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In Taiwan, the legal definition of what constitutes “corrupt” behavior and legal changes is now clearer than ever. Moreover, since the change in ruling parties, judicial independence has been guaranteed and anti-corruption agencies have been strengthened considerably. Although there is still corruption and that the institutional configuration of Taiwan’s anti-corruption agencies is far from optimum, these are major achievements. The present report explains these achievements by tracing the interplay between agency and institutions at two turning points in Taiwan’s history, democratization and the change in ruling parties, in bringing about Taiwan’s anti-corruption reforms.
Christian Goebel
Christian Goebel is deputy head of the Department of East Asian Stud-
ies at the University of Vienna. His research is concerned with insti-
tutional change on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. He has published
widely on anticorruption and the impact of local clientelist networks on
the quality of governance in Taiwan.
To judge by some of the best-known measures, Taiwan’s progress in
fighting corruption over the last two decades has been almost nil. Accord-
ing to the Corruption Perceptions Index put out by Transparency Inter-
national (TI), not to mention the World Governance Indicators published
by the World Bank, Taiwan is doing little better today than in 1996.1 Yet
experts familiar with the country disagree, and are more upbeat about
Taiwan’s anticorruption efforts: The Bertelsmann Transformation Index
(BTI), which relies on the views of specialists, gives Taiwan the best score
a country can get for “prosecution of office abuse” (that is, for using the
law to go after public officials who exploit their offices to serve private
ends).2 Moreover, the share of people who report having personally expe-
rienced corruption is low, and on par with figures from countries such as
Germany, France, and Austria.3 Yet despite the government’s intensifying
fight against corruption and these low levels of direct experience with it,
the overwhelming bulk of people who live or do business in Taiwan still
think that the situation has not improved at all.
This shows the pitfalls of using perceptions-based indicators to gauge
the extent of corruption, at least in a country where bribery and other
forms of “abusing public office for private gain” (the World Bank’s
definition of corruption) do not go on in the open. The irony is that in-
stances of effective corruption control in action—the arrests and convic-
tions of politicians and businesspeople for crooked dealings—are what
spread the perception that corruption is out of hand. From one vantage
point, it is depressing to read of Taiwanese judges, lawmakers, and other
high officials (including an ex-president) being charged with corruption.
Journal of Democracy Volume 27, Number 1 January 2016
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The Quest for Good Governance
Christian Goebel
Yet from another angle, it is a good sign that they were not only indict-
ed, but were indicted by their own administrations. These are plainly not
cases of political revenge, which implies that ethical universalism—the
government’s fair and equal treatment of everyone—is on the rise in
Taiwan. However widespread corruption may be, the probability that
corrupt activities will be found out, investigated, and punished has gone
up significantly over the last two decades.
Since this island 180 kilometers off the Asian mainland became dem-
ocratic in 1992, and especially since the long-ruling Chinese National-
ist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) handed over power to the Democratic
Progressive Party (DPP) after the March 2000 presidential election, the
reform of existing laws and the passage of new ones have followed in-
ternational norms, defining more clearly than ever what constitutes “cor-
rupt” behavior. Party turnover has guaranteed judicial independence and
brought the serious strengthening of anticorruption agencies as well.
Corruption, of course, remains a problem, and the agencies tasked with
fighting it could be better configured than they now are, but there is no
denying that Taiwan’s anticorruption achievements have been major.
In order to explain these achievements, one must assess the impact
of two key turning points in Taiwan’s history. These two “critical junc-
tures” were Taiwan’s democratization in 1992 and the first turnover of
government to a new ruling party in 2000. Of special interest are the en-
abling and constraining factors that Taiwan “inherited” from the author-
itarian era of one-party KMT rule stretching back to the late 1940s. To
analyze these factors and to chart the larger trajectory of anticorruption
policy in Taiwan, I draw on interviews that I conducted in Taipei and
Taichung between 25 October and 8 November 2014 with current and
former Taiwanese ministers and vice-ministers of justice, the director-
general of the new Agency Against Corruption, and a number of legisla-
tors, prosecutors, investigators, judges, and experts. Their insights were
The concept of a “critical juncture” is premised on the assumption
that changing institutions (the formal and informal rules that govern
human behavior) is difficult. People adjust their behavior to conform
to existing institutions, and may even earn a profit from them. Most
of the time, institutions are “taken for granted,” but under certain con-
ditions—a grave social conflict or a crisis in politics or the economy,
for instance—they can change fundamentally. Conflicts and crises fre-
quently discredit existing institutions and bring new actors to power.
