Written by Matthew Yi-Hsiu Lee.
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.
Kuomintang and Clientelism
The democratic performance in Taiwan today is evident, but this does not mean that it does not have a dark side. Recently, during the by-election of a legislator in Nantou, some people held cameras to supervise whether others voted, which violated the privacy and rights of the general public. These people are brokers and part of a more extensive authoritarian legacy. They monitor whether voters go to vote, which may also involve vote-buying fraud and serving so-called “local factions.” However, what are the mysterious “local factions”? Why do they appear? And what impact do they have on democracy?
Upon close examination of mayors and councillors in Taiwan, it becomes apparent that many belong to specific “local factions”, particularly among politicians affiliated with the Kuomintang. In Taichung, for instance, there are the Red Faction and the Black Faction; in Miaoli, there are the Huang Faction and the Liu Faction; in Pingtung, the Zhang Faction and the Lin Faction governed alternately. In the various cities and counties, different local factions hold on to power for a long time. However, these local factions may undermine democracy, such as vote-buying in the history of Taiwan’s elections. In the 1990s, at least 25-30% of people encountered the “Buying Machine”; in some cases, the buying vote rate reached 67%. Regrettably, this problem persists today, with 60% of Miaoli residents reportedly experiencing vote-buying, with most amounts ranging between 500 and 2,000 NTD. No wonder there is a Taiwanese proverb that says, “There are no masters in elections, whoever can pay will have power.” (選舉無師傅，用錢買就有)
This phenomenon can be traced back to historical development. During the authoritarian era, Kuomintang needed to establish connections with local society and exert control while avoiding the influence of the local community on its rule. Local leaders were given significant economic incentives by granting “regional monopolies” in industries such as transportation in exchange for their political support. To maintain power and win elections, they used the power of money to demand people to vote for them and other methods to ensure the success of bribery tactics, such as interference in police enforcement and court rulings. Therefore, there is a familiar saying in Taiwan politics called “Elected win, defeated sin” (當選過關，落選被關). Furthermore, this side effect is that people still do not trust the judiciary today, and some even say that the Kuomintang ran the court. (However, it must be noted that this impression cannot be supported empirically.)
Evolution of Clientelism in Democracy
Although “local factions” were a legacy of the Kuomintang’s governance in the past, even as Taiwan’s democracy has gradually consolidated, we cannot assume we have moved entirely into the light. Even today, vote-buying remains a common occurrence in local elections, perpetuating a harmful culture that erodes the foundation of democracy and undermines the fairness of elections. Furthermore, the public’s lack of trust in the judicial system remains a persistent issue, threatening democracy. Without trust in the judiciary, the democratic system is at risk.
Indeed, the spectre of corruption and clientelism continues to haunt our political landscape, undermining the legitimacy of our institutions and weakening the trust citizens place in their leaders. Even more concerning is that these harmful practices will not likely disappear over time. Instead, they may evolve and become more sophisticated, operating in the shadows of local politics, and posing an even greater threat to Taiwan. Two new forms of these practices merit particular attention and are discussed below: Semi-clientelism and Chinese neo-clientelism.
The first challenge to Taiwan’s democracy is a subtle form of corruption known as semi-clientelism (半侍從主義). Unlike the past blatant vote-buying and bribery practices, semi-clientelism operates in a non-coercive manner that is harder to detect. It does not blatantly violate existing laws and moral standards, which is why it is called “semi.” This approach involves using government resources, such as development subsidies, elderly care allowances, community care centres, and public works projects, to cultivate support and loyalty from voters. One prominent example is the denture policy for the elderly in Tainan, which involves a coordinated effort between the mayor, health bureaucrats, and the Dental Association, all funded by the city government. Under this policy, older people receive free dentures, dentists gain government subsidies, and the public is likelier to vote for the mayor. This process creates a self-reinforcing cycle of political support and access to resources. Similar versions of this story have appeared in other areas, such as Chiayi and Yunlin too.
