Is Taiwan’s Organized Crime Receding or Going Deeper Underground?

A 1997 "anti-black gold" student protest in front of the Executive yuan building. (photo: CNA)
This is Part 5 of the Special Report on Public Safety: Links to Part 1Part2Part 3,Part 4, Part 5
Taiwan society has changed, and the gangsters have either disappeared or become more sophisticated, depending on who you ask.

Over the decades, media reports in Taiwan have depicted highly efficient and ruthless underworld organizations with exotic names such as the Bamboo Union, Four Seas, and Heavenly Way as engaged in international counterfeiting, human trafficking, gun-running, and drug smuggling.

During the economic boom years of the 1980s and 1990s, in addition, Taiwanese mobsters seemed ever-present in everything from bid-rigging on construction projects to political assassinations. Most notoriously, in 1996 Taoyuan County Magistrate Liu Pang-you and six members of his family were tied up and shot at point-blank range, a crime that remains unsolved but is generally considered mafia-linked. Other gang-connected shootings of local politicians have occurred from time to time around the island. And the funerals of mafia godfathers in Taiwan have attracted thousands of mourners, including organized crime members from Japan, Hong Kong, and Macau who flew over to pay their respects.

Crime bosses have held seats in the Legislative Yuan and mafia thugs were routinely deployed by legitimate businesses to deal with disputes. The collusion among politics, business, and organized crime was dubbed hei jin – black gold – and was seen as a major stain on Taiwan’s early efforts at democratization. In the early 2000s, the hei jin problem and its impact on the business climate was regularly raised in AmCham Taipei’s Taiwan White Paper.

But does organized crime continue to play a big role in Taiwan’s political and business environment?

Police officials and criminology experts say that these gangs, after being targeted for decades, no longer have the resources to run sophisticated criminal operations. Instead, Taiwan’s organized crime groups are portrayed as small-time hoods looking to brawl, party, and make money. Where liumang once commanded respect in society and were guided by strict ethics and rituals, there is wide agreement that gangs are now far less regimented. In fact, they are said to be easy to join because so few want to become members.

Whether Taiwan has actually won the war against organized crime is more difficult to assess. Even basic facts about the nature and activities of gangsters are uncertain. For example, estimates of the number of people involved in organized crime in Taiwan vary enormously. The police say a couple of thousand at most, while the U.S. Customs Department and some knowledgeable domestic sources put the total 10 to 20 times higher.

Historical background

Many historians have noted that Chiang Kai-shek had significant triad connections in mainland China, and it is known that a number of gangsters were among those who retreated to Taiwan with the Nationalist government in 1949. However, Criminology Professor Chou Wen-yung of Central Police University, one of the foremost experts on local organized crime, says that while certain criminal organization did migrate across the Taiwan Strait in 1949, all of Taiwan’s major gangs were founded in Taiwan – although the founders of at least two, the Bamboo Union and Four Seas, were from “mainlander” families.

The Four Seas, for example, came together on school basketball courts in the 1950s when the offspring of veterans from the mainland banded together to confront bullying by local jiaotou – semi-organized gangs of thugs. The Bamboo Union has a similar origin story of mainlander teens joining together to secure a place in a society in which they were an unwelcome minority.

As these gangs graduated from street-fighting and basketball to organized crime, their involvement with certain elements in the political and military system increased, climaxing in the notorious assassination of dissident Taiwanese journalist Henry Liu on October 15, 1984 in Daly City, California. Liu had written a controversial unauthorized biography of Chiang Kai-shek’s son and successor, Chiang Ching-kuo. Bamboo Union chief Chen Chi-li, known as “Dry Duck,” along with associates Tung Kuei-sen and Wu Tun, were accused of ambushing and murdering the journalist in his garage.

The assassins retreated to Taiwan where they remained unmolested until agents of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations came into the possession of a recording (given to them – by his own admission – by Chang An-lo, the legendary “White Wolf” and spiritual leader of the Bamboo Union) in which Chen Chi-li confessed to the crime and revealed that it had been ordered by the head of Taiwan’s military intelligence bureau, Admiral Wang Hsi-ling.

The United States pressed Taiwan to try the suspects, and in April 1985 Chen, Wu, and Wang were each given life sentences for their roles in the crime (Tung seems to have been cleared for his role). But just six years later, Chen, Wu, and Wang were granted clemency and released. Chang, on the other hand, was convicted of drug smuggling in the United States and served 10 years in prison, seven of them in the Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas.

The Henry Liu case sparked international condemnation of the Kuomintang government and cemented the reputation of the Bamboo Union as a fearsome international syndicate. As a result, it also marked the beginning of widespread crackdowns on organized crime, with the first – Operation Clean Sweep – taking place in 1984-1985.

According to an interview with former Minister of Interior Wu Poh-hsiung, published in 1985 in the government publication Taiwan Journal (now called Taiwan Today), the operation was a success, entailing the arrest of 2,346 gangsters and confiscation of large quantities of guns and knives. Crime rates dropped sharply. Wu said that government surveys showed a marked reduction in violence related to debt collection and construction bids, with similar reductions in extortion of small business owners, gambling, and prostitution.

