Taiwan’s Coast Guard published a composite of potential disguises for fugitive ex-lawmaker Lo Fu-Chu in late April. In one picture, he looks like a Dutch leader of a peacekeeping force, complete with beret and handlebar moustache. In another, he’s done up like one of the Gallagher brothers from seminal British rock outfit Oasis. A coifed mop frames his usually balding head as the handlebar gives way to a goatee.
But it’s probably the shot of Lo in black ’70s aviator shades, ala late Colombian drug czar Pablo Escobar, that’s the most fitting. For Lo wasn’t just any Taiwanese politician failing to turn himself in for a four-year money laundering and insider trading prison sentence.
The former legislator, convict and parliamentarian brawler with strong ties to the ruling Kuomintang has also been described as the “spiritual leader” of Celestial Way. According to law enforcement, Celestial Way is an indigenous super gang that was formed when mob leaders were locked up together. It is, by some estimates, the island republic’s third largest organized crime syndicate.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
“It isn’t a street gang that worries about turf battles. It’s highly organized, cooperates with big business and politicians and has very strong political, crime and business links internationally, particularly in Hong Kong, China, Macao, Japan and Southeast Asia,” says a Criminal Investigation Bureau official, who declined to give his name because of the sensitive nature of his work. “We think Lo jumped a fishing boat to China. It’s going to be extremely difficult to get him back from there.”
Analysts say Lo is just the last in a long line of KMT or KMT-aligned gangster-legislators who decided it was more beneficial to not only pay off politicians, but become them as well. Taiwan’s front pages are filled with stories about politicians on both sides of the fence turning up at gangster funerals and the weddings of powerful mobster scions.
“The nexus between crime and politics can be traced back to the KMT-era in mainland China, when a famous Shanghai gangster, Du Yuesheng, AKA ‘Big-eared Du,’ helped Chiang Kai-sheik purge the communists,” says Lo Shiu Hing, an expert on governance and transnational crime at Hong Kong Institute of Education.
That “purge” was actually more of a massacre. An estimated 5,000 Communist sympathizers were either executed or went missing. As a reward for his services, Chiang made Du the head of the national board of the Opium Suppression Bureau, giving him effective control of the country’s drug trade.
Du eventually fled to, and died in, Hong Kong after Mao Zedong’s troops drove the nationalists across the Taiwan Strait. After his death, Chiang Kai-shek had his body shipped to Taipei and buried in an outlying suburb of the capital.
The KMT’s Lost Army, or the 997th Brigade, also headed south. Way south. It marched all the way into northern Burma where it produced opium for export to the rest of the world. Other elements of the defeated army ended up in Hong Kong and Macao, where they started triads that are still active today.
Back in Taiwan, the KMT found itself outnumbered by Taiwanese who had migrated to the island from China’s southern Fujian Province centuries earlier. “Mainlander” gangs such as the Bamboo Union, which the U.S. Customs Department estimates to have 10,000 members worldwide that are active in drugs, human trafficking, arms trading, prostitution, cybercrime, money laundering and counterfeiting, formed soon after.
“When the KMT retreated to Taiwan, it continued its authoritarian government until the ’80s when Lung Wai, the predecessor of the Democratic Progressive Party, participated in county, village and legislative level elections. The KMT used local gangsters to mobilize supporters to vote for their candidates,” says Lo.
Analysts say that up until that point, Taiwan’s feared intelligence apparatus had used mobsters to forward administration policies within constituencies that were increasingly frustrated with the KMT’s draconian rule. The opening up of Taiwan’s political process meant that gangs became more valuable as vote getters rather than enforcers and informants.
Rutgers University professor Chin Ko-lin argues in his book Heijin, Organized Crime, Business and Politics in Taiwan, that an embarrassing episode on U.S. soil in 1984 was a catalyst for that shift, and forerunner to gangsters’ increased access to the island’s political institutions. According to Chin, the head of the Intelligence Bureau of the Ministry of National Defense ordered three high-ranking Bamboo Union members to assassinate Chinese-American writer Henry Liu on U.S. soil. Liu was reportedly murdered over a derogatory profile he had written about then President Chiang Ching-kuo.
The term heijin refers to a member of the underworld.
“(Modern) black-gold politics in Taiwan is the penetration into politics of violent underworld figures and greedy business tycoons and inevitable subsequent social ills such as vote buying, political violence, insider trading, bid rigging and official and unofficial corruption,” writes Chin.
After martial law was lifted in 1987 and Chiang’s death a year later, Lee Tung-hui was ushered in as the Republic of China’s first Taiwanese president. Later, he became the Chinese-speaking world’s first democratically elected president when free elections were held in 1996.
It was around this time that things got hairy.
“Lee tung-hui’s era was the worst time for gangster-politics. Lee needed supporters because he was under pressure from the KMT’s old guard. There was a time when he wasn’t his own man,” says Parris Chang, a former deputy director of the National Security Council under the contentious Chen Shui-bien administration; Chen is serving his own 18-year sentence for corruption.