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The Economist: Corruption in Taiwan
Confirming the worst suspicions
The arrest of three senior judges sparks renewed debate over corruption
Jul 22nd 2010 | TAIPEI
RUMOURS of corruption among the judiciary have long flourished in Taiwan. Yet the news on July 14th that three high-court judges and a prosecutor had been detained amid allegations that they took bribes to fix the outcome of a high-profile case, has brought public outrage to boiling point. On July 18th Taiwan’s highest-level judicial official, Lai In-jaw, who is in charge of the island’s supreme and lower courts chose to resign because of the outcry over the case. The government is hastily promising reforms.
The case is Taiwan’s biggest judicial-corruption scandal in over a decade. It involves Ho Chih-hui, an ex-lawmaker with the ruling Kuomintang (now expelled from the party), who was convicted in 2006 by a lower court for taking kickbacks over the building of a science park. He was given a 19-year sentence. Following that, according to Taipei District Court documents, contacts of Mr Ho tried to bribe judges sitting in a higher court, in an attempt to buy his freedom. In May this year the judges did hand down a not-guilty verdict to Mr Ho, but on July 13th members of an anti-corruption task force stormed the homes and offices of the judges and prosecutor involved. The judicial officials could now each face a spell of ten years behind bars, if found guilty. Mr Ho is on the run.
For jaded Taiwanese observers the latest developments merely confirm long-held suspicions of graft in their insular and inscrutable judiciary. “The significance of this case is that it makes all the rumours a reality,” said Yang Tai-shuenn, a politics professor at Taipei’s Chinese Culture University. “It will push the government to do something.”
The country’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, promptly decided that he needed to be seen to act. On July 20th he announced the formation of a new commission to battle corruption and vote-buying. Its 200 staff will enjoy police powers of search and arrest. “I am determined, absolutely determined, to create a clean government,” Mr Ma said. “Every public servant must understand that ethical principles cannot be violated or trampled on. I will not stand for a minority of corrupt officials destroying the image of government.”
Such talk is welcome, but the commission has a hard task ahead. Some are optimistically drawing comparisons to Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau and Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption. But, unlike those bodies, the Taiwanese commission will not report directly to the president, but only to the justice ministry, where tangled bureaucracy and civil servants who are deferential to their political bosses could limit action.
In any case, complains the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and various experts, such a commission will be toothless as long as it is nearly impossible to sack bad judges and prosecutors. An act calling for such a mechanism has long been stalled in parliament.
Yet Mr Ma has good reasons to tackle the issue. He signed a partial free-trade agreement with China at the end of June, and is keen to attract more foreign investment. That will be harder if Taiwan is seen as soft on corruption. As important, voters are increasingly fed up with graft. Mr Ma was swept to office in 2008 after promising to make clean government his priority. Ahead of municipal elections at the end of this year, and then presidential ones in 2012, he needs to reassure the public that he is still serious about it.
Yet he has one big advantage over the opposition. The DPP is still struggling to distance itself from its imprisoned former president, Chen Shui-bian, who last year received a life sentence (since reduced to 20 years) for corruption.