If these new actors have little stake in the old arrangements and can
profit from obliterating them, the conditions for institutional change
come into being.5 According to Paul Pierson, such critical junctures
are characterized by “the presence or absence of a specified causal
force push[ing] multiple cases onto divergent long-term pathways, or
push[ing] a single case onto a new political trajectory that diverges
126 Journal of Democracy
significantly from the old.”6 These openings for disruption, he goes
on to say, “are typically moments of expanding agency”7 in which ac-
tors can start on new paths such as the road of determined corruption-
Authoritarian Legacies
Two things about the authoritarian regime that ruled Taiwan from
1947 to 1992 especially benefited anticorruption. First, as one of
Asia’s leading “developmental states,” KMT-run Taiwan had (and
still has) a well-educated bureaucracy and sustained economic growth.
Where development levels are low, bureaucrats poorly trained, and
politicians and civil servants dependent on bribe-taking, corruption-
fighting is nearly impossible. In Taiwan, where politicians guided de-
velopment, corruption took the more benign form of seeking various
rents and dividends rather than making rank demands for payoffs. The
KMT regime carefully tended to both the quantity and quality of its
bureaucrats, keeping the former modest and the latter high. Starting in
1950, the government held annual examinations for entry into its civil
service. These tests were standardized and specialized. Administering
them was the mission of the Examination Yuan, a government agency
specially established for this purpose. Higher-level bureaucrats had to
pass additional examinations. In addition, administrative procedures,
the civil service, and management underwent several cycles of reform
from the early 1960s on.8 Finally, skillful planning by well-educated
technocrats in the Finance and Economic Affairs ministries as well as
the Central Bank and the Council for Economic Planning and Devel-
opment significantly contributed to sustained economic growth. Such
growth—Taiwan has enjoyed it since the 1950s—is crucial to output
The second factor is the cleavage between Taiwan’s two largest
Election Winning Party (and Candidate)
1992 Legislative Yuan (Legislature)* KMT
1996 1st Direct presidential election KMT (Lee Teng-hui)
2000 2nd Direct presidential election DPP (Chen Shui-bian)
2004 3rd Direct presidential election DPP (Chen Shui-bian)
2008 4th Direct presidential election KMT (Ma Ying-jeou)
2012 5th Direct presidential election KMT (Ma Ying-jeou)
Note: Elections for the Legislative Yuan have regularly taken place since 1992, and have
always resulted in a KMT majority.
*First free legislative elections in Taiwan.
Christian Goebel
groups, which has unique roots in history. The first group comprises
the “Mainlanders”—meaning people who arrived on the island between
1947 and 1949, as Chiang Kai-
shek and his Nationalists were los-
ing their long civil war with Mao
Zedong and his Communists. The
Mainlanders make up about a fifth
of Taiwan’s population of 24 mil-
lion. The second group comprises
the “Taiwanese”—a term that re-
fers both to those whose forebears
came to the island from the Chi-
nese mainland several centuries
ago (and who now make up the
large bulk of the island’s populace)
and also to a much smaller cluster
of indigenous ethnic groups with roots on the island that reach back
thousands of years. The relationship between this cleavage and anticor-
ruption is not straightforward, however, and requires some explanation.
The core problem was that under the KMT’s one-party regime, a gov-
ernment representing 20 percent of the island’s people dominated a re-
sentful 80 percent majority. The KMT at first quelled dissent with politi-
cal terror disguised as anticommunism, executing about three-thousand
people and sending perhaps as many as ten-thousand more to jail. This
“white terror” ended in 1954, as Chiang Kai-shek (not coincidentally)
was consolidating his autocracy by taking over and reforming the pro-
vincial bureaucracy and, perhaps more still more crucially, overhauling
the KMT itself. Martial law and “temporary” provisions to deal with
“communist rebellion” stayed on the books till the late 1980s, giving
the regime a license to use force against opponents and disregard the
In addition to violence, the KMT used cooptation and clientelism.
Influential Taiwanese families were brought into the regime fold by
means of local elections that pitted KMT members against not other
parties (those were outlawed), but independents. With the choice re-
duced to KMT membership and all the resources it implied versus “in-
dependent” status and certain defeat, local elites opted for the former.
This lent the KMT greater legitimacy while giving mayors and other
local notables opportunities to hand out clientelistic favors and line
their own pockets.10 The central government in Taipei was reasonably
clean, while bribery, embezzlement, nepotism, and organized crime
went nearly unchecked at the local level.11 In this way, the cleavage (or
some of the regime’s tactics for dealing with it, at any rate) promoted
At another level, however, the cleavage proved helpful to anticorrup-
On the one hand, democrati-
zation promoted anticorrup-
tion by inspiring citizens to
become more active. On the
other, it constrained anti-
corruption by giving candi-
dates incentives to team up
with local factions as a way
to get votes.
