Features | Society | East Asia

Taiwan and the Mob

Gangsters and politicians have a long and complicated relationship in Taiwan, Cain Nunns reports from Taipei. Indeed, sometimes they’ve been the same thing.

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.

“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.

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“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.

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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.

Chang says that Lee was unable to use the intelligence apparatus to control the country as his predecessors had, and reached out to gangsters to either secure votes or run under the party’s banner or as independents who would vote with the KMT in parliament.

The KMT swept the elections, but the political environment turned very nasty, very quickly. The list of violent crimes either committed by or directed at politicians reads like a Chicago crime blotter from the 1930s.

In 1996, Taoyuan County’s commissioner was gunned down in his home just outside of Taipei, along with two county councilors, five colleagues and a team of bodyguards. A high-ranking female DPP member was murdered in southern Kaohsiung soon after. Also in the south, a powerful speaker from Pingtung reportedly shot dead his illegal gambling den partner in front of his mother.

While the politicians were busy securing votes, mobsters were able to access first-hand information on construction bids, land development, the judiciary, public works planning and the budget. The government’s allowance of deliberate infiltration of criminal elements into selected institutions provided organized crime huge influence and increased lobbying power.

Lin wrote of Lo during this period: “an influential legislator who is also the convener of the judicial committee of the legislature could also be one of the richest entrepreneurs in the country, (despite) proclaiming himself to be the ‘spiritual leader’ of a powerful gang and being listed as a hoodlum by the authorities.”

Lo was notorious for beating up his fellow lawmakers – including a female opposition member – who either opposed him or publically denounced him as a triad boss. Sometimes he would act alone. On other occasions, he would team up with fellow mob lawmakers Wu Tse-yuan and Lin Ming-yi to dole out parliamentary punishments. One unfortunate legislator who locked horns with him was allegedly abducted, stripped, placed inside a dog cage and dumped on the side of a road three days later.

Despite being jailed for more than three years in the mid-80s over his ties to Celestial Way, Lo was still allowed to run as a KMT candidate in 1996 and then again in 1999 as an independent. Lo’s 2002 bid was cut short after he was detained for four months on fraud and embezzlement charges. He did, however, mount an unsuccessful challenge in late 2011.

Analysts suggest that his methods, along with favors earned, intimidated the Legislative Yuan into allowing him seats on the powerful Financial and Judiciary Committees. In effect, Lo had some control of the police budget and could influence investigations. In return for being shielded from prosecution and seats on committees that determine public works bids, gangsters were said to be expected to vote along party lines on national ticket issues.

It’s here that mobsters have also proven adept at dropping party favoritism. When the DPP was in power from 2000-2008, gangsters would reportedly often work with the new party.

In a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, an American Institute in Taiwan staffer wrote that a DPP official told him that securing (a prominent gangster-politician’s vote) was as easy as building a new road in his electorate.

Mobsters are viewed as good vote-getters in rural areas because of their grassroots personalities, services to constituents, generosity, and ability to obtain funding for local infrastructure projects. And, as in other parts of Northeast Asia, the boundary between clean and dirty politics isn’t always clear cut. In fact, it’s often murky and porous.

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“In this part of the world, government participation at the grass roots level isn’t up to scratch and the vacuum is filled by triads. They can win the hearts of minds of people in their constituency because they fight for their interests,” Lo says via Skype.

Good local politics or not, organized crime still negatively affects the national stage through corruption, vote buying, nepotism and violence.

In 2010, three KMT lawmakers lost their seats for vote-buying. That same year, Sean Lien, the son of former KMT chairman and two-time losing presidential nominee Lien Chen, was shot in the face at a campaign rally.

The mobster-shooter claimed to have hit the wrong man – saying his intended target was another KMT member, who he was involved in a land dispute with. An innocent bystander was killed.

In 2008, Lo’s KMT lawmaker son, Lo Ming-tsai, was also implicated in Celestial Way business, when his office reportedly played host to a deadly late night shooting of a gang member following an altercation at a downtown Karaoke bar.

Lo’s son, who has also served multiple terms on the finance committee, says he isn’t connected to the underworld.

According to one expert on organized crime who spoke on condition of anonymity, Taiwanese gangs work in illegal businesses that span the globe and are worth billions of dollars a year. They have also moved into legitimate areas including restaurants, hotels, the music and movie industries, gravel mining, waste disposal, construction, cable TV, publishing, fisheries, communications and stock trading.

“The old gangsters have passed away. Their interests have been passed on to their sons, who have become chairmen of companies or congressmen,” says Roger Hsieh, a one-time political prisoner, lawmaker and author of Gangsters Rule Taiwan.

“They are extremely influential in finance, construction, the economy and politics – basically everywhere,” Hsieh says, adding that the influence of gangs within Taiwanese politics and business hasn’t waned. It’s the rules of the game that have changed.

“Some of Taiwan’s biggest companies are gangster owned. This younger generation is very well educated. They have degrees from Ivy League schools and have more money and greater influence than their fathers.”

But perhaps it’s intrepid gangster-fugitive Lo fu-chu, who said it best when being interviewed for Lin’s book: “if government and business people are not involved in bid-rigging then there (would be) no room for heidao (gangster) people to participate.”

Cain Nunns is a freelance journalist who writes for The Guardian, Monocle and Global Post, among other publications.