Written by Paul R. Katz.

It has been a rough few weeks for Taiwan’s young democracy (see the reports in The Economist and Washington Post). Trouble began on September 6, when President Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九, Prosecutor-General Huang Shih-ming 黃世銘, and other high-ranking officials went public with allegations that Legislative Yuan Speaker Wang Jin-pyng 王金平 had tried to persuade former Justice Minister Tseng Yung-fu 曾勇夫 to lobby prosecutors not to reopen an embezzlement case against Ker Chien-ming 柯建銘, chief whip of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). These accusations were supported by transcripts of secretly recorded telephone conversations said to have been done “inadvertently” while investigating Ker’s role in a separate case (see below). Bristling with outrage, Ma passionately proclaimed that Wang’s alleged “influence-peddling” marked “the most shameful day in the history of democracy and rule of law in Taiwan”, and on September 11 arranged for him to be expelled from the KMT. Even Taiwan’s overseas missions got involved in the fracas, with Representative to the U.S. King Pu-tsung 金溥聰 having to apologize when one diplomat left a post on the Washington Post website describing Wang as the “former Legislative Speaker”.

But Wang is not one to go quietly into the night. He took his case to court, and the courts have consistently ruled in his favor, allowing Wang to keep both his KMT party membership and his position as Speaker (Ma has now decided not to pursue further legal action). Ma’s awkward predicament has been augmented by the fact that some party heavyweights, including honorary chairman Lien Chan 連戰, have criticized his handling of the case.

The current turmoil has potentially severe economic and political implications. Some commentators have seen cross-Strait politics as the root cause, noting that Ma and other high-ranking government officials have not been pleased by Wang’s habit of ceding ground to opposition legislators. In one particularly frustrating sequence of events, Ma had been eager for lawmakers to approve legislation spurring closer economic ties with China (the cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement), only to have Wang allow the legislation to be voted on one section at a time instead of as a package deal. The ensuing delays have irked the powers that be on both sides of the Strait, particularly since it has now become clear that this Agreement has the potential to serve as a precursor to even closer contacts at even higher levels of government. China’s agenda was clearly expressed during a recent meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping 習近平 and former Taiwan Vice President Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) prior to this year’s APEC summit in Bali, with Xi stressing the need to resolve Cross-Strait political divisions so that this burden would not be inherited by the next generation. One form of “progress” occurred during a separate meeting between Mainland Affairs Council Minister Wang Yu-chi 王郁琦 and his Chinese counterpart, Taiwan Affairs Office Director Zhang Zhijun 張志軍, during which they addressed each other using their official titles. Some now view the Wang-Zhang talks as setting the stage for a meeting between Ma and Xi, preferably during the APEC summit to be held next year in Shanghai. Pro-unification media are calling for “courage” in preparing this event and the major “breakthrough” it would represent, but in order for such a meeting to happen, Taiwan must pass the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement at all costs, including millions of NT$ in advertising on its behalf, with or without Wang’s tactical support.

Despite the implications of the Ma-Wang schism for future cross-Strait ties, a more immediate concern is how the case against Wang has been handled, and what this reveals about the state of Taiwan’s democratic institutions. One troubling issue has been the inability of President Ma and Prosecutor-General Huang to accurately recall how many times they discussed Wang’s case before September 6, as well as changing their accounts of when and where specific meetings were said to have been held, as well as who took the initiative in contacting whom. Even more troubling is the fact that at least some of these meetings took place while the case against Ker was still being investigated (irregular at best, and perhaps illegal), not to mention the image of political leaders plotting an attack on one of their rivals while the Taiwanese people were trying to recover from the ravages of two successive typhoons.

There are also serious questions being raised about how the “evidence” against Wang and Ker was collected, namely by means of wiretaps (see also here). While wiretapping represents a legitimate means of protecting national security and keeping criminals at bay, there is always the risk of abuse, as citizens throughout the world (including the U.S.) know all too well. In this case, the Special Investigation Division (SID, 特偵組; formed under DPP rule to investigate corruption cases) not only wiretapped Wang and Ker, but also ended up “accidentally” monitoring the husband and young daughter of a local prosecutor (a second case of “inadvertent” wiretapping). That a middle school student was placed under surveillance, even if inadvertently and then only for a week, represents a great setback to the democratic values Taiwan holds dear. Such practices may only be the tip of the iceberg (see below). Another problem is that some surveillance permits appear to have been issued in the context of larger investigations that may or may not have involved the people whose lines were tapped. The latest evidence indicates that Ker’s 2013 wiretap had been approved because he was potentially involved in a bribery case dating back to 2010, when judicial officials accepted lucre to rule a former KMT legislator not guilty of graft.

The extent of the wiretaps, and the power they represent, has even extended into the hallowed halls of Taiwan’s legislature, albeit again explained away as “inadvertent”. On September 28, Ker told a press conference that among the numbers listed by the court in a notice informing him that the wiretapping of his lines had been discontinued was the Legislative Yuan’s switchboard number, 0972-630-235. Despite an emphatic seven-fold denial by a SID spokesman, officials later confirmed that they had indeed tapped the switchboard, supposedly mistaking it for the cellphone number of one of Ker’s aides. Both DPP and KMT lawmakers expressed outrage.

One result of all these irregularities is that Ker has filed a lawsuit at the Taipei District Prosecutors’ Office, accusing President Ma and Prosecutor-General Huang of leaking secrets and wiretapping. Ker noted that he had done so in order to persuade the courts to secure essential evidence, namely the SID’s wiretaps as well as records of phone calls between Ma and Huang. The government says the wiretapping was legal, but many lawmakers believe that the authorities have overstepped their legal limits. At present, the Ministry of Justice is investigating these irregularities, but since they were committed by one of its own some are calling for an independent probe by a third party, perhaps along the lines of a congressional investigation as in U.S.

