apparatus' mercy. One favor can then be exchanged for the other, and it needs only a wink to create a run of subordinate gangsters for DPP membership on the other side of the Taiwan Strait.
Apart from voting in party primaries themselves, the gangsters know only too well how to influence politicians one by one, as Lo has amply illustrated. An orchestrated campaign could then either destroy or propel the political careers of any given DPP politician.
Beijing isn't short of reasons to think outside the box when dealing with the DPP. The quest for formal Taiwanese independence is deep in the DPP's program, and although Beijing and the DPP have recently begun to extend headline-grabbing olive branches, for example through upbeat semi-official meetings, the DPP has no consensus on how to deal with China.
The possibility of the party's future return to power fills the mainland government \with unease, and hardly anything makes Beijing's DPP dilemma more apparent than the comparison of recent journeys made by DPP heavyweights harboring ambitions to become Taiwan's next leader.
Late last year, former premier Frank Hsieh travelled to the mainland, was wined and dined by authorities there and talked a lot of "family reunion", while DPP chairman Su Tseng-chang, when visiting China's arch-rival Japan in February, rambled on about Taiwan becoming part of "an alliance of East Asian democracies that contains China".
Su stopped short of meeting former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, the Japanese ultra-right winger, who played a major role in bringing China and Japan to the brink of war over the disputed Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands. In other words, Ishihara is the devil to Beijing, and no sane non-Japanese official wants to be in a group photo with him.
Still, rather than warning that outside powers might be at work, DPP party wings have readily exploited the story for their own gain and have ferociously accused each other of trying to rig the chairmanship elections. The combination of extensive gangster links and inner-party mud-sliding cannot make the party look good to the Taiwanese electorate, and to put an end to the controversy, a reform that bars new members from voting in party elections has since been announced. But as the reform turns off newcomers as well as important defections from the political opponents, the discussion is still on.
Grooming the KMT
While there is no evidence that Beijing indeed aims to reform the DPP by reaching deep into its bag of tricks, it is clear what direction it wants to see the inner-party affairs of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) taking. President Ma Ying-jeou is in his second and last term, and with his public approval ratings of less than 20% he could well steer his Beijing-friendly party straight into one electoral disaster after another during the still long remainder of his presidency.
To all appearances, Ma favors Premier Jiang Yi-huah as his presidential successor, but, like Ma, Jiang belongs to a cast of KMT politicians that prefers unification between Taiwan and China delayed until the 12th of never. On the other end of the spectrum is the KMT figure who cannot wait to see unification - the aging former vice president Lien Chan, who is Ma's inner-party rival but very close with former Chinese president Hu Jintao.
Lien's last trip to Beijing was in late February, when he was received with great hoopla in the Great Hall of the People by Xi Jinping, who back then was still China's president-in-waiting. Lien brought with him a bunch of Taiwanese tycoons and his son, Sean Lien. Lien Jr is the most likely KMT contender for Taipei mayor in an election next year. He is reasonably popular particularly with Taiwan's younger generation and seen as a potential future presidential candidate.
The protocol at such high-profile events leaves nothing to chances, and the Chinese state media picked up on what could be perceived as a crucial signal: according to them, Xi's handshake with Lien Jr lasted longer than any other.
"Would Xi and Beijing like to see Sean Lien become more politically significant in Taiwan? I should think so," said Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute. He qualified that by saying whether Sean Lien will be politically successful or not is not something Beijing can decide. And Tsang's assessment certainly goes also for Beijing's favorite within the DPP.
"It is up to the voters in Taiwan. Having good access in Beijing is not on its own enough to build up a strong political career in Taiwan," Tsang said.
Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.
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