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Taiwanese gangsters have big say in local politics

Taiwanese gangsters have big say in local politics

The construction boss known as Mr. Pumpkinman has a lengthy criminal record _ and a prominent place in Taiwan's legislature.
Yen Ching-piao, 49, who has served time for weapons and racketeering convictions, is part of a little-discussed phenomenon in Taiwanese politics: the prevalence of criminals in elected posts.
By one estimate, 15 to 30 percent of the lawmakers in Taiwan's 15 counties _ roughly equivalent to U.S. states _ have criminal backgrounds. Some run illegal gambling dens or massage parlors. No matter. They endear themselves to voters as any other good politician would: by using their money and influence, ill-gotten or not, to deliver services to constituents.
It has proven a particularly successful strategy in Taiwan because of the island's notoriously unresponsive bureaucracy.
Elementary school principal Li Shuen-liang, who lost to Yen in the 2008 legislative elections, said one of his opponent's major advantages was his ability to deliver tangible benefits to voters, rather than just airy ideological declarations that few care about.
A turning point came in the campaign when Yen provided dozens of computers to area schools, seemingly with no strings attached.
"Gangsters want grass roots supporters' votes and not their money so they take good care of them," Li said.
His view was echoed by janitor Chi Tsueng-ing, who lavished praise on Yen for helping her daughter's boyfriend visit a friend in jail, without asking for a customary gift in return.
"We all admire him and vote for him," Chi said, "He's just like a god because he answers our wishes."
Taiwan expert Bruce Jacobs of Australia's Monash University says gangster governance is an important part of Taiwan's political glue, without which many people would lose a shot at fair treatment in what has long been a rigidly hierarchical society.
"They are providing services, and that creates respect within the community," he said.
Criminals rose to prominence in politics in the late 1980s, and their influence peaked in the mid-1990s, when a third of county and municipal councilors had criminal backgrounds, according to then Justice Minister Liao Cheng-hao. They included the legislative speaker in Pingtung county, Cheng Tai-chi, who was later executed in 2000 for gunning down a gambling den competitor six years earlier.
Today, the proportion in county legislatures has dropped to 15 to 30 percent, estimates political scientist Chao Yung-mao of National Taiwan University in Taipei. That's still large enough to have a major impact on local politics, he said.
"Gangster deputies demand that government officials give priority to projects in their constituencies or help arrange temporary jobs in the government for their supporters," Chao said. "They warn officials about 'consequences' if their wishes go unfulfilled."
Their names are widely known in Taiwan. People like Tainan county legislative speaker Wu Chien-bao, recently indicted for bribing professional baseball players. Or Nantou county power broker Chiang Chin-liang, whose murder and extortion convictions in the 1980s raised embarrassing questions for Wu Den-yih, now Taiwan's premier, after it was reported that Chiang had accompanied him on a trip to Indonesia in 2008.
Yen, known as Mr. Pumpkinman because of his squat, stocky build, belongs to a group of gangster-politicians in construction _ a legitimate business, but one critics say regularly benefits from gaining the inside track in bidding for lucrative public works contracts.
Born in the hardscrabble Taichung county township of Shalu, he started in politics as a local precinct captain in 1990, not long after serving three years in the Green Island penal colony on racketeering charges.
By 1998 Yen had risen to speaker of the Taichung assembly and, despite being convicted of using public funds to frequent girlie bars, was elected to the Taiwan legislature as an independent candidate three years later.
Yen was re-elected in 2004 _ easily brushing aside another lawmaker's charge that a cement company he owned was illegally sourcing gravel from a restricted area _ and then again in 2008, not long before he began serving a nine-month sentence for providing weapons used in a failed assassination attempt on a rival gangster in 1996.
Today the burly Yen is arguably at the height of his powers. When China's senior Taiwan envoy, Chen Yunlin, visited late last year, he made it a point to pay his respects at the ornate Taoist temple Yen heads in the Taichung town of Ta Chia. More recently, President Ma Ying-jeou named Yen as a special pitchman for his proposed trade agreement with Beijing _ mindful that Yen's support could influence thousands of ordinary Taiwanese still skeptical about the deal.
The center of Yen's power base is Ta Chia's ocher-roofed Chen Lan Temple, which provides him with free publicity and myriad opportunities to build support during its annual festival, an event attracting hundreds of thousands of believers. As the temple chairman, Yen has access to its hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual donations _ money that can go for constituent services or good works, such as the orphanage he built not far from the temple grounds.
Yen also has a reputation as a go-to guy for settling local disputes.
When Lin Tsung-hai, a village chief in Taichung county, saw a group of hooligans approach his community to avenge the death of one of their allies, he called Yen for help.
"Yen talked to the both sides, and the hooligans never returned," Lin said, without elaborating.
Yen declined repeated interview requests. Asked how his boss can dispense costly favors on a lawmaker's modest salary, office director Hsu Kuo-sheng acknowledged that Yen's cement and construction companies play a role.
"Sometimes the lawmaker has to pay out money at more than ten functions a day, including weddings and funerals," Hsu said. "His legislative salary can barely cover his constituency service expenses so he has to tap into his business revenues."
Yen's companies have won at least two government contracts in recent years, public records show.
Hsu said while Yen now devotes much of his energy to leading local charity efforts as the temple chairman, the lawmaker still feels burdened by his colorful past.
"Sometimes he complains to me that no matter how hard he tries to do good works, people still criticize him," Hsu said.
Wang Yeh-lih, another National Taiwan University political scientist, said that gangster governance in Taiwanese counties evolved from deals that then President Lee Teng-hui cut with criminal elements in the late 1980s.
At the time, Wang said, Lee needed a strong counterweight to influential elders in his Nationalist Party, who were trying to maintain the political dominance of the so-called "mainlander" faction _ people who had fled to Taiwan in 1949 when Mao Zedong's Communists defeated Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists in the Chinese civil war.
Lee himself was a native Taiwanese _ the descendent of families who had come to the island from the Chinese mainland in the 17th and 18th centuries _ and to neutralize the mainlander faction, said Wang, Lee "nominated many native Taiwanese gangsters to run in regional elections and for positions in the party's decision-making body."
Lee stepped down in 2000 because of term limits but, a decade later, the gangster governance he spawned shows no sign of disappearing anytime soon.