I think Taiwanese tend to lack a sense of perspective about their national problems. They seem to think they live in the darkest backwaters of the third world and look up to America as a paragon of modernity. For this reason I often try to put things into perspective when talking about Taiwanese politics. While I certainly think any president who spends public funds on having a diamond ring personally fitted for his wife should be forced to resign, whether or not it was legal to do so, the total amount under investigation in Taiwan is less than half a million dollars. I imagine Chen Shui-bien sitting Dr. Evil-like saying, “I will steal half a million dollars!” — and then I will give them receipts! Compare that with the more than one trillion dollars missing from the U.S. Military budget — without receipts!
The joke in the U.S. is that we don’t have corruption, we have “lobbying.” The joke implies that we’ve rationalized the system, but recent scandals have shown that this is only partially true. Nobody seems particularly concerned about the remarkable ability of U.S. senators to predict the stock market.
The point not being that Taiwanese shouldn’t be concerned about corruption, they should. Taiwan has its own share of major scandals; but it seems to me that the antipathy for individual public leaders is misplaced and unproductive. (But keep in mind what I said about buying diamond rings with public money…). I’ve had this conversation a lot over recent months, but have been unable to put my thoughts into writing. Fortunately, two excellent blog posts have been written in the last week which help me make my point.
The first is from Ilya, who writes of a conversation I had with him:
People in Taiwan seemed that they couldn’t avoid the logical fallacy inside such question. The money issue seemed so “factual”, and “truthiness” (thank you, Stephen Colbert) to shift poeple’s attention toward personal behavior, not on constitution, national security, government policy, and structural supervision among administration system. The people in Taiwan are too eager to attack or defend the president, and such eagerness open up a grand plaza full of soap boxes for everyone could join. Presidential accusation became a public theater of “truthiness”, and no one could get out of it.
Second, Michael Turton has a lengthy post about the role of gravel in running Taiwan’s cement-economy:
The other Taiwan is something else entirely, It runs, not on electronics, software, and OEM production, but on a system in which flows of money out of the central government treasury into local government coffers transmogrify into flows of cement into local government landscapes. And to keep that system going, Taiwan needs gravel.
In my dissertation I wrote about how current cultural policy could be conceived of as a form of corruption. This is visible in the numerous large and empty buildings dotting the countryside. They bear impressive sounding names that would make you think each village has its own museum and archive of Indigenous culture, but inside is little more than an empty room with some chairs and a few books piled up on the side. I doubt many Aborigines received those sweet construction contracts.
In the U.S. I worry that corruption has seriously damaged our democracy. The last six years have seen a steady decline in congressional oversight over a number of areas, including the Iraq war. We can only hope that a Democratic congress will restore that oversight rather than trying to pocket the kickbacks. In Taiwan, on the other hand, people seem more upset at the failure of the DPP to clean up corruption than they are hopeful a change in party rule would do anything to solve the problem.
UPDATE: Some more thoughts from Michael.