Friday, August 12, 2011

The Incredible Disappearing Corruption Case of Lee Teng-hui

It has now been almost a month and a half since former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui was indicted for embezzling NT$238 million from a secret National Security Bureau account during his time in office (1988-2000). In the intervening period, judges have been chosen to hear the case, but the hearing itself has not yet begun. The flurry of media attention that followed the June 30 indictment has died down. In fact, the Lee case has pretty much dropped out of the papers entirely, although this situation will undoubtedly change once the hearing begins.

The media's sudden lack of interest would not be astonishing if we didn't have another corruption indictment of a former president to compare the Lee case to. Of course, I am referring to the corruption indictment of Chen Shui-bian and the subsequent media pandemonium.

The difference is really remarkable, and easily observable for those who wish to spend a few minutes of their time checking out the archives of English and Chinese language online dailies in Taiwan. I did a quick search myself of the archives of the China Post, the Taipei Times, the United Daily, and the Liberty Times.

Before I go further, I must offer some disclaimers. My search was cursory and not at all scientific. But I will explain my "method" anyway so that those who wish to replicate this mini experiment can do so. 

Operating under the assumption that the media would be very interested in any case in the period immediately following the indictment, I specifically excluded the two weeks following Lee's indictment and Chen's formal indictment from consideration. After all, I was interested in comparing the durability of the media's coverage of the two cases, not the degree of its immediate coverage. More specifically, I searched for all news articles bearing the name “Lee Teng-hui” in a period beginning two weeks after the June 30 indictment and ending on August 11. I did the same for Chen, searching for all news articles bearing the name “Chen Shui-bian” starting two weeks after his December 12, 2008 formal indictment and ending on January 24, 2009. I then marked down the number of articles that seemed to focus exclusively on the corruption cases of the former presidents and their confidants.

This method of searching was problematic for several reasons. First, the Chen corruption saga began long before his first formal indictment. The Supreme Prosecutor’s Office declared him a defendant immediately after he stepped down as President in May of 2008, and by the time of the formal indictment, the Chen affair had already become a tabloid-style drama. Allegations against Lee have never attracted this type of attention. Nevertheless, the Lee case is a reheated and repackaged controversy. According to a spokesperson of the Special Investigation Panel of the Supreme Prosecutor's Office, Chen Shui-bian accused Lee of money laundering in the days following Chen's indictment. The SIP claimed it would investigate Lee as a result. Additionally, Wellington Koo, Lee’s lawyer, has indicated that, in his opinion, the prosecution's current allegations against Lee contain no new evidence from the 2004 trial of Hsu Ping-chiang, the former Major General and Director of the NSB Accounting Office. That trial resulted in Hsu's acquittal. This digression therefore shows that my choice of dates was, to a large degree, arbitrary. Absent a clear "starting date" for either controversy, I chose the periods following the two formal indictments.

There is also the possibility that I overlooked some Chinese-language stories about the cases. After all, my Chinese reading skills are not perfect, and I was scanning headlines and summaries rapidly. A third problem was the necessity to make arbitrary decisions at times as to whether an article was really about a trial or whether the article simply referred to the trial in passing. For example, I tried not to count articles that were primarily general criticisms of Ma or the KMT and that happened to briefly mention one of the trials as a supporting detail. Finally, I did not separate editorials out from harder news stories. Therefore, please look at the large picture behind the below numbers as opposed to taking the numbers as exact. You might find different specific numbers depending on how you search, although you will surely see the pattern to which I am referring.

With these disclaimers out of the way, I'll note that what I found corresponded to my initial suspicions. Chen Shui-bian’s indictment was a media circus, while media coverage of the Lee event has been deafening by its relative silence.

For the Chen period in question, the China Post published over 25 case-related articles. For the corresponding Lee period, the China Post published none.

For the Chen period in question, the Taipei Times published about 25 case-related stories. For the Lee period, the Taipei Times published five. With the exception of two articles covering the Open Letter to Ma that foreign academics composed to protest the Lee indictment, the articles were all reactive commentaries to old news as opposed to being based on new information.

For the Chen period in question, the United Daily published about 15 case-related stories, several of which covered Chen’s 2008 accusations against Lee. My eyes may have been deceiving me by this point. I was tired of searching (the United Daily search was my last search). I question my eyes only because I find it hard to believe that a Chinese-language paper would publish fewer pieces about the indictment than an English-language paper that targets a foreign audience (such as the China Post). Yet the Chen-Lee discrepancy still held true. For the Lee period, the United Daily published four or five case-related stories only.

Finally, for the Chen period in question, the Liberty Times published far more case-related stories than I was willing to count. Actually, I stopped counting at 33, well before the end of the period. On the other hand, for the Lee period, the Liberty Times published about three pieces, all of them  reacting to old news.

