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A Black Force in Taiwan

By Bertil Lintner

Heijin: Organized Crime, Business, and Politics in Taiwan by Ko-lin Chin. An East Gate Book from M.E. Sharpe. $27.95

Organized-crime groups are usually associated with gambling, prostitution, drug-trafficking and human-smuggling. In Taiwan, add two more activities to the list: construction contracts and politics.

When the former ruling Kuomintang, in the 1980s, abandoned the goal of recovering mainland China from the communists and began to focus on transforming Taiwan into a modern society, a construction boom followed. Taiwan's godfathers of crime saw a golden opportunity to rake in a mountain of fast money. With the democratization of Taiwan in the early 1990s came campaigns against organized crime. Many gangsters decided that the best way to protect themselves from future crackdowns was to take advantage of the new democratic system and transform themselves into popularly elected deputies.

The title of this book, Heijin, or "black-gold politics," refers to this infiltration of violent racketeers and businessmen with a chequered past into the political arena, a development that threatens Taiwan's prosperity as well as its otherwise vibrant democracy. Gang leaders who used to be called "big brothers" now refer to themselves as "chairmen of the board" or "elected representatives."

The Burmese-born Ko-lin Chin studied in Taiwan and settled in the United States. As a professor of criminology at Rutgers University, New Jersey, he is well equipped to describe and analyse the changing face of Taiwanese organized crime. His first major study, Chinatown Gangs: Extortion, Enterprise, and Ethnicity was based not on Internet searches or sifting through newspaper archives but on extensive interviews with gang members in New York's Chinatown. Likewise, for his second study, Smuggled Chinese: Clandestine Immigration to the United States, he talked to numerous smugglers as well as to people who had been smuggled. In Heijin, Chin interviews not only police officers but also leaders and members of Taiwan's most feared criminal gangs, including the notorious Bamboo United and Four Seas. The outcome is the best and most detailed account of Taiwan's criminal underworld that has ever been written in English. And it is a very important subject. Millions of dollars are lost to crime gangs, who have not changed their ways even if they are trying to be legitimate construction tycoons. They misappropriate government money and the quality of the work leaves a lot to be desired. Their entry into politics is even more worrying, as it could destabilize Taiwan's fledgling democracy.

As Chin points out, most people in Taiwan, with the exception of the gangsters themselves, are convinced that the involvement of a large number of criminals in both local and national politics could eventually ruin the country. Fearlessly, Chin lists the gangsters who he says have been elected to not only local assemblies but also the parliament, and those in the construction industry.

What can be done about it? When Chen Shui-bian of the then-opposition Democratic Progressive Party won the 2000 election, he promised to put an end to Taiwan's black-gold politics. Some progress has been made over the past four years, but Chin believes that organized crime in Taiwan cannot be eliminated simply by conducting gang-sweeps and incarcerating godfathers. The country's antiquated judicial system has to be reformed and local communities mobilized for crime prevention. Chin also points out that the gangs have their strongholds in the poorest parts of the island, where development lags far behind that of the two major cities, Taipei and Kaohsiung. A more even distribution of wealth is needed.

This book's publication is very timely. In March, Taiwan will go to the polls again, and while the relationship with the mainland may dominate foreign-policy issues, black-gold politics will no doubt be the hottest domestic issue.

This review first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, January 22, 2004

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