128 Journal of Democracy
tion. Many Taiwanese were unaffiliated with local factions or, if they
were, resented them. These citizens strove for equal opportunity in ac-
cess to schooling and government jobs, or envisioned a political sys-
tem that was democratic and free of corruption. Many young Taiwanese
studied law, and fighting for reform of the legal and justice systems
came naturally to them. The presence of an elaborate bureaucratic appa-
ratus, established norms of good governance in the central government,
and the activities of Taiwanese students aided the fight for public integ-
rity even as the local factions grew very powerful.
The first critical juncture in Taiwan’s anticorruption history was the
transition to democracy. In the late 1980s, martial law and other pro-
visions that restricted democratic freedoms were repealed, and by the
early 1990s national-level lawmakers were being chosen through free
and fair elections. On the one hand, democratization promoted anticor-
ruption by inspiring citizens to become more active. People embraced
their new freedoms. They protested vestiges of authoritarianism (contin-
ued KMT supervision of universities, for example), scrutinized politi-
cal matters, and formed professional groups. One such organization, the
Prosecutors’ Reform Association (PRA), proved a significant force in
the fight for judicial independence. On the other hand, democratization
constrained anticorruption by giving candidates incentives to team up
with local factions as a way to get votes. The KMT’s Lee Teng-hui, the
first democratically elected president, used the factions to garner sup-
port against his opponents within the KMT.12
Most of Taiwan’s national-level judges, prosecutors, and bureau-
crats have been graduates of National Taiwan University (NTU). Long
considered not only Taiwan’s best university but one of the best in
Asia, NTU has served as a promoter of meritocratic values and pro-
fessionalism in the bureaucracy that makes up the backbone of Tai-
wan’s developmental state. The KMT rigorously controlled education,
ensuring that professors came from Mainlander families and backed
the ruling party. Limited by admissions quotas, Taiwanese made up a
majority of the island’s people but a minority of its college students.
No part of this system was more zealously guarded by the KMT than
the NTU law faculty.
With democratization, this changed. Quotas ended, and university ac-
cess was regulated by exams. Taiwanese students proliferated, and NTU
felt the shift. Taiwanese law students were unhappy with the KMT’s
continued political dominance, especially because the 1990s saw the
spread of particularist politics from the localities to the central govern-
ment. Studying law made many of them aware of the glaring distance
between Taiwan’s reality and the ethical universalism implied by the
idea of the rule of law. Many believed that legal reforms were needed in
order to improve Taiwan’s democracy. A prosecutor who studied law at
NTU in the 1990s told me that most law students there at the time leaned
Christian Goebel
toward the opposition. With pro-Mainlander quotas banished from civil-
service recruitment, students from a Taiwanese background could be-
come judges and prosecutors.
The establishment of the PRA in 1998 was a crucial waypoint on the
journey toward ethical universalism. News reports about politicians’ ef-
forts to tamper with investigations made the public realize that judicial
independence was lacking and gave reformers a platform from which to
air their long-held discontent. This high-profile group of reform-minded
prosecutors eager to challenge the KMT’s legal meddling soon achieved
prominence, and would play an important role in the DPP government af-
ter the milestone presidential election of 2000 brought that party to power.
Parties, Identities, and Clientelism
Leading up to the first direct presidential election in 1996, the main
political contest was less between the KMT and the DPP than between
Mainlanders and Taiwanese. First among the latter was President Lee
Teng-hui. An able official and administrator (he holds a doctorate in
agricultural economics from Cornell), Lee had been groomed to be-
come KMT chairman by President Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chi-
ang Kai-shek and the initiator of the liberalization process that led to
democratic change. Born on the island to a family of Hakka (a mi-
nority Chinese ethnolinguistic group) during Japanese colonial rule in
1923, Lee became the KMT’s head and Taiwan’s president upon Chi-
ang Ching-kuo’s death in early 1988. Lee’s rise took place against the
wishes of powerful Mainlander politicians. Lee and his Mainstream
Faction of the KMT were closer to the moderate elements in the DPP
than they were to the KMT’s conservative Palace Faction.13 Lee stayed
in touch with leading DPP figures and met with them twice to discuss
Taiwan’s future.
Local factions posed a difficult problem for Lee and the other new
KMT leaders. These clientelistic groups cared more about profits
than about democratic values, but previous attempts to weaken them
had merely led to KMT electoral losses. With democratization bring-
ing increasing numbers of elections, and given the quirks of Taiwan’s
electoral system, it was apparent that the support of local factions was
still going to be needed.14 With martial-law constraints gone, with a le-
gal system lacking today’s anticorruption rules, and with the KMT’s
Mainstream Faction needing them so badly, the local factions began to
become players in national politics. Their clientelistic nature and fre-
quent involvement in gangsterism were at the heart of the “black gold”
phenomenon (a Taiwanese term for money politics). Organized crime
and the dishonest pursuit of riches were threatening the integrity of Tai-
wan’s nascent democratic process.