According to the media outlets' ideologies, there seemed to be differences in the types of stories published. The Blue papers seemed to focus more on releasing new tawdry details of the cases, while the Green papers seemed to be more reactive. This might account for the relatively large number of Chen stories in the Liberty Times. Contributors to the Green paper were not only covering the revelations of the Chen and Lee cases, they were also covering what they felt the cases said about Taiwan’s judiciary, about the KMT, and about the Ma administration.

Nevertheless, the overall difference in the quantity of post-indictment Chen articles and post-indictment Lee articles is striking. Unlike the Chen case two weeks after that indictment, the Lee case has, for now, dropped off the map. There are certainly several logical explanations. 

It is possible that the media simply had more to talk about in the case of Chen. Most of the Chen family was on trial in that case as well as several close associates of the president, presenting more targets for the media. Remember all of the stories about Chen Chi-chung, Huang Jui-ching and various Chen confidants? On the contrary, the Lee case has only two defendants: Lee and his aide, Liu Tai-ying.
It is also possible that the evidence against Lee is less convincing or less vulnerable to spin by various parties that might seek to attempt such spin. If Wellington Koo is correct, and Lee’s case really is a mere rehashing of old evidence, then there may be fewer saucy details for case insiders to leak to the media.

There is also the matter of the above-mentioned tabloid-style treatment of the Chen case. Two years ago, media organs might have simply been operating under the assumption that Chen news would sell papers, and then created news accordingly. 

Of course, cynical minds might think of a fourth possibility. If the Lee indictment really was politically motivated, those who pushed for his indictment may have since realized that packaging this indictment in a manner that favors their cause may not be easy. Since Lee was indicted over a decade after stepping down from the presidency and over two years after being allegedly ratted out by Chen, the current charges, introduced just seven months before Taiwan's upcoming presidential election, look a bit suspicious. Therefore, those who pushed for his indictment (I will refrain from speculation as to who "those" could be) may be less inclined to keep the media involved in the Lee case than they were in piquing the media's interest in the Chen case. 

I could be completely wrong on all accounts. I do welcome your speculation. What really accounts for the astonishing difference in media treatment of Chen and Lee?


  1. It seems to me that Chen Shui-bian was an easier target as a person, than Lee Teng-hui. I used to feel that Chen was a respectable advocate, and a respectable mayor of Taipei, but when he delivered his inaugural address as president, it looked like plastic (Taiwanese) nationalism to me - about as corny as CCP or KMT talk anyway, just with several keywords replaced. Then think of his pathetic try to "make contact" with Laura Bush in Central America. If that was "dignity for Taiwan", it certainly didn't look like it.

    Lee on the other hand played a historic role - he both crucially worked the switches for democracy, and he presided over a continuing economic miracle. I'm aware that Chen was probably not as bad as he looked to me (mostly from afar - but China's obstructionism can't be an excuse for every move Chen made), and that Lee didn't invent democracy - it had been a long time coming.

    But if my - very different - feelings towards the two respectively should be somewhat indicative for how Taiwanese news readers feel, they may help to explain the coverage patterns to quite an extent. And yes, it may also explain to quite an extent as to why the pan-blue camp - whoever pushed Lee's indictment, as you said - feels uneasy about Lee being in the public focus as a defendant now. Many people, even if critical of Lee in general, will ask if this indictment was really a "must" in particular.

    Of course, Lee was a KMT president. That, too, will add to the blue camp's uneasiness.

  2. First of all, very nice blog. Glad to have you joined the field.

    The analysis in this article, although not scientific enough, I think it reveals the situation quite nicely. At least, an observation is backed up by some more deeper data.

    For the reason of Lee's case dropping out of the spot light -- other than what you mentioned -- the main voice that I heard from the online forums is that Lee is like a huge tree with roots extending deeply and widely to every political and local branches. He has friends, followers, believers, fans ... in the DPP, TSU, KMT and PFP. The PFP chairperson, Soong, was his subordinate, and it seems that they are still in close contact. Even Ma Ying-jeou was his subordinate, too. Lee played the very point-turning role in helping Ma to get up the political ladder in several crucial times of Ma's career. As a result, trying to pin Lee down is seen as Ma's betrayal.

    Also note that the exact timing of the indictment. It's not just 7 months before the election. It was one day before Lee went to one Tsai's campaigns to support Tsai publicly. That's the first time Lee did that. It's hard for the "case-pusher" to explain away from the political motivation.

    As a result, the indictment triggered negative opinions spreading widely across the political spectrum. It is a very moronic move, which shows how detached the pusher is from the reality of Taiwan politics.

  3. Echo,

    I suspect that Lee's close relations with parties across Taiwan's political spectrum is indeed a contributing factor. And I had forgotten about Lee's participation in Tsai's campaign event. Thanks for reminding me.

  4. BTW, Tommy, the extremely high count in the coverage of the Liberty Times might have come from the section of "reader's comments" and "expert's column" -- they publish them daily alone with their news coverage. So you might have seen, for example, one or two news coverage with one or two column articles plus 10 reader comments in a day.