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Taiwan Has Anti-Corruption Fever

Last week's election of Chen Shui-bian was a rejection of the old ruling party's crony politics.

March 22, 2000|TOM PLATE | Times contributing editor Tom Plate's column runs Wednesdays. E-mail:

In country after country that has benefited from new wealth, a rising, assertive middle class inevitably demands political reforms. This was as true in South Korea in 1997, when voters chose long-time anti-establishment figure Kim Dae Jung as president over the establishment's candidate, as it was in Taiwan this past weekend, when the longtime anti-establishment figure Chen Shui-bian prevailed. The problem when you give people power is that sometimes they use it.

You thought the Taiwan election was entirely about independence from the mainland? That's not surprising, because that's the way the Western media by and large played the story. They viewed the historic balloting through the telescope of the triangular relationship among Beijing, Washington and Taipei. But a lot more is going on in Asia and on the tiny island than that. Taiwan, resplendently successful economically, is now the proud progenitor of the second successive presidential election in which power was transferred without violence. This is a first in 5,000 years of Chinese history. Voters sent an unmistakable message that the people were sovereign, not the heretofore all-powerful Kuomintang, or KMT, that has ruled since the Chinese civil war of 1949. So voters rejected the party of President Lee Teng-hui, despite his historic profile as the island's first elected leader, because he was at the very top of the KMT behemoth that had become encrusted with five decades of arrant cronyism and complacent corruption. Middle-class voters said: We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore.

Again, the parallels with South Korea are striking. Until as recently as 1987, both were cruel, repressive military dictatorships. Open your mouth and go directly to jail, but only after the torturers had their way with you. Indeed, repression in South Korea and Taiwan was not very different from that in the People's Republic of China. Even today, corruption remains a problem in Korea and Taiwan; a couple of worthy elections does not cleanse a culture overnight. But it is hard to see how a place as vulnerable to change as mainland China can remain long immune to the rising desire of people for more participation and less corruption. Indeed, the current Chinese government's millennial conversion to government integrity comes in response to just such under-the-surface pressure. No doubt the Communist Party is in further fright now, having observed the astonishing comeuppance of the Kuomintang last weekend.

Undoubtedly, our best understanding of the tie between healthy democracy and clean government comes from Transparency International, the Berlin-based global nonprofit, which sees reducing corruption as essential to economic development and true democracy over the long run. Transparency, founded in 1992, has vigorously argued that the denial of human rights and the menace of authoritarianism swim most easily under the surface, in the cesspools of corruption. Cutting that debilitating and demoralizing culture down to size raises the prospects both for democracy and for a more equitable distribution of wealth. And for those internationalists who champion economic globalization for its greater efficiency in distributing wealth worldwide, note that Transparency International believes that here, corruption is the enemy, too. Competitive bribery, the inevitable product of official corruption, can devastate economies, inhibit trade and deter new investment. "Decisions that are taken not for the public benefit but to serve private interests," says Transparency founder Peter Eigen, "hurt the weakest in society. Corruption is a universal challenge. No country is immune to it."

Not the West, certainly. Transparency claims, in fact, that U.S. companies, notwithstanding our Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, are a bigger source of bribes abroad than U.S. citizens realize. This can make us part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Just recently, Germany, despite its enviable postwar constitution and commitment to democracy, was rocked by corruption revelations involving none other than Helmut Kohl, the former German chancellor--a man as high in profile in Europe as Lee Teng-hui in Asia. Then there are all those allegations about illegal fund-raising plaguing America's politicians, made cash-voracious by the increasing demands of media budgeting.

But we don't always recognize ourselves in this picture: When Singapore's Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, at a dinner in Washington last year, fielded a blizzard of questions from U.S. journalists about the prevalence in Asia of "crony capitalism," someone finally interjected that America had its own corruption problems, too. The difference is, we don't use the term "crony capitalism." Rather, it's "campaign contributions."

Of course, many contributions are both legal and ethical, and the United States is far from the Philippines or Vietnam, for instance, when it comes to omnipresent corruption. But if we look at Asia as a uniquely corrupt backwater, we run the risk of missing the larger picture of Europe, North America and Africa. It's truly an international problem, as Transparency International has been saying all along. Taiwan voters were speaking for us all when they said they weren't going to take it anymore. The world owes them a vote of thanks.

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