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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

CORRUPTION
Going After the Gangs

Taiwan's justice minister targets organized crime


THE GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL ANSWERED his phone. "I noticed your daughter went to school this morning wearing red socks, am I right?" asked the anonymous caller. The threat was implied but ominous. The official was investigating industrial pollution; he was being warned to drop his inquiries or risk his family.

The conversation, which took place last year, is one example of how gangs gain influence over government, explains Taiwan's Justice Minister Ma Ying-jeou. "He has just let you know that he has every bit of information about your family," says the 46-year-old Harvard Law School graduate. The gangs' primary targets are businessmen and government officials involved in lucrative public construction contracts, like the current international airport expansion.

During the recent presidential campaign, voters ranked political corruption and organized crime high on their list of concerns. With good reason: the gangs have expanded their influence throughout the island. Several members of criminal organizations have even been elected to parliament, says Ma. They include a supposedly retired head of the notorious Four Seas Gang, who was elected on the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party ticket. That is possible because there is no law against being a gang member. Ma is trying to change that by drafting an anti-racketeering law.

Critics charge that President Lee Teng-hui has not done enough to battle corruption. "People say he tolerated or manipulated corrupt officials to get himself elected," says Antonio Chang, publisher of The Journalist, a prominent political magazine. Now, Lee has pledged to clean up party ranks. But he will have a tough job on his hands.

Accusations of graft in the bidding for a multi-million-dollar contract to outfit a new terminal at Taipei's international airport have rocked the government. Just three firms submitted bids. "I personally received complaints from construction companies saying they had been threatened by crime organizations to drop out," says Ma. During the ensuing investigation last month, several legislators were implicated in irregularities, including KMT party whip Liao Fu-pen, who later stepped down while protesting his innocence. When bidding reopened April 27, the ceremony was heavily guarded.

Last week, opposition Democratic Progressive Party legislator Peng Shao-chin was savagely knifed by gangsters. The attack was a payback for "his intervention in the airport scandal," Peng told reporters from his hospital bed. The day before the knifing, Transport Minister Liu Chao-shiuan, who had been the first to investigate the airport scam, announced that "all kinds of pressures" were forcing him to quit -- apparently implying gangland arm-twisting.

Some question whether the ruling party can stand up to the gangs. It made much of a recent corruption crackdown. Hundreds of policemen in Taipei were questioned over taking bribes, judicial prosecutors were quizzed, and officials in Kaohsiung were accused of rigging bids for the city's rapid-transit system. However, admits one party official, it was "60% show."

Ma has frequently hinted that his department lacks the support of the KMT's upper echelons. "Without the political will, we cannot halt the spread of underworld influence," he said. The word is that Ma has made too many enemies and may be on the way out. If so, it will be another victory for the gangs.

-- Reported by Mahlon Meyer / Taipei


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