Tackling Grand Corruption in Taiwan?

Written by Ernie Ko.

Image credit: IMG_8633 by Jimmy Yao/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

On September 22, 2020, five Legislative Yuan (Taiwan parliament) members, including four current members and one ex-member, were formally indicted by the Taipei Prosecutors Office for bribery charges. This group of accomplices has been consistently receiving bribery for nine years from a local businessman in exchange for putting pressure on government officials to tilt the law in the businessman’s favour.


Parliament members with notorious reputations are nothing new. However, what surprises the public is that this scandal involves Secretary-General to the President, Su, Jia-chyuan. Mr Su was previously the Speaker of Parliament, and his nephew was one of the five indicted MPs. What was worst of all was that his nephew was the biggest and longest bribe-taker, who had received NTD25.8 million (about 900,000 US Dollars) between 2012 and 2020. Months before the prosecutor’s arrest, his nephew became suspicious and quickly hid and destroyed relevant evidence. It is thus unclear to identify the source of the leak. Local media are speculating high-level officials’ involvement.


According to my colleague Prof Chun-Min Chen’s annual research over the past ten years, elected officials — both at national and local levels in Taiwan — are always at the bottom of public opinion surveys when it comes to corruption perceptions on the 26 categories of public servants. While petty corruption has been minimised thanks to the public awareness and robust civil society, grand corruption in Taiwan, which is colluded between politicians and those in the business sector, is still a serious matter. This is due to the lack of both political intention from high-up and low morale among ethics officers.


Transparency International (TI) defines grand corruption as “the abuse of high-level power that benefits the few at the expense of the many and causes serious and widespread harm to individuals and society.” The seriousness of grand corruption rests on its secrecy and its ability to evade detection, not to mention the difficulty of punishment.


For years, Taiwan has been struggling with the transition from an authoritarian regime to a vibrant democracy. While the current ruling party – the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) – is proud of being one of the leading democratic forces since its inception in 1986, its factional struggles induce various rumours of power-sharing as well as inappropriate influence paddling for business. The aforementioned parliament corruption scandal is just the tip of the iceberg.
Drawing on the essence of TI’s Source Book, the Taiwanese government promulgated the National Integrity Action Plan as early as 2009. Hence,  while its anti-corruption policy is nearly perfect, its enforcement has been problematic to say the least. Institutional independence and the low morale of anti-corruption officials are two significant problems regardless of the change of elected regimes.


There are dual anti-corruption agency mechanisms in Taiwan. Both the Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau (MJIB) and the Agency Against Corruption (AAC) have legal mandates to investigate corruption cases. However, these two agencies prefer to compete than collaborate for historical reasons relating to an ongoing turf battle.


An institutional flaw resides in the reporting line of duties. Both anti-corruption agencies report to the Justice Minister who is chosen by the Prime Minister. In turn, the Prime Minister is appointed by the President. Therefore, the independence of the MJIB and the AAC tend to be in jeopardy when the ruling party’s interest overrides that of public interest.


During the international peer review of Taiwan’s first country report of the United National Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) in 2018, Prof Jon Quah from Singapore suggests consolidating dual agencies into a single agency following Hong Kong and Singapore model. Neither the MJIB nor the AAC endorses his suggestion. Instead, both agencies insist that the current institutional arrangement satisfies public needs. Nevertheless, public opinion surveys show the opposite. They mostly demonstrate a deep disappointment over high-level influence paddling, which is a moral issue but not a crime in Taiwan.


Another institutional flaw resides in the gap of legal mandates between the MJIB and the AAC. The MJIB is responsible for corruption crimes in both the public and private sectors, while the AAC is only responsible for the public sector’s corruption. All major investigation cases issuing from these two agencies have to report to the Justice Minister before submitting to the prosecutor’s office pending for indictment. The reporting line of duty leaves a suspicious amount of room for possible manipulation. Thus, the only antidote is currently limited to politicians’ self-constraint.


The Current regime under President Tsai Ing-Wen leadership shows little solid political will to tackle grand corruption. Although Mr Su “voluntarily” left the Presidential Office following the scandal breakout, no further systemic reforms were initiated by the President as of today. A senior ethics officer used to comment sarcastically on the reality of the AAC by saying, “its level of administration is too far away from the power centre but its Guanxi [connections which refer to AAC heads appointed by the Justice Minister] are too close to be independence.”


Low morale in human resource management is usually rooted in the mismanagement of given talents. In recent years, the chiefs- and most senior posts of both agencies – are purposely appointed from the currently crowded pool of senior prosecutors who consider these posts as interim arrangements. It is hopeless for the MJIB’s 1,600 agents and the AAC’s 3,000 ethics officers to climb to the top of their respective social ladders based on merits. Taking the AAC, for example, it is now the fifth chief in office since its inception in 2011. The quick-changing heads of the agency and the single dominant source of candidates from senior prosecutors contribute to widespread reluctant obedience among the vast majority of ethics officers. Meanwhile, there are rumours of political influence in the ruling party’s significant fraction rise relating to various promotion occasions within both the MJIB and the AAC.


Vibrant democracy and the rule of law are equally essential to ensure sustainable development in Taiwan. There is little doubt about President Tsai’s integrity. Nevertheless, her leadership and legacy in anti-corruption practice is an open question. Both public perceptions and court cases indicate that grand corruption is not an isolated case in Taiwan. Unless the leadership takes serious steps to strengthen the independence and morale of both anti-corruption agencies in Taiwan, the public will reserve their trust and confidence on both the ruling party and current administration.

Ernie Ko is an Associate Professor of the National Taiwan University of Arts and the Founder of 2020 Asia Integrity Summer School in Taiwan. He also serves as a Member of Membership Accreditation Committee, Transparency International.

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

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