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Stamping out corruption and graft

An old saying in Taiwan runs in a couplet: “An official who does not cheat/Has just rice with salt mixed to eat.” That means all government officials with clean hands have to have meals without any side dishes at all. And, by inference, it's only natural that officials are corrupt. Taiwan's old folk wisdom is universally affirmed for after all, greed is one of the seven deadly sins.

This aphorism tells the truth of officialdom in Taiwan under Qing Chinese rule. Mandarins, government officials who spoke Mandarin, came from the mainland of China without family for a brief stint and all they wished to do and actually did while on the island was to rake in as much money as they could in a couple of years and bring it back home to enjoy for the rest of their lives. That habit of government officials was protested against — in the spontaneous riots on Feb. 28, 1947 that were followed by a massacre of tens of thousands of innocent people — during the few years after Taiwan was restored to China at the end of World War II.

Chiang Kai-shek knew one main reason for his defeat by Mao Zedong in the Chinese Civil war was the rampant corruption and graft of his officials. So, after he came to Taiwan with his government and defeated troops at the end of 1949, he tried to stamp out corruption by decreeing officials found corrupt should face a firing squad. It worked. For about 10 years, his government was really very clean. Few officials dared to risk life for a few hundred dirty bucks. He showed that severe, frightful punishment, including the death penalty, is a method of stamping out corruption and graft in government for a decade or so.

President Ma Ying-jeou is a man of probity, like Chiang Kai-shek. While he was minister of justice, Ma declared he would stamp out corruption and graft. He did not succeed, probably because he did not stay in office as long as he wished. As president, he wants to end this heinous practice in government, of course. But he can't stop it even temporarily, for he, unlike Chiang Kai-shek, can't decree capital punishment for corrupt government officials. So, he has chosen the next best way to fight corruption: discover as many cases of corruption as possible and bring them to justice.

That's why President Ma said in a keynote speech before an international conference on transparency in government in Taipei last Thursday that his fight against corruption won't let up even though Taiwan might be in a depression. He had his predecessor, President Chen Shui-bian, sent to jail for corruption and graft. And Ma reiterated his determination to get all corrupt officials, no matter how high-ranking they may be, to do time.

But that's not the way to put an end to Taiwan's economic troubles. To make the economy grow the government has to raise more money for public investment and help create money-making industries. It has nothing to do with an all-out effort to root out corruption, which, however, can never be fully stamped out in the first place. The best a country can do is to reduce government corruption to a tolerable extent.

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