Taiwan’s gang problem is causing trouble for the fledgling democracy. But Beijing plays the gangs in the cards: China is looking for ways and means to damage and weaken the democratic neighboring country.

Taiwan ranks eighth in the Economist magazine’s international democracy index, and in Asia the small country is even the frontrunner when it comes to freedom and the rule of law. Since the end of the dictatorship in the early 1990s, Taiwan has seen peaceful changes of government, democratic protest movements and new party formations.

The press and science are free, marriage for all underlines the fundamental openness of the people in Taiwan to a liberal society. The news of brutal gangs that exert influence on politics and society doesn’t really fit into these cheering verses (for comparison: Germany is in 15th place on this index, the United States is in 26th place).

And yet: the new, modern and democratic Taiwan has a problem with organized crime. Some say the gangs believed to be involved in gambling and drug trafficking arrived from Shanghai when the civil war ended in 1949. Others, on the other hand, believe that the gangs were already active during the Japanese occupation, up until 1945, and their behavior was therefore reminiscent of the brutal Yakuza that are still up to mischief in Japan today.

Maybe it’s a mix of both, which could best explain why these groups fight each other to the death: the long-established mafia against the mainland gangs. The two most powerful groups are the local “Heaven’s Alliance”, which is in constant feud with the “United Bamboo Gang” who have come from China. There are also two other large gangs, the “Four Seas Gang” and the “Songlian Gang”.

Red Alert: How China’s aggressive foreign policy in the Pacific is leading to a global war

Alexander Görlach is Honorary Professor of Ethics at Leuphana University in Lüneburg and Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York. The PhD linguist and theologian is currently working on a project on “digital cosmopolitanism” at the Internet Institute of the University of Oxford and the Faculty of Philosophy at New York University.

Alexander Görlach was a Fellow and Visiting Scholar at Harvard University in the USA and Cambridge University in England. After stints in Taiwan and Hong Kong, he has focused on the rise of China and what it means for East Asian democracies in particular. He has recently published the following titles: “Red Alert: Why China’s Aggressive Foreign Policy in the Western Pacific Is Leading to a Global War” (Hoffmann

From 2009 to 2015, Alexander Görlach was also the publisher and editor-in-chief of the debate magazine The European, which he founded. Today he is a columnist and author for various media such as the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and the New York Times. He lives in New York and Berlin.

The front position between Taiwan and China makes the gangs political: Many of them stand for a rapprochement with the powerful country next door, whose leadership since Mao Zedong has never tired of claiming that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic. In fact, however, the communist leadership has never ruled over Taiwan. However, due to their proximity to China, these gangs could be used by the nomenklatura to weaken Taiwan’s young democracy.

According to local media commentators, the gangs run all kinds of businesses, from grammar schools where children do their homework and study after school, to temples, which the BBC says there are 15,000 on the island.

The gangs are said to finance the traditional fall temple festivals, which feature classical plays and dance. Foreigners, these sources say, are generally not bothered by the mafiosi. However, their activities would not go unnoticed by anyone living on the island for a few years.

In Taiwan, another source says, five to ten percent of politicians have direct links to the gangs, and some of them have direct clan membership. This is said to apply above all to the Kuomintang Party, whose members fled from mainland China to Taiwan in 1949. Since Taiwan became a democracy, the gang business has morphed from pure drug dealing, gun smuggling, and gambling to night schools and funeral homes.

According to the Taiwanese-American journalist Brian Hioe, who publishes the magazine “New Bloom” in Taiwan, the gangs also maintained press departments with their own spokespersons, who shared the gang’s mostly pro-China positions with the public via the media when the occasion arose .

There are also spectacular cases of mobsters who are said to have switched to politics. In the city of Taichung, south of Taipei, Hioe reports, the Yen family is said to hold all the reins of mafia and politics firmly in their hands to this day.

This sounds bizarre, but seems to be an accepted reality for many people in Taiwan, especially outside of Taipei and in the vast countryside. Reports keep coming from there that votes in elections might be bought by the gangs. In Taiwan, of course, buying votes in this way is illegal, and at campaign events, even anything more than a bottle of water and a clearly recognizable giveaway is not allowed as an attempt at bribery.

In Taichung, however, a candidate from the Yen family handed out cabbages to voters. Because the cabbages were shrink-wrapped, there was a rumor that there was hidden money in the greens. In any case, all the cabbages were distributed after only a short time.

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Young politicians have been trying, at least since the democracy movement in 2014, the so-called sunflower movement, to stop these bribery events with ostentatious gifts. At the time, the protesters successfully took action against the Kuomintang government, which wanted to sign a new trade deal with the People’s Republic in backrooms, which the demonstrators said would undermine Taiwan’s independence and leave the fledgling democracy defenseless at Beijing’s feet.

The KMT was voted out in 2016, and the current President, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, was elected. This party includes former heavy metal musician Freddy Lim, extremely popular with the island’s youth and who has more than once publicly spoken out against the gangs’ practice.

The activities of the gangs are doubly bad for Taiwan: on the one hand, they prevent a deepening and improvement of the young democracy and its institutions on the island (there are said to be corruption in the police and customs through the gangs), on the other hand there is open advertising for the autocratic people’s republic of the mafia, an open barn door for Beijing, which is always looking for ways and means to damage and weaken the democratic neighboring country.