All the King’s Persecutors

In a repeat of the lead-up to the 2012 elections, Ma and his trusted political manipulator seem to be harnessing the powers of the state to undermine their opponents
J. Michael Cole

There’s something going on in Taiwan at the moment that’s just not right. The source of that malaise, which has descended upon society like a dark cloud, is operating behind the scenes, threatening opponents of the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) regime with means that have little place in a democracy. Young activists, members of the opposition, and legislators from the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) all are fair game, vulnerable to forces that must be called by their proper name: authoritarianism. Lurking behind the scene and presumably pulling the strings is King Pu-tsung (金溥聰), Ma’s longtime aide and now secretary-general of the National Security Council (NSC).

Regarded in Washington, D.C., circles as a less-than-stellar — and according to some, downright missing — envoy to the U.S., King returned to Ma’s side earlier this year at a time when it looked like the sky was about to fall on the unpopular president. Commenting on King’s expected return to the “corridors of power,” state-owned Focus Taiwan wrote in February, “With less than two years left in his final presidential term, a pressing issue for Ma is how to create a political legacy. King could be the one to help him achieve that goal.”

One month after the commentary appeared, a group of students, mobilizing several dozen civil organizations and ordinary citizens, gave expression to mounting public discontent with failing administrative systems, cronyism, “black box” dealings with the undemocratic giant next door, and sundry other ills largely of Ma’s making by taking on the government. As the Sunflower Movement launched its occupation of the Legislative Yuan and broke the wall of indifference that for too long had insulated Taiwan from the rest of the world, Ma’s legacy seemed under threat.

Clipping the Sunflowers

The decision to pull King back to Taipei preceded the pregnant events of March and April. But for Ma, his confidant’s return could not have occurred at a better time. No sooner had King dropped his suitcases than the old tricks so often associated with the cunning political manipulator resurfaced. Only this time, the stakes were much higher, and the devices used far more nefarious.

The first signs of King’s meddling emerged soon after the occupation of the legislature had ended, at a time when it was still possible to be optimistic about the willingness of the Ma administration to build on the compromise that Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) had struck with the Sunflowers to end the crisis. That cautious optimism was dashed when the Presidential Office gave every indication that it would forge ahead with its plans to pass the controversial Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) and to resume cross-strait exchanges that, for a brief period, were thought to have been postponed as Beijing re-evaluated the wisdom of forcing itself upon Taiwanese society.

The measures that were taken to ensure that the discredited, and presumably much weakened, president could secure his legacy — which, despite the lack of popular support for such an event, includes a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) — brought Taiwan back to the era that would be very familiar to those who lived under Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國). Those measures furthermore dispelled any notion that the Ma administration intended to meet civil society halfway. Instead, it dug in, hardened its position, and made preparations for the next outburst of anger. Thinking Taiwan has already documented some of the alarming developments that directly targeted civil society and the leadership of the Sunflower Movement, which include the creation of three separate “new media” (read “thought police”) units, expanded preventive detention regulations, the snatching of activists by unidentified law-enforcement officers, the blocking of access to accredited journalists, the growing presence of plainclothes officers at protest venues, and control of information. In the following months, heavy court sentences were issued against the Sunflower leadership, while hundreds were either charged or brought in for questioning by police.


King then gave us every reason to believe he was behind all this by paying personal visits, in his capacity as NSC secretary-general, to the National Police Agency (NPA), a visit that was both improper and possibly illegal under the National Security Council Organization Act (國家安全會議組織法). Here was King, Ma’s political enforcer, by his very presence influencing an agency that, under the law, answers to the Executive Yuan and the premier (who, truth be told, is presently as neutralized as he is sycophantic). As NSC head, King’s role is to serve as an adviser to the president on matters of national defense and diplomacy; nothing in the law says that domestic matters are under his purview. It is hardly surprising, then, that the NPA continues to aggressively target civil society — for example during Taiwan Affairs Office chief Zhang Zhijun’s (張志軍) visit to Taiwan — while it ignores the activities of pro-unification gangsters who are fast turning into Ma’s (or visiting Chinese officials’) Pretorian guard.

As if meddling with the NPA was not enough, King also paid a personal visit to the National Security Bureau (NSB), the nation’s civilian intelligence agency. Although the NSC is the bureau’s parent organization, King’s attendance at a security briefing was reason for concern given the NSB’s involvement in operations targeting not Chinese spies or foreign enemies, but civilian activists (such involvement began as early as July 2013).

President Ma has defended the visits, telling reporters that there was nothing improper and that his NSC chief had to make them in order to fulfill his duties.

Internal authoritarianism

While the DPP, academics, former NSC heads, and civil society pointed out the inappropriateness of King’s meddling, a few voices within the KMT also expressed their concerns. And they were not ignored. One standout was legislator Luo Shu-lei (羅淑蕾), a rare voice in Ma’s KMT with a tradition of toeing the party line in the breach. Luo, who was among those who raised the matter of King’s visits, was swiftly reminded that she was to cease and desist. The warning unsurprisingly came from King himself, who told Luo that “sources” had informed him of “financial irregularities” with her fundraising. Implicit in that “friendly reminder” was the message that if she continued to criticize Ma or King, prosecutors could get involved. With this, as with the fines and threats of expulsion made against any KMT legislator who fails to abide by party directives, King made it clear that he had no compunction in turning against his own.