Semi-clientelism leads to inefficient policies and budget waste. In many democracies, this issue can be resolved through a system of checks and balances between legislative and executive powers. However, the quality of local councillors is often subpar in Taiwan, and they struggle to effectively supervise mayors, sometimes even engaging in illegal behaviour themselves. To combat this problem, Taiwan Anti-corruption and Whistleblower Protection Association (TAWPA) exposed the criminal records of candidates for councillor in the 2022 local election. This move increased transparency, made politicians accountable for their actions, and helped voters make more informed decisions about which candidates are products of corruption and which ones are committed to breaking the longstanding legacy of clientelism. With the development of Taiwan’s democracy, these bad politicians belonging to specific factions or families may slowly disappear in the future.
But the second threat to Taiwan’s democracy comes from the influence of China, which is a much more complex issue and closely related to international politics. This new form of clientelism, Chinese neo-clientelism (中華新侍從體系), poses a serious challenge to Taiwan’s democratic development. In a democratic society, since previously mentioned “regional monopolies” are challenging to sustain, many local factions are turning to China as their new source of backing to ensure their survival. These factions often rely on economic activities such as Chinese mitten crab farming or Chinese tourist consumption to sustain their income and support their election expenses. However, these economic activities have more serious implications than just simple transactions. For example, research has shown that the introduction of Chinese mitten crab farming and Chinese tourists may damage the environment and alter the local landscape, posing a significant threat to Taiwan’s ecological sustainability. Moreover, the increasing dependence on China for economic support can potentially undermine Taiwan’s political independence and sovereignty and its relationship with other democratic nations.
As Taiwan’s local factional politics becomes increasingly intertwined with the Chinese economy, questions arise as to whether China is directly manipulating local elections and threatening the survival of Taiwan’s democracy. A thoughtful discussion is needed to address these pressing concerns. Scholars have shed light on the Chinese government’s exploitation of Taiwan’s trade and economic dependence to meddle in Taiwanese elections, resulting in subtle yet significant influences on Taiwanese voters’ perceptions of their national identity. Recent evidence suggests that the “China factor” has infiltrated Taiwan’s politics and elections by influencing public opinion through various means, such as corporate or media mergers and acquisitions. According to research conducted by the Information Operations Research Group (IORG), Chinese officials and certain Taiwanese media will collaborate and cross-reference each other to create a seemingly credible statement. Therefore, Taiwan must take proactive measures to safeguard against the potential threat of Chinese neo-clientelism and prevent these local factions from undermining democratic values.
Taiwan’s local political corruption and clientelism have a unique history. Initially, it was a ruling strategy formed under authoritarianism by the Kuomintang to control society. Local factions led to the destruction of the judicial system and election fraud. After democratization, local factions underwent two kinds of transformations. On the one hand, semi-clientelism, as a kind of pork barrel politics, must rely on the supervision of representatives and citizens’ continuous participation to avoid bad policies serving specific people. On the other hand, Chinese neo-clientelism in Taiwan’s local politics is complex and has profound implications. Therefore, Taiwan must address this issue cautiously while remaining committed to preserving its democratic principles and safeguarding its sovereignty.
Over the past few years, an increasing number of youths in Taiwan have taken an active role in local politics, seeking to challenge the entrenched power of local factions, improve the state of democracy, and bring about positive change. Furthermore, the recent implementation of new regulations in 2022 requires candidates for councillors to disclose their assets, subjecting many politicians to public scrutiny. This reform presents a unique opportunity for citizens to hold their elected officials accountable and scrutinize their backgrounds and financial dealings. As Taiwan grapples with the challenges of contemporary democracy, breaking away from the legacy of history has become a critical issue. Therefore, encouraging more people to participate in local politics is essential to promote greater accountability and improve democratic governance.
Matthew Yi-Hsiu Lee is a Political Science PhD student at National Taiwan University with a research focus on Parties, Elections, Gender, and Political Methodology. In addition, he works as a research assistant for the Asian Barometer Survey and the National Taiwan University Web Survey. You can read his website and contact him by email.
This article was published as part of a special issue titled “Corruption, Clientelism and Democracy”.