In dealing with the side-effects of the KMT’s alliances with local fac-
130 Journal of Democracy
tions, Lee Teng-hui took a middle ground. He did little to abolish clien-
telism but cracked down on vote-buying and organized crime in 1996.15
Previous studies have called this a campaign of “selective persecution”
designed to clean up the KMT’s image while doing nothing about its
continued reliance on local factions.16 But it seems more likely that Lee
Teng-hui chose honest officials and gave them carte blanche, only to
end up recalling them when the local factions put up more resistance
than he had expected.
As this suggests, it would be a mistake to equate the KMT with par-
ticularism and the DPP with ethical universalism. It is true that the in-
stitutional setup during the KMT’s rule fostered particularism. It is also
true that DPP politicians, after coming to power, fought particularism
and championed ethical universalism. Yet it does not follow that all
relevant authorities in both parties accepted these directions. As justice
ministers under the KMT, Ma Ying-jeou (1993–96) and Liao Cheng-hao
(1996–98) made corruption-fighting advances. As for the DPP, the 2009
convictions of former president Chen Shui-bian, his wife, and other
members of their family on corruption charges have left the party’s im-
age badly tarnished. In both parties, individuals seriously tried to fight
corruption, and in both parties higher-ups eventually undermined such
It is unfortunate that the climate of sharp partisan rivalry in Taiwan
makes it hard to trace anticorruption dynamics. In too many of my in-
terviews, KMT politicians belittled the obvious achievements that had
been realized under DPP rule, while most DPP politicians refused to
recognize efforts made during the KMT era, though they did admit that
the DPP’s anticorruption policy was facilitated by individuals within
the KMT who chafed at their party’s dealings with local factions and
organized criminals.
One such KMT figure was Ma Ying-jeou, currently Taiwan’s presi-
dent (he was elected in 2008 and reelected in 2012). During his tenure
as justice minister in the early 1990s, he cracked down on the drug trade
and went after vote-buying with great zeal: He indicted 341 of the 883
local councilors elected in 1994 on charges related to this offense. There
were complaints, and Lee Teng-hui is rumored to have accused him of
raising his own profile by “nearly ruining the party.” Although lauded
by the general public for his efforts to clean up politics, Ma was dis-
missed from the Justice Ministry in 1996, less than three months after
Lee Teng-hui won a second term in Taiwan’s first direct presidential
Liao Cheng-hao, Ma’s replacement, took a conciliatory stance to-
ward local factions but was relentless in his investigations of organized
crime. Liao told me that the laws at the time had been too sketchy, and
evidence too hard to collect, to allow for effective moves against local
factions. Shortly after assuming office, he launched an operation that
Christian Goebel
between August 1996 and June 1998 led to the arrest of 675 alleged
organized-crime figures.18
Liao recalled knowing that he faced resistance within the KMT, but
could bank on strong backing from the general public. He had a good
grasp of what makes agency so important. His raiding forces included
not only Justice Ministry investigators and prosecutors under his com-
mand, but also civil and military police officers. To sidestep debilitat-
ing conflicts with the Interior and Defense Ministries, he used a legal
loophole: He learned that the Law of Procedure and the Criminal Law
allowed prosecutors to summon civil- and military-police assistance
without having to obtain permission from other executive organs.
Liao opened channels for whistleblowers and, in what he consid-
ers a key reform, decided that police agents could operate across the
boundaries of “administrative regions.” As he told me, “Having the
police of one locality investigate officials of that same locality did not
work out because of the strength of interpersonal relationships.” After
the reform, Taipei-based agents could investigate anywhere in Taiwan.
His “special-cases unit” was a small task force that ran crackdowns by
meeting at night and carrying out the agreed-upon raid shortly after
dawn the next day. This left suspects with little time to destroy evi-
Liao confirmed that agents of the Ministry of Justice Investigation
Bureau (MJIB) were embedded in local governments as “secretaries”
and cited this as one of the reasons why suspects often received ad-
vance warnings—the MJIB, in other words, leaked like a sieve, and he
could not trust it. In our interview, he argued that anticorruption should
not be restricted to the police and organs of law, but must involve all
ministries. He also suggested that banks should get into the microcredit
business, a conclusion he drew from his work on a pair of gruesome
loan-sharking cases in which criminal gangs had murdered people for
failing to make gigantic interest payments. Tax authorities, he added,
could be crucial in tracing irregular income. Liao resigned in 1998 after
the prime minister failed to support him in a dispute with the acting
MJIB director at the time.19
The Change in Ruling Parties
Both the task of passing laws that defined and penalized corrup-
tion and the task of implementing those laws posed great difficulties.