Other indications that Ma and his circle are trying to terrify their opponents within the KMT have also emerged. Wang Jin-pyng, whom Ma attempted to expel from the party last year and who has grown oddly silent since the end of the occupation of the legislature, is reportedly facing the specter of further investigation by prosecutors — this time over his grassroots connections.

Prosecutors as political agents

Taiwanese often confuse the English words “prosecute” and “persecute,” which in the current atmosphere could very well be interchangeable. And with important elections coming up in November, the same techniques that the Ma administration has been using to terrify its opponents are being conjured to undermine the party’s adversaries. There are already indications that DPP Legislator Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍), incumbent KMT mayor Jason Hu’s (胡志強) opponent in the year-end election, could become the next target of investigators and prosecutors, again over matters pertaining to fundraising and Lin’s connections at the grassroots level.

As if more evidence were needed to exemplify the politicization of law enforcement and judicial units by the Ma regime, news has emerged that Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), the new DPP secretary-general under Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), has received a court summons to appear, as a guanxi ren, or “person with connections,” in an undisclosed investigation (special investigators have refused to apprise Wu’s lawyer of the nature of the case in question, stating “state secrets”). Besides Wu, we have just confirmed that virtually every former secretary-general, deputy secretary-general and their staff at the Presidential Office under the DPP administration has received similar summons. None has been informed of the nature of the case.

The timing of the probe, occurring weeks after Tsai assumed chairmanship of the party and as she consolidates her new team ahead of the seven-in-one elections, is not coincidental. It is, in fact, eerily reminiscent of similar tactics used by the KMT in the lead-up to the 2012 presidential election, when prosecutors “decided” to look into allegations that Tsai’s family had illegally benefited from investments in Yu Chang Biologics Co (宇昌生技股份有限公司). Interestingly, the person who headed Ma’s re-election campaign was … you guessed it, King. Tsai was eventually cleared of all charges, and senior officials in the Ma government were caught red-handed fabricating evidence, but ultimately that didn’t matter. The allegations were sufficient to raise doubts about Tsai’s credibility and forced her team to mount a legal defense at a time when all their energy should have been focused on winning the elections.

(A side note: scientists attached to Yu Chang, which is now known as TaiMed Biologics Inc [中裕新藥股份有限公司], have pioneered research and the development of Ibalizumab, a hugely promising drug also known as TMB-355, for the treatment of HIV/AIDS. By seeking to destroy the reputations of Tsai and the top scientists involved in the project for purely electoral considerations, President Ma could have killed Taiwan’s shot at a Nobel Prize in medicine, not to mention deny the world a drug that can potentially save millions of lives around the globe.)

By targeting Wu and other top DPP members this early, prosecutors, whom we can only conclude are acting on behalf of the Ma administration, could once again ensure that Tsai’s top lieutenants are unable to focus all their attention on rebuilding the party, fleshing out policies, and preparing for the 2014 and 2016 elections.

We cannot emphasize enough the timing of this prosecutorial action. The local elections may be more than five months away, but already the KMT is in full campaign mode and has run various ads attacking Tsai of various “crimes,” from masterminding the Sunflower occupation to purportedly being on a mission to “destroy” the KMT’s Eric Chu (朱立倫) with potentially damaging information about Chu and his influential father in law. Tellingly, the information in question — the skeletons in the closet whose airing would be enough to undo Chu — is in the possession of … the KMT. Regarded as the logical KMT candidate in the 2016 presidential election, Chu’s unexpected announcement in June that he was running again for New Taipei City mayor, and his promise that he would complete his four-year-term if re-elected (which would take him out of the 2016 presidential race) didn’t seem to make any sense — unless we factor in KMT factionalism and talk that the Ma camp does not want Chu to represent the party. To add insult to injury, the KMT is attempting to pin the blame on the attacks against Chu on the DPP, and Chu has played along.

It would be easy to discard the sum of those developments are coincidence. But we can reasonably ask, how many coincidences does it take before we start seeing a pattern? The devil might lie in the details, as the saying goes, but his abode is context. The embattled Ma’s fixation on his legacy, added to the crucial elections in late 2014 and in early 2016, is the context. Can we therefore continue to regard the machinations of his cunning enforcer, the Executive’s hijacking of the NSB, the NPA and the Investigation Bureau, the renewed judicial assault on Ma’s opponents (the demise of Prosecutor-General Huang Shih-ming [黃世銘] in the Wang case comes to mind as recent evidence of Ma’s abuse of the judiciary), and the internal authoritarianism that has turned the KMT into a party of terrified “yes-men” (and women), as mere coincidence?

J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.

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