Catching The Corrupt

The gold silk blouse and earrings are signs that Li Mei-kuei is finally coming out of mourning. Seven years ago her husband's bloated corpse washed ashore in the northern Taiwanese fishing port of Suao. Capt. Yin Ching-feng had been the chief naval officer overseeing Taiwan's purchases of foreign weapons, including six French Lafayette frigates that cost $2.7 billion. At first the Navy insisted he had drowned. But an outside autopsy showed he was bludgeoned to death. Li, his 49-year-old widow, insists he was murdered for uncovering a corruption ring within the military. But the Kuomintang regime, which was closely tied to the military, never cracked the case. Earlier this month Chen Shui-bian, the first opposition president in Taiwan's history, vowed to reopen the investigation. "I had given up all hope," says Li, "but now a ray of light has been shown in."

Chen wants to illuminate a half century of darkness. Despite emerging as one of Asia's few true democracies, Taiwan has been unable to rid itself of a legacy of corruption. Vote-buying, insider trading, bribes and kickbacks in the private sector and the government became part of the fabric of society under the Kuomintang, which ruled Taiwan for 50 years. Fed up with "black-money politics," the Taiwanese voted in March for Chen, who promised to clean up society. Chen has launched a major campaign against political corruption, the first in Taiwan, with indictments of two legislators, investigations of several public officials and the high-profile Yin case. Symbolically, he is taking on the Kuomintang's entire legacy. "Even if this case shakes the nation to its very foundations," Chen said in mid-August, "it must still be solved, no matter how high it may go."

The blame could reach right to the top. Former president Lee Teng-hui, the first native-born president, fought for greater democracy. But as he consolidated his power against mainland-born hard-liners, he cultivated close ties with local factions and shady businessmen. During his tenure the local media uncovered hundreds of corruption cases. Finance committees in the legislature became dominated by men with criminal records. Some crusaders want to include the entire party, of which Lee was chairman, in a witch hunt. Chen Ding-nan, Chen's new Justice minister, seems ready to purge everyone. "The Kuomintang government," he says, "was just a group of [criminal] accomplices that included government officials, large enterprises and gangsters."

Taiwan's boisterous press is re-examining clues in Captain Yin's murder. Li is convinced that her husband's death was related to the purchase of the French frigates. She says that shortly before his murder, Yin returned from a trip to France and told her he had learned of some defects with the ships' design. One of his co-workers in the military's procurement department was later convicted for taking bribes; other suspects fled overseas. Military officers warn direly of "chaos" if Chen proceeds with the case. "If all those involved were prosecuted, Taiwan's national-security forces would be thrown into confusion," one source close to the naval procurement process told NEWSWEEK.

Corrupt lawmakers can no longer hide behind legislative immunity. Taking advantage of a legal loophole, prosecutors searched an office used by Liao Hwu-peng, a Kuomintang legislator. Liao is suspected of obtaining false stocks. Last week prosecutors searched another office used by Gary Wang, a Kuomintang legislator suspected of involvement in a $32 million land-fraud deal. Prosecutors indicted the mayor of southern Tainan, a member of Chen's Democratic Progressive Party, for alleged corruption involving the construction of a canal. All three insist they are innocent.

Chen may feel a sense of personal mission to solve the case of Captain Yin. As a leader of the opposition under the Kuomintang, he was repeatedly exposed to the violence inflicted on its opponents. He has pledged to reopen the case of the mother and daughters of Lin Yi-hsiung, a fellow opposition leader, who were murdered in their sleep in 1980. Chen's own wife was run down and paralyzed in 1985--another unsolved case. For Chen, solving the murder of Yin has symbolic importance. "Perhaps it was the spirit of Captain Yin Ching-feng in heaven that helped me get into the presidential office," he says. Widow Li may see justice yet.