Agency was important for both tasks: A KMT-dominated legislature
stood in the way of legal changes, while implementation depended on
the country being able to call on sufficient numbers of impartial inves-
tigators, prosecutors, and judges. Anticorruption laws were passed by
mobilizing public opinion. Simply put, legislators were made to fear
that openly resisting public-integrity reforms would result in dismissal
132 Journal of Democracy
by the voters. Corruption had long been seen as one of Taiwan’s major
political ills, and the DPP focused its 2000 campaign on the promise
of curing it. Once in power, the DPP did focus effectively on creat-
ing a legal basis for striking at corruption. Yet it should be kept in
mind that individual KMT legislators—
not all ruling-party lawmakers were the
creatures of local factions—had been
introducing anticorruption bills since
the 1980s. Some of my DPP-affiliated
interviewees told me that there were
KMT legislators who sympathized with
their anticorruption agenda.
Implementation posed a tougher
problem. Political considerations had
long constrained investigators and pros-
ecutors, who often had to clear their
actions with superiors who themselves
belonged to the very same clientelistic networks that were involved in
spreading corrupt practices. Democratization could help to move bills
through a once-resistant legislature, but there was little it could do to
improve the unavoidably complex, opaque, and specialized bureau-
cratic process of investigating and prosecuting corrupt behavior. Yet
the party turnover in office that came in 2000 did create a real politi-
cal interest in improving implementation as well as legislation. The
clientelistic networks that had worked against the DPP were tailor-
made KMT creations immune to DPP cooptation. In order to cripple
the KMT’s get-out-the-vote machinery, DPP leaders realized, just hav-
ing laws on the books would not be enough: They would have to push
resolute anticorruption enforcement.
President Chen Shui-bian named Chen Ding-nan to head the Justice
Ministry in 2000. An NTU-educated lawyer, Minister Chen had entered
politics after the KMT suppressed a prodemocracy demonstration in
1979. He was part of the Dangwai, an alliance of politicians opposed to
the KMT. Later he joined the DPP, serving as a county commissioner
and a legislator. All my interviewees cited his considerable experience
in local politics as one reason why he was chosen to handle the justice
portfolio. As a county official, Chen had become famous for incorrupt-
ibility and surprise investigations of public infrastructure projects in his
Although Chen had an incentive to obliterate the KMT’s political ma-
chine, he was dealing with a legal system that was still in the grip of the
KMT and its friends. As one interviewee described it, head prosecutors
and chief investigators were tied to politicians and made their careers
together with them. If the head of such a network received a promotion,
then others would be promoted along with him. The bureaucratic culture
Although Chen had an
incentive to obliterate
the KMTs political
machine, he was deal-
ing with a legal system
that was still in the
grip of the KMT and its
Christian Goebel
at that time was one in which personal relationships trumped the law,
and leaders in the prosecutorial system were defined by their allegiance
to influential politicians. This helps to explain why MJIB officers em-
bedded in local government so often tipped off political figures who had
been targeted for investigation by authorities in Taipei.
There should have been a way to work around the problematic
MJIB—Justice Ministry prosecutors had their own legal powers to
search public officials and collect evidence—but prosecutorial staffers
were too thin on the ground to handle investigations that often required
mounting several raids at once. As the interviewee put it, Chen had
“weapons, but no soldiers.” The interviewee, who at the time had him-
self been a prosecutor, remarked that it was hard to obtain evidence
unless there was an internal dispute that led some insiders to inform
on others. Another problem pertained to ordinary prosecutors and in-
vestigators, who were used to clearing every investigation with their
superiors. The interviewee characterized them as “soldiers without ini-
tiative,” people who had become too used to following orders. With
some exceptions, the norm during the KMT regime had been to collect
“just enough” evidence to justify a conviction, but growing profes-
sionalism within the legal system undermined this custom: Defense
lawyers had become good at finding holes in indictments, and judges
needed to be able to produce rulings that could withstand scrutiny dur-
ing the appeals process.
Having studied firsthand the methods used by Singapore and Hong
Kong, Justice Minister Chen hoped to establish a new independent and
specialized public-integrity bureau modeled on Hong Kong’s Anticor-
ruption Agency. (His solution to the MJIB problem was to shift its an-
ticorruption unit into another part of the Justice Ministry, the Govern-
ment Ethics Department.) There was no legislative majority behind the
idea of creating a new government agency, however, and MJIB chief
Wang Kuang-yu (a KMT holdover) fiercely resisted Minister Chen’s
plans for a bureaucratic merger. A presidential order replaced Wang
with a Chen Shui-bian loyalist named Yeh Sheng-mao, and personnel
changes became possible.20 Chief investigators with strong KMT ties
were moved out and new people brought in. A Black Gold Investi-
gation Center (BGIC) was set up and staffed with ten attorneys who
had been active in the Prosecutors’ Reform Association. Because the
ordinary system for mounting prosecutions remained, as one of my
interviewees told me, under the continued sway of “people from the
other side,” the BGIC was placed within the purview of the High Court
(the appeals-court portion of the judicial system, above the district
courts but below the Supreme Court and the Judicial Yuan). These
changes encouraged MJIB personnel who disliked clientelism but had
been suppressed by the KMT.
