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June 23, 2017

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Both the devil, and the boss, of H5N2 scandal are in the details

The recent releases of negative information about the government's role in the H5N2 controversy are like something out of a political thriller.

  First there was the alleged suggestion by the Council of Agriculture's (COA) animal husbandry chief Hsu Kuei-sen (許桂森) that the possible outbreak was not publicized back in late December last year (shortly before the 2012 elections) because of the worry of a "collapse." Then there was former COA Minister Chen Wu-hsiung (陳武雄) stressing the COA's lack of wrongdoing in its undertakings while offering to shoulder all criminal and civil responsibilities. And then the release of an audio recording of a COA panel meeting to determine the severity of the flu in which the now-resigned animal inspection and quarantine chief Hsu Tien-lai (許天來) conveyed to attending experts the will of "the boss" to hold back the decision whether to upgrade the situation into an outbreak until "the boss" leaves office.

As if these explosive releases were not sensational enough, a closer listening of the tape reveals Hsu to have actually mentioned "the biggest boss."

The worst case scenario of a politics-trumping-public-safety cover-up, which The China Post has mentioned in this column previously, has now become more prominent in public discussions. The media is rightly demanding the revelation of the identities of "the boss" and "the biggest boss." Many are already pointing fingers at former COA Minister Chen, Chen's boss former Premier (now Vice President-elect) Wu Den-yih and Wu's boss President Ma Ying-jeou.

The devil, however, is in the details. The first is the date of the panel meeting. The meeting took place Feb. 1, more than two weeks after Ma won his re-election, so the case of a Hsu calling for an election-oriented outbreak cover-up apparently does not compute.

  Still there are reasons to argue otherwise. For one thing, the "boss's will" Hsu conveyed could have been expressed sometime before the meeting. Also a cover-up makes political sense even after the election, as a Feb. 1 announcement may still have been too close to Election Day for comfort.

  Another key detail is the subtle but significant difference in roles played by the two "bosses." According to Hsu, the "boss" expressed his intention for the evaluation to be held until he leaves office. If Hsu was telling the truth, the boss would be actively involved in a possible cover-up or delay of outbreak verification.

  The "biggest boss," on the other hand, was weighing in on a different matter. Hsu was pointing out at the meeting that "the biggest boss has to yet to agree" if all chickens with low pathogenic H5N2 had to be destroyed. In that context, Hsu's words carry no direct evidence indicating the biggest boss's active involvement in a possible cover-up.

  Whatever the truth in "bossgate" be, one thing is clear. No matter if Hsu was conveying direct orders from people above, his comments highlight one of the worst aspects of Taiwanese governance in which "the boss's words" are above professional judgment.

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