June 17, 2017. Headquarters of the Unification Party (UP) on Fuxing Road, Taipei. Part of the office space had been remodeled into a classroom, where Zhang Anle (also romanized as Chang An-lo), the founder, face, and soul of the UP, delivered a three-hour lecture to over a hundred core members of the party as well as a few curious bystanders. As always, Zhang’s frameless glasses, tailor-made Chinese-style suit, humble smile, and eloquence on the stage made him seem a college professor. Contrasting with his impeccably modest demeanor is Zhang’s reputation as a former mob boss and his political views, which directly go against the mainstream in today’s Taiwan.
Known as the “White Wolf,” Zhang Anle once held a consigliere position in the Bamboo Union, the largest gang formed by mainland immigrants in 1950s Taiwan. The organization reached its peak in the 1980s-90s under Chen Chi-li (1941-2007), the sworn big brother of Zhang Anle. The Bamboo Union today has been somewhat weakened by factional struggles, and its lower levels tainted with vices that Chen had strictly forbidden, including narcotics. Yet the vision and charisma of Chen Chi-li and Zhang Anle bequeathed to the mob a sense of political mission and a touch of romantic character that no similar organization possesses. Chen’s family background and education imbued in him a loyalty toward the Nationalist Party (KMT) and its belief in a united China, for which he personally planned the assassination of Henry Liu, a writer and a possible rogue Nationalist intelligent agent. Observing the rising forces of Taiwan independence in the 1980s, Chen told Zhang that if Taiwanese separatists were to dominate the government someday, he should step forward and if he had to choose between a pro-independence party and the Chinese Communists, he should choose the latter.
Zhang has done exactly that. At age 70 and having long ago withdrawn from affairs of the underworld, Zhang utilizes a lifetime of knowledge and connections in leading the UP, the only force that openly promotes Taiwan’s integration into the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In doing so, Zhang Anle, who could have retired as a wealthy and happy grandfather, threw himself into the turbulent world of electoral politics in Taiwan. The increasingly independence-leaning public sees Zhang through either a black filter, associating him with organized crime, or a red filter, calling him a pawn for the Communist government, or both. Few are willing to put prejudice aside and consider what he has to say. Having lived extensively on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, Zhang understands both governments and peoples probably better than any other politician in Taiwan. His unconventional background gives people a reason to be suspicious, but does not preclude the possibility that his proposal may actually be in the best interests of the Taiwanese people.
Zhang Anle and the One China Premise
Surrounded by myths and controversies, the White Wolf is an intriguing figure. His acquaintances range from the most powerful of the underworld and society’s upper echelons, to the marginalized whom he shelters. With several degrees from universities, including Stanford, and a voracious reading habit, Zhang Anle’s knowledge of Chinese history and politics would inspire awe among scholars in such fields. At public events, Zhang is routinely followed and waited upon by a well-trained entourage; when encountering people on the street who may or may not recognize him immediately, Zhang is a perfect elderly gentleman, making way for others and treating women and children with particular courtesy.
For Zhang Anle, the bottom line for resolving the Taiwan problem is the one China principle, which the Communists on the mainland and the KMT in Taiwan both agree on, despite their different interpretations. The mission of retaking the mainland and building a unified, prosperous nation, once chanted by the KMT, was deeply rooted in the minds of mainlanders in Taiwan, including Zhang Anle. Unlike most of his generation, however, Zhang’s vision for the Chinese nation goes beyond the scope of the island and loyalty to a certain party. Attending Stanford in the 1980s, Zhang had the chance to interact with the PRC’s first group of students overseas, and started to see the future of the Chinese nation shifting to the mainland.
Since 1996, Zhang has spent 17 years on the mainland, visiting every site he had learned about through the patriotic education implanted by the KMT. He also witnessed how the Communists defended China’s sovereignty and raised 1.3 billion people out of poverty, which the Nationalists had promised yet failed to deliver. For him, the Communist Party of China’s achievements far outweighed its remaining problems and historical controversies.
The hope for the KMT to recapture the mainland has faded since the 1970s and the shift of power back across the Taiwan Strait now gives the PRC a greater advantage to push for a resolution with Taiwan. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that the Taiwan issue “cannot be passed on from generation to generation.” A pragmatic thinker, Zhang believes Taiwan’s voluntary acceptance of the PRC’s “one country, two systems” formula would place it in the best bargaining position with Beijing. This formula, in Zhang’s opinion, would work better for Taiwan than for Hong Kong, a British colony that could not directly negotiate with the mainland government. Such a view makes Zhang one of the rare “red” unionists, as opposed to the “blue” Nationalists with varied level of commitments and the “green” separatists.
Accepting or rejecting the one China principle today has become as much an identity issue as a political one. Since the 1992 consensus on the one China principle, the percentage of people in Taiwan who call themselves Chinese has plunged to a mere 3 percent. Among people between 20 and 30 years old, 85 percent identify themselves as simply Taiwanese. Behind this trend is a meticulously devised de-Sinification process started under Lee Teng-hui’s presidency (1988-2000), which has saturated education, history writing, the registration system, and popular culture. For the young generation, advocating for Taiwan independence, trash talking about the mainland, and glorifying Japanese colonialism have become politically correct and trendy.