Within a year, Justice Minister Chen had built a coalition of pros-
134 Journal of Democracy
ecutors and investigators loyal to him who formed the backbone of his
crackdowns on vote-buying and corruption. In 2002, when Chen had
consolidated his position, he set up a Special Investigation Unit (also
under the High Court) to target high-ranking politicians suspected of
corruption. Unlike the BGIC, however, the Special Unit was to be run by
an official whose appointment would require legislative confirmation—
a concession that somewhat reduced resistance to the creation of this
new body.
Changes in Bureaucratic Culture
These measures were successful in changing the “bureaucratic culture”
of these organizations despite a lack of personnel turnover beyond the
top posts. A former chief prosecutor pointed out to me that in the judicial
system, replacing key people is generally enough because subordinates
must follow orders. A BGIC staffer recalled that the team received spe-
cific instructions to ignore party affiliation when conducting investiga-
tions. At first, the targets were mainly KMT lawmakers; DPP members
had theretofore held executive positions only at the county level. As time
went on, however, DPP politicians gained more power, and some gave in
to its temptations. The high-level DPP politicians convicted of corruption
included the Nantou County commissioner (a close friend of Chen Ding-
nan’s), the vice-minister of internal affairs, and the head of the national
high-technology commission. One BGIC prosecutor even insisted on ap-
pealing former president Chen Shui-bian’s acquittal on one of the corrup-
tion charges brought against him.
The KMT-dominated legislature, particularly exercised that the BGIC
was looking into vote-buying cases, moved through the Law Commission
of the Legislative Yuan to cut the Justice Ministry’s budget. Further KMT
pushback came in the form of a public-relations campaign (including leg-
islative hearings) that criticized the Law Commission—it had become
known as a creature of the local factions, chaired at one point by Taiwan’s
most notorious crime boss—and demanded to know what alternative or-
ganization the KMT would support in order to fight “black gold.”
The KMT lawmakers backed down, and party leaders began shifting
their efforts from blocking anticorruption moves to projecting a “clean”
image of their own. Under these new circumstances, and with support
from “idealists” among the KMT lawmakers, the Conflict of Interest
Avoidance Law was passed in 2001. In 2004 came the Political Donations
Law and in 2008 the Lobby Law, but critics argue that they are toothless.
The former, they say, can be circumvented through expedients such as
starting a foundation to hire “consultants” at high and tax-exempt salaries,
while the latter is widely ignored: Lobbying goes on unabated, yet the In-
terior Ministry has failed to register a single lobbyist since the law passed
almost eight years ago.
Christian Goebel
Despite his apparent success and popularity, Chen Ding-nan’s tenure
at the Justice Ministry ended in January 2005, less than a year into Chen
Shui-bian’s second term as president. Chen Ding-nan tried to get back
into elective politics in his native Yilan County, at the island’s north-
eastern corner, but lost to a KMT rival. In late 2006, he died at the age
of 63 from lung cancer. As one contemporary of “Mr. Clean” remarked
to me, his campaign-style, output-oriented way of running the Justice
Ministry “offended many people.” Among the offended, he made clear,
were not only the many KMT politicians who had built their careers on
the politics of particularism, but also “a minority” of DPP figures as
well. Even DPP politicians who were not themselves corrupt needed
campaign support from the local factions. Not surprisingly, there was
pressure on DPP leaders to rein in Chen Ding-nan for fear his zeal would
undermine the party; as one person with whom I spoke put it, Chen by
the time he resigned had “reached the limit of what he could achieve.”
Despite his NTU law degree, Chen had spent most of his career working
in the business world of provincial Yilan, which is one county removed
from the capital. He was neither a Taipei nor a legal-profession insider,
and this at times hampered his ability to communicate with his depart-
ment. When he saw what he thought was inefficiency and foot-dragging,
he would be told that delays were inevitable owing to formalities that
had to be observed. With limited experience, he found it hard to evaluate
such claims.
