Taiwan’s Unsurprising Corruption

Written by Michael Johnston.

Image credit: 新臺幣貳佰圓鈔票 NT$200 Paper Money by Chi-Hung Lin/Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0

Taiwan’s reputation for good government has vastly improved over the past generation and more. Its scores on the Transparency International’s well-known Corruption Perception Index have improved from a low score of 49.8 in 1996 to 58 in 2010 and 65 in 2019. The more sophisticated World Bank Institute’s World Governance Indicators include an index of Corruption Control. There too, Taiwan had risen from a score of +0.58 in 1996 to +1.03 in 2018.

Nevertheless, in September 2020, a Major General and three other officers were charged with forging data regarding a new armoured vehicle in order to win salary bonuses. In August, Hsu Yung-ming (徐永明), former head of the New Power Party, resigned following his questioning in connection with the Sogo department store bribery case. The next month, four legislators from two other political parties were indicted in that same case. Against the backdrop of improving governance ratings, some observers might find such revelations surprising. I argue that they should not.

This is not because Taiwan is necessarily suffering a dramatic outbreak of hidden corruption. Indeed, we have no reliable way of knowing how much corruption — usually, a secretive activity — is taking place, or whether trends are rising or falling. Nor are our impressions of improving governance since the end of martial law are fundamentally false. Instead, regardless of how handy corruption rankings might be for comparative shorthand, they are not what we frequently take them to be. At best, they miss a great deal. At worst, such indices — and, more to the point, the uses we make of them — can be seriously misleading. Why would that be?

First and foremost, the indices do not measure corruption. For the most part, they summarise the perceptions of survey respondents; some of them are experts, and most of them are from outside the country and gathered at differing times using contrasting methods. Those perceptions are necessarily subjective and shaped by widely varying assumptions and influences. They are then combined, by various statistical sausage-making techniques, into a single number that, somehow, applies to all regions, levels, and sectors of a given society.

Such scores do not tell us anything about the impact of corruption, or indeed about its seriousness. They do not track changes well (here, the WGI indices do a somewhat better job than the TI data). Implicitly, they attribute the causation of corruption to alleged national traits in the places where it comes to light. Thus, an international scheme devised in New York, financed in Zürich, but uncovered in Bangkok is far more likely to shape scores for Thailand than for the United States. Not surprisingly, they set up a technocratic, process-oriented ideal of “good governance,” shaped by the self-images and claims of North American and European countries that are not likely as corruption-free as they claim to be.

To make matters worse, we do not even have a settled definition of corruption. TI’s widely-used definition — “the abuse of entrusted power” — sounds good, but in many societies, power was never “entrusted” to anyone. Instead, it was bought, stolen, seized, inherited, or claimed via fear and deception, with “accountability” consequently being a fictional notion. If we cannot agree on the essence of corruption, and if much of it goes undetected, there is little point in claiming to measure it.

A final, and major, problem is that one-dimensional indices treat corruption as the same thing everywhere. A moment’s consideration suggests the folly of assuming that corruption in, say, Denmark and Cameroon are the same thing, with Cameroon just having more of it. Some countries experience mostly bribery; others witness the looting of entire treasuries. In some, corruption is the work of violent gangs and cartels, often operating across international borders. In others, the focus is lobbying and election finance, with some corrupting activities being wholly legal.

I have proposed the existence of four contrasting syndromes of corruption with specific causes and consequences. While that scheme is undoubtedly open to improvement, a society like Taiwan that has undergone significant transformations in its institutions, and in its relationships between wealth and power, is likely to experience different sorts of corruption in 2020 than it did in 1987. Those transformations deserve careful qualitative analysis; they cannot be understood by comparing two observations on a one-number, one-dimensional index.

Corruption indices are far from worthless: among other things they focus public attention upon regimes whose leaders had instead we looked elsewhere. Moreover, appearances do matter, greatly, in geopolitical and economic terms. For those reasons and more, index scores for societies like Taiwan are quite rightly closely watched.

Nevertheless, what should we consider when we think about corruption in Taiwan? We should monitor the performance of essential government functions: how long does it take to get licenses and permits, and how “negotiable” are tax assessments? We can watch relationships among factions, both at mass and elite levels. Cross-border and offshore actors, interests, and deals are of critical importance. Furthermore, finally, we should pay attention to much more than just laws and enforcement, important though those are.

Mark Warren has argued that the essence of corruption in any democracy is the “duplicitous exclusion” of citizens from processes and decisions affecting their lives. In the world of 2020, citizens who feel excluded often turn to “populists”, demagogues, and anti-system parties. Therein lie some of the worst dangers of corruption for development and justice. In those senses, Taiwan has much in common with its fellow democracies around the globe

Michael Johnston is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, at Colgate University, Hamilton, New York USA. He currently lives in Austin, Texas, where he continues his work as a lecturer, consultant, and researcher.

This article is part of a special issue on corruption in Taiwan.

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