In addition, the Taipei District Prosecutors’ Office has begun its own investigation into four top political figures with links to the case. President Ma, Premier Jiang Yi-huah 江宜樺 and former Presidential Office Deputy Secretary-general Lo Chih-chang 羅智強 were subpoenaed as witnesses, while Prosecutor-General Huang was questioned as a defendant. Growing concerns over democratic freedoms have prompted the DPP to threaten to impeach or recall Ma, but as they only hold 40 seats in the 113-seat Legislative Yuan, while the KMT possesses a sizeable majority of 65, any such moves may constitute a mission impossible in terms of bipartisan politics.

To add insult to invasiveness is the problem of indifference, mainly on the part of Taiwan’s ruling elites. As in many countries throughout the world, prices continue to rise while wages remain stagnant, with the income gap increasing at an alarming rate. However, as times have gotten harder, with all hope failing, Taiwan has ended up with leaders who often seem detached from about people’s suffering (see two of my previous blogposts, here and here). In one recent incident, a minister commented on a cabbie’s having committed suicide out of despair by saying that life’s pressures could cause anyone (including himself) to kill themselves, raising a firestorm of criticism over being “cold-blooded” (冷血). Many citizens have expressed outrage over the demolition of private homes in Dapu 大埔 Borough, Miaoli County (allegedly to make room for land development schemes, something that seems eerily familiar). The resulting trauma has led to the deaths of five people linked to these events, mostly by accident or suicide (one cause of death remains a mystery).

Widespread discontent has caused Ma’s popularity to wallow at an abysmal 9.2%, which some wags immediately dubbed the “New [19]92 Consensus”; 新九二共識). Some people are now expressing their feelings in the form of hurling footwear, first at the local officials connected to the Dapu demolition and now at Ma himself, which has led to his security detail including people armed with giant nets to haul in all flying apparel. Fears over massive protests prompted to KMT to postpone its annual party conference, originally scheduled for the Sun Yat-sen Memorial in downtown Taipei on September 29. Other possible venues include Yangmingshan 陽明山 (but this brings back memories of totalitarian rule under Chang Kai-shek), or Taichung City. Thousands of protesters still surrounded the Presidential Office on September 29, and more protests are planned for Taiwan’s National Day (October 10).

At this point, the prime concern for most people is human rights and core democratic values. No one is completely sure about how many wiretaps have been carried out, and the lack of such knowledge is truly terrifying. One KMT adviser was recently quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “I’m sorry. It’s not safe to talk right now. We are being monitored.” Data provided by none other than the Judicial Yuan (司法院) shows that rates of surveillance have steadily increased since Ma took office, with applications for surveillance in a total of 177,000 legal cases at an approval rate of 83 percent; only 208 cases were subject to judicial oversight. The data also reveals that applications covered 500,000 phones, meaning three phones were subject to wiretapping for each investigation, and with each line being bugged for an average of 76 days. The overall significance of these numbers will only become clear after further investigation and comparison to other countries, but one legislator noted that while Germany has more than four times the total population of Taiwan, it has much lower rates of surveillance.

In addition to possible incidents of the state spying on its own citizens, there are also a growing number of accusations about intimidation by the authorities (see the articles here and here, as well as this YouTube video). In one instance, a female college student found out that police told her father that she is on a watch list normally used to monitor Taiwan’s most dangerous felons (治安顧慮人口; Information about such lists can be found on some official websites; see here and here). She has never committed a felony, but this might be due to her having been arrested at a protest following the Dapu demolition. Another female student who participated in the Dapu protests says that a police officer told her mother that she had been arrested and advised her to keep a closer eye on her daughter. The mother suffered a nervous breakdown, and the student no longer takes part in activities considered “provocative”. More recently, some DPP legislators have charged that hundreds of individuals who took part in anti-government protests have been subject to monitoring by the National Security Bureau (NSB, 國家安全局). The NSB promptly issued a brief press release denying the accusations, while the National Police Agency (NPA, 警政署) justified the visit to students’ homes part of efforts by police to reach out to the public through “direct communication” (熱線接觸), a term that harks back to the dark days of the Martial Law era. In short, while there may be some misunderstandings involving semantics, there may also be cause for alarm over the fact that some police activity is affecting the lives of at least a few activists.

All this is not to deny the Ma administration’s many achievements. As mainstream periodicals like The Economist have noted, all is quiet in the Taiwan Strait, while closer ties with China have brought their share of political and economic benefits. One of most recent is Taiwan’s having been invited to attend the United Nation’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) as a guest, even if it did not attain the goal of observer status and the achievement was somewhat marred by the fact that the ICAO president suggested that Taiwan’s invitation was thanks to China. Solid progress is being made, and it is becoming increasingly apparent where things may be going: the approval of the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement, a trip to Shanghai in 2014, and a historic handshake in front of the cameras, all culminating in the Nobel Peace Prize. These are noble goals indeed, but their achievement will depend at least in part on meeting the needs of Taiwan’s people and responding to the troubling issues described above. All of this is in turn linked to the issue of Ma’s legacy. Now Taiwanese citizens are posing the same question people asked in the U.S. 40 years ago when I was just a boy: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” These are highly complex issues, and the facts are not fully clear, but if it turns out that Ma is found guilty of violating the democratic principles so many Taiwanese have fought to uphold, then history may be a harsher judge of his legacy than a handshake in Shanghai might ensure.

Paul R. Katz is a Senior Research Fellow in the Institute of Modern History at Academia Sinica.

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