In January 2005, Chen Ding-nan was succeeded at the head of the
Justice Ministry by Shih Mao-lin. (Later, President Ma Ying-jeou, who
had been Shih’s NTU law-school classmate, would reach across the
KMT-DPP cleavage to make Shih a key advisor to the ministry that he
had once directed.) Shih, who had experience as both a local judge and
a local prosecutor, is one of the few politicians who commands respect
in both of Taiwan’s major parties. A former head prosecutor and vet-
eran DPP politician told me that Shih, unlike the more impulsive and
impatient Chen Ding-nan, was able to leverage his inside knowledge of
Taiwan’s legal institutions. Shih also said he never forgot that criminals
can learn to become more effective too—meaning that servants of the
law must keep up or lose the game.
As justice minister until 2008, Shih made four distinct changes.
First, he shifted the Ministry’s investigative focus from politicians
to entrepreneurs. His reason for this, he told me, was because “or-
ganized crime and money politics are interrelated. . . . It is difficult
to hide large amounts of money—you can’t just put it in the bank.”
He added that finding proof of a financial crime is often easier than
finding evidence in cases of gang murders, especially if the suspect
holds political office. Second, he put pressure on local prosecutors by
imposing solved-case quotas. He recalls that he spent much time with
prosecutors and investigators to see how they handled cases. Based on
136 Journal of Democracy
this field research as well as his own experiences, he sought to teach
them the best methods for conducting investigations. Third, he set out
to increase the low rate at which senior officials were convicted by
concentrating on cases of grand corruption, with rewards for confes-
sions and whistleblowing. Finally, he focused on prevention, using
management studies to develop a risk-assessment system that could
identify and fix situations ripe for corruption before they gave rise to
outright criminality. One tactic was to rate departments and particular
lines of work according to the level of incentive for corruption that
they were likely to involve. From this, said Shih, it emerged that work
settings which facilitated “collective crimes”—such settings included
customs inspections, public construction projects, and police forces—
were most at risk of producing corruption.
Successes and Unfinished Tasks
In Taiwan, engaging in acts of corruption is far riskier now than it
was twenty years ago. Although there remains much room for improve-
ment, far-reaching legal and organizational changes have severely re-
stricted the realm of the permissible, made it more likely that corrupt
behavior will be discovered, and made it much harder to exert illicit
influence over an investigation or a trial. Investigators, prosecutors, and
judges have become far more professional and independent, and less
likely to be swayed by influence or money.
Ironies have abounded. The KMT under President Lee Teng-hui read-
ily embraced particularism and even cooperated with organized criminals
in order to remain in office, but at the same time it raised up two justice
ministers who struck hard at particularism and organized crime. The DPP
denounced corruption while in opposition and credibly fought it while
in office, only to see its leader, President Chen Shui-bian, exposed and
convicted as corrupt himself. And even before the Chen Shui-bian corrup-
tion scandals exploded, that president had tossed his corruption-fighting
justice minister, Chen Ding-nan, out of the cabinet once reelection was
secured in 2004. Chen’s offense? “Offend[ing] too many people in the
Given the political risks—obvious now and not exactly obscure back
then—why did justice ministers such as the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou in the
early 1990s and the DPP’s Chen Ding-nan about a decade later, press
the anticorruption cause with such vigor? One explanation is rooted in
the political context of the time: Each man was named to head the Jus-
tice Ministry after a major change (Ma after the KMT’s democratization
launched by Chiang Ching-kuo, and Chen after the DPP’s election to
the presidency), and their respective political superiors opted to give
each free rein at a fluid juncture. As institutionalization set in, however,
leading politicians decided that anticorruption had to take a back seat to
Christian Goebel
more “conciliatory” approaches. Both parties remained or became de-
pendent on social and political forces whose operational logics clashed
with a radical stance against corruption, and idealism was sacrificed on
the altar of political pragmatism. Idealistic ministers became expend-
able, as all politicians are (or should be), and their successors had prob-
ably been chosen in advance. But these discharged ministers felt that
they had high standards to uphold, and preferred loss of office to com-
promising them anyway.
The problems that continue to restrict ethical universalism in Taiwan
today include not only old-boy networks left over from the authoritar-
ian era, but also the general politicization of society, complete with a
sharp and growing spirit of partisanship that affects many things, not
excluding rulings handed down by judges. These two problems should
not be confused with each other: Protecting the members of a clientelis-
tic network is a form of corruption; choosing the lightest (or heaviest)
sentence one can legally mete out to a politician whom one favors (or
disfavors) is unprofessional, but it does not constitute corruption if no
gain other than a feeling of emotional satisfaction is involved. Other
remaining problems are institutional in nature. Examples include the
legalized money-laundering that goes on in foundations and temple so-
cieties, as well as the murk and confusion that beset Taiwan’s elaborate
array of anticorruption organizations and their needlessly complicated,
effectiveness-sapping dealings with one another. That politics stands in
the way of resolving these issues is a problem in itself and underlines
the degree to which particularism persists as a troubling reality even in
a democratic, highly developed country such as Taiwan.