The political landscape has changed too. The KMT is more divided than ever, as seasoned politicians are preoccupied with power struggles and have become ambivalent toward the one China principle for fear of losing votes. With the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) taking the lead, more political forces have appeared on the green half of the spectrum and are gaining influence over public opinion. Regardless of the number of votes it wins in elections, the UP under Zhang Anle plays an important part in the delicate power balance by keeping the one China discourse from being completely overshadowed.
The Myth of “Gangster Politics”
Taiwan’s media portrays the members of UP as lawless, violence-prone gangsters, blaming them for bringing underworld practices into politics. Admittedly, a considerable portion of the UP’s 40,000 members have direct and indirect mob connections. These are the people whom Zhang could most easily rally, people who are not afraid of confronting the political and cultural mainstream. On the other hand, the UP is more broadly based than often assumed. Its members include a former mayor, a former legislator, professionals, descendants of Nationalist generals, and new immigrants who obtained citizenship in the Republic of China after 1990. What they share is an anxiety about Taiwan’s increasing isolationism and limited potential for future development.
Zhang and his followers depart in their goals and actions from the “black gold” type that has plagued Taiwan democracy for decades. “Black” in Chinese can refer to the underworld. “Black gold” politics thus denotes penetration into politics by underworld figures since the 1990s, and subsequent social ills including vote buying, political violence, insider trading, and official corruption.The DPP, which traditionally brands itself as an advocate of human rights and the people’s interest, also has entrenched ties with the underworld. Ker Chien-ming, a senior legislator and the whip of the DPP, is notoriously close to powerful gangs in and beyond Taipei, which mobilized votes to ensure Ker’s continued success in elections. Huang Cheng-kuo, DPP’s Taipei Charter Chief, held a high rank in the “Heavenly Alliance,” the largest Taiwanese gang. In such “black gold” scenarios, politicians and underworld figures collude to profit from the status quo. The latter supports the former to win elections, in exchange for continued dominance in certain industries, and sometimes gradual transformation into politicians themselves.
Zhang Anle is fully aware of the easy assumption people make about him and his party, and the possibility that some unruly members of the UP may confirm such an impression. An important dimension of his work as the party’s leader is to educate party members about Chinese history and politics, in addition to ethics. Zhang never denies that many of the party members are still involved in less-than-legitimate organizations, but demands necessary lines be drawn. One condition for joining the party is to stay away from construction businesses, which have been traditionally associated with crime syndicates and “black gold” politics.
For the upcoming elections in 2018, Zhang aims to develop constituencies in Hualien and Taitung, where the DPP’s influence is relatively weak and the economy needs resources from mainland China, which the UP promises to bring. Once again Zhang has announced to his party that “we will not buy votes, and we do not have the money anyway.” In a sense, Zhang is trying to create a new identity for his followers, steering them away from what he sees as corrupting practices in Taiwan’s underworld and politics. The UP’s lack of finances serves to invalidate the speculation that the CPC has been channeling large amounts of funding to Zhang, his party, or even the Bamboo Union.
To Protest and To Protect
Media reports on the UP’s activities focus on acts of violence and coercion, feeding popular presumptions about Zhang and his supporters. Yet the story is often taken out of context, and a double standard is applied. Following the 70th anniversary of the February 28 Incident this year, Taiwan separatists, with their faces covered, decapitated several statues of Chiang Kai-shek. On April 15, 2017, a member of the UP, Li Chenglong, beheaded the statue of Hatta Yoichi in response. Hatta Yoichi was a Japanese civil engineer who, in recent years, has been celebrated as personifying the modernizing impacts of Japanese colonial rule in Taiwan. Even the Nationalist President Ma Ying-jeou praised him for “dedicating 32 years of his life to the building of Taiwan’s infrastructure.” In fact, the higher rice yields made possible by Hatta’s colonial projects fed the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II, rather than the Taiwanese. The numerous dams and public projects built by Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo, which catalyzed Taiwan’s development since the 1960s, however, are unacknowledged achievements. The beheaded statue of Chiang covered with red paint was celebrated as an act of fulfilling transitional justice, whereas Li Chenglong faces prosecution and widespread criticism.
Whenever the UP extends a protective arm to the neglected and the disadvantaged, it curiously escapes media attention. The UP has sent rice and blankets to disaster-stricken areas, protected individuals who had fallen victim to Internet bullying, and supported temples in their demonstrations against the government’s ban on the use of incense, to name a few. Most noticeably, the UP has designated personnel and procedures to provide legal aid and care to mainland women who migrated to Taiwan through marriage. Many of these women find themselves socially isolated, abused by their Taiwanese husbands, and threatened with deportation under discriminatory immigration policies. One branch of the UP now consists of women who have received help from the party and would like to support those in the same plight.
The landslide victory of Tsai Ing-wen and her DPP in the 2016 election sent cross-strait relations into a new ice age, and her first year in office has aggravated political polarization and social tensions in Taiwan. Before the PRC completely gives up on peaceful integration, the UP seems to be one of the only forces sending a positive signal back to the mainlanders that they can still work with their “Taiwanese compatriots” for a united China.
The color Zhang has chosen to represent the UP, a unique blend of blue, red, and black, aptly represents Zhang’s life and views. These shades, if properly proportioned, may have a chance of combating the saturating green on the island.
Yun Xia is an assistant professor of history at Valparaiso University, Indiana. She holds a Ph.D. in Chinese history and specializes in the study of Chinese law and society, as well as Chinese nationalism.