Unfortunately, these early efforts later caused a major surge in organized crime. Putting all the top gang leaders in the same prisons at the same time gave them ample opportunity to coordinate their efforts. Central Police University’s Chou says that a small-time jiaotou boss named Lo Fu-chu was imprisoned during Operation Clean Sweep, where he reportedly suffered at the hands of the other gangs. When he was released after three years, he created an alliance of local jiaotou groups – the Heavenly Way – aimed at contesting the supremacy of the mainlander gangs. It had considerable success, and the Heavenly Way reportedly remains a formidable force in Taiwan’s underworld. With deep roots in rural areas, it is reputed to control more territory and thus have more influence over elections than other criminal organizations.

The book Heijin: Organized Crime, Business and Politics in Taiwan, published in 2003 by Chin Ko-lin, distinguished professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University-Newark, cites two contrasting trends in law enforcement as both feeding the growth of organized crime in Taiwan during the 1990s. Recurring police crackdowns saw thousands more arrested while others fled the country. Many gang leaders reached the conclusion that the best way to protect themselves was to get directly involved in politics and legitimate businesses.

Another major turning point was the abolishment of martial law in 1987, which reportedly led to an influx of guns and drugs into Taiwan because of the reduction in maritime patrols. Crime rates soared during the 1990s and mob infiltration of business and politics became rampant. The era of hei jin was fully underway.

Organized crime today

According to the police, the image of Taiwan’s organized crime generated during the 1980s and 1990s does not reflect the current reality. The Ministry of Justice website credits legislation such as the Organized Crime Prevention Act and the Witness Protection Act as being instrumental in combatting organized crime, enabling the MOJ to target mob-linked politicians and businesses for prosecution. Police investigators with the Taoyuan City Criminal Investigation Bureau say that the changes in the law and better-coordinated enforcement have made it possible to keep organized crime at far a more manageable level. Conducting operations against the local mobs several times a year – “mowing the lawn,” as one investigator calls it – enables them to hold the power of the mob in check.

For example, despite media reports linking Taiwanese gangs to human-trafficking operations, these investigators describe Taiwanese hoodlums as incapable of running large-scale international rings. Most of the alleged cases of human trafficking, they say, involve people who came to Taiwan voluntarily, either as tourists or workers, and decided to stay. Lacking any ties to the local community, the illegal migrants turn to the mafia for help with finding work and other necessities. Many of these individuals are Southeast Asians running from their employers, and the mobsters use their vulnerability to control them, often forcing them into prostitution or other exploitative and dangerous work.

Similarly, investigators say that Taiwanese gangs lack the resources and sophistication to run elaborate drug-smuggling or gun-running schemes. Instead, what they see are mafia-linked distribution networks for drugs that are already smuggled onto the island, as well as for replica guns that have been converted into working firearms.

Central Police University’s Chou says that Taiwanese mobsters spend the majority of their time partying, brawling with other gangsters, racing cars and motorcycles, providing protection for both illegal and legal businesses (including bars, nightclubs, brothels, and KTV joints), and gambling. The Taoyuan investigators say that gangsters primarily earn money through strong-arm debt collection and operating brothels.

Even here, business seems to be slow, and Chou for one sees the influence of the mafia on Taiwanese society as waning as economic and social development overtakes the primitive appeal of organized crime. For example, he observes that fewer people seek out the services of mafia-linked thugs to collect a debt; instead, redress is likely to be sought through the courts.

Sources differ, perhaps for self-serving reasons, regarding the extent of continuing mob influence in the construction business. Police investigators contend that gangsters no longer have any significant presence in the construction industry, while mafioso maintain that the mob continues to play an integral role in bid rigging.

The question of the mob’s influence in politics is a major source of disagreement as well. Chou says that mob-linked politicians are no longer considered the folk-heroes of yesteryear, and that voters now largely reject politicians tainted by the mob. After serving as a legislator from 1996 to 2002, for example, Lo Fu-chu of the Heavenly Way lost his reelection bid and in 2013 was convicted of stock manipulation, money laundering, and insider trading, and fled the country. He is suspected to be in hiding either in the United States, Australia, or China. In addition, the Union Party formed by Chang An-lo, the reputed spiritual godfather of the Bamboo Union, garnered a mere 20,000 votes for its candidates running for the Legislative Yuan this past January.

On the other hand, some sources familiar with the mafia say that links among politics, business, and the mob will always be present, regardless of political party. They note that politicians, mobsters, and businesspersons all need one another. Business wants attention from the politicians, politicians need business’s campaign contributions, and they both need the mob to facilitate the deal and make sure everyone honors their end. And the mob needs both money and the protection that having a well-placed friend can bring.

According to the police, some 90% of Taiwanese gangsters proclaim no political affiliation. If true, that apathy might confirm that Taiwanese gangsters don’t care about politics, but it might also support the observation that they will switch sides in a heartbeat.

There was a huge turnout for the 2007 funeral of former Bamboo Union leader Chen Chi-li. (photo: CNA)

While some see the lower profile of the mob in modern society as indicative of the diminished power of organized crime, Chang An-lo points to the emergence of a more sophisticated mob that has more deeply infiltrated modern society and is now less visible. Chang, who says that he hasn’t been actively involved in the Bamboo Union for over 30 years, observes that in previous decades, the arena of crime and politics was brand new to the gangsters, and that their brutality and brazenness stemmed from inexperience.

He suggests that the mafia has now become more careful and more conscious of the need for good public relations. “You know the carrot and stick?” asks Chang. “Twenty years ago it was only stick. Now, more carrots.”

The mafia “always exists,” he contends. “It’s human nature.”