I wish to thank my interviewees, many of whom were busy preparing for an election, for
their time and enthusiasm. I am grateful to Kun-sheng Chang and Vicky Wei-ya Wu for
facilitating interviews, for their encyclopedic legal expertise, and for their support gener-
ally. I thank Ming-tong Chen, Michael Johnston, Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, Thomas Richter,
Kevin Yeh, and Chilik Yu for their help and comments.
1. For the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators, see http://info.worldbank.
org/governance/wgi/wgidataset.index.aspx#home. For Transparency International’s Cor-
ruption Perceptions Index, see
2. For the Bertelsmann Transformation Index country reports, see www.bti-project.
3. Transparency International, 2011, 2010/11 Global Corruption Barometer.
4. For a full list of those interviewed, see
5. Ruth Berins Collier and David Collier, Shaping the Political Arena: Critical Junc-
tures, the Labor Movement, and Regime Dynamics in Latin America (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1991).
138 Journal of Democracy
6. Pierson is cited in Dan Slater and Erica Simmons, “Informative Regress: Critical
Antecedents in Comparative Politics,” Comparative Political Studies 43 (July 2010): 888.
7. Slater and Simmons, “Informative Regress,” 890.
8. Guang-Xu Wang and Mei-Chiang Shih, “Entrenchment or Retrenchment? A Histor-
ical-Institutional Analysis of the Central Government Reorganisation in Taiwan,” Sym-
posium “Reform and Transition in Public Administration Theory and Practice in Greater
China,” Hong Kong, 2010.
9. Linda Chao and Ramon H. Myers, The First Chinese Democracy: Political Life in
the Republic of China on Taiwan (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), ch.
10. Christian Goebel, “The Impact of Electoral System Reform on Taiwan’s Local
Factions,” Journal of Current Chinese Affairs 41, no. 3 (2012): 69–92.
11. Chao Yung-mao, Taiwan Difang Zhengzhi De Bianqian Yu Tezhi [Change and
characteristics of Taiwan’s local politics] (Taipei: Hanlu, 1997), 68.
12. Chen Ming-tong, Paixi Zhengzhi Yu Taiwan Zhengzhi Bianqian [Factional politics
and Taiwan’s political development] (Taipei: Yuedan, 1995).
13. Chao and Myers, First Chinese Democracy.
14. The local factions were so strong that it is unclear whether even an overhaul of the
electoral system and its rules would have weakened their hand. See Goebel, “Impact of
Electoral System Reform on Taiwan’s Local Factions,” 88–89.
15. Ko-lin Chin, Heijin: Organized Crime, Business, and Politics in Taiwan (Armonk,
N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2003), 171–79.
16. Christian Goebel, “Beheading the Hydra: Combating Corruption and Organised
Crime,” China Perspectives 56 (November–December 2004): 14–25.
17. Apple Daily, 23 March 2008,
18. Sao Hei Baipishu [White book of fighting organized crime] (Taipei: Ministry of
Justice, 1998).
19. Marlene Chen, “Controversy Hits the Bureau of Investigation,” Taiwan Panorama
23, no. 8 (1998): 76.
20. In December 2008, Yeh received a ten-year jail term for corruption, withholding
government information from investigators, and disclosing confidential information to an
unauthorized person (President Chen Shui-bian) in connection with a money-laundering
case involving members of the president’s family. See Jimmy Chuang, “Yeh Sheng-mao
Sentenced to 10 Years in Prison,” Taipei Times, 5 December 2008,
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Entrenchment or Retrenchment? A Historical-Institutional Analysis of the Central Government Reorganisation in Taiwan
  • Guang-Xu Wang
  • Mei-Chiang Shih
Guang-Xu Wang and Mei-Chiang Shih, "Entrenchment or Retrenchment? A Historical-Institutional Analysis of the Central Government Reorganisation in Taiwan," Symposium "Reform and Transition in Public Administration Theory and Practice in Greater China," Hong Kong, 2010.
Change and characteristics of Taiwan's local politics
  • Chao Yung-Mao
  • Taiwan Difang Zhengzhi De Bianqian
  • Yu Tezhi
Chao Yung-mao, Taiwan Difang Zhengzhi De Bianqian Yu Tezhi [Change and characteristics of Taiwan's local politics] (Taipei: Hanlu, 1997), 68.
Factional politics and Taiwan's political development] (Taipei: Yuedan
  • Chen Ming-Tong
  • Paixi Zhengzhi Yu Taiwan Zhengzhi Bianqian
Chen Ming-tong, Paixi Zhengzhi Yu Taiwan Zhengzhi Bianqian [Factional politics and Taiwan's political development] (Taipei: Yuedan, 1995).