OPINION: Cigarette Smuggling Scandal Reveals Problems in Taiwan’s Bureaucracy, Not Politics

OPINION: Cigarette Smuggling Scandal Reveals Problems in Taiwan’s Bureaucracy, Not Politics
Photo Credit: CNA
What you need to know

While the media and politicians attack the Tsai administration for the cigarette smuggling scandal, it is best to remember that the problem lies within Taiwan's deep-rooted bureaucracy.

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On July 22, New Power Party (NPP) Legislator Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌) stood up against the National Security Bureau (NSB), one of Taiwan’s most powerful intelligence agencies.

During a press conference, Huang alleged collusion between the NSB and China Airlines and asked, “How is it possible for that many cigarettes to be purchased legally when one could not even see cigarettes on China Airlines’ preflight duty-free website?”

Having conducted the investigation himself and tipped off several law enforcement officials, Huang revealed an attempt by NSB members to smuggle over NT$6 million (US$200,000) worth of cigarettes into Taiwan.

According to Taipei Times, NSB official Wu Tsung-hsien (吳宗憲) ordered 9,200 cartons of cigarettes via China Airlines, then hid them in the airline’s duty-free storage at Taoyuan International Airport. Returning from a recent state trip to the Caribbean with President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), Wu attempted to abuse his security clearance to bypass Taiwanese customs but was arrested at the airport.

The smuggled cigarettes, totaled at 9,800 cartons, would break down into almost two million individual cigarettes. Huang said the cigarettes were likely smuggled for resale. Since Taiwan taxes its domestic cigarettes sales and requires a mandatory donation to a Ministry of Health and Welfare fund, reselling the untaxed goods via the black market could yield a sizable profit.

國安局私菸案 檢調清查吳宗憲經手案件(2)
Photo Credit: CNA
National Security Bureau Official Wu Tsung-hsien (right) was arrested for attempting to smuggle 9,800 cartons of cigarettes into Taiwan.
Bureaucratic Corruption Turns Taiwan into a “Deep State”

A few pro-Beijing media have seized the opportunity to associate the incident with Tsai to direct outrage towards her. The incident, however, is one that exemplifies corruption within Taiwan’s bureaucracy instead of problems within a given political party. Without doubt, many will place blame on Tsai and the DPP over loose links to the incident, diverting attention away from the many evidence pointing to collusion between NSB members and China Airlines employees.

After Taiwan’s democratization in 1996, a lack of transitional justice failed to curb corruption in Taiwanese bureaucracies. To this day, many of Taiwan’s military, policing, justice, and intelligence agencies are still staffed by those who were once loyal to the authoritarian regime, which was rampant with corruption.

According to a report by China Times, the office of National Security Council was likely involved with “pre-ordering” the smuggled cigarettes in bulks from Wu.

國安人員走私大量菸品企圖入境
Photo Credit: CNA
NSB officials have allegedly attempted to smuggle a massive amount of cigarettes into Taiwan.

Making a purchase as a group under the name of a single person is a common practice in Taiwan, Wu's massive order triggered suspicion since he made the entire purchase under a single credit card. Questions remain over how an NSB official can make such a purchase which would be several times over the annual salary of a typical government employee.

It is also not uncommon for those traveling abroad to make purchases of duty-free and foreign goods for friends as they return to Taiwan. However, this form of favor-returning has manifested itself between China Airlines and the NSB as a form of corporate cronyism.

This case brings light to what many in the United States have referred to as “deep state,” where a nation’s bureaucrats have disproportionate control over the nation despite not having undergone the scrutiny of popular elections.

Despite having labeled itself a “beacon of democracy,” Taiwan still needs to work on transitioning parts of its government from ruling by law to being governed under the rule of law.

How Could the Scandal Possibly Benefit the Tsai Administration?

Though the Tsai administration has come under attack for the scandal, the resolution can in fact benefit the administration. Former NSB Chief Peng Sheng-chu (彭勝竹), who resigned over this incident, was fairly unpopular amongst the Legislative Yuan across both the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) majority and the Kuomintang (KMT) opposition, according to United Daily News.

The scandal presented an opportunity for the Tsai administration to insert someone more capable of coordinating with Tsai’s agenda as the NSB head.

A new director-general, for instance, might allow for the declassification of files from Taiwan’s martial law period. To the ire of DPP legislators, files related to the massacre of the Lin family (林宅血案), the assassination of writer Henry Liu on American soil in 1984 (江南案), as well as other extrajudicial killings during Taiwan’s authoritarian era were classified by the NSB as “permanent secrets” in April. The revealing of these files would massively aid Tsai’s agenda in pushing for the long unserved transitional justice in the post-authoritarian era.

總統府宣布 退輔會主委邱國正接掌國安局(1)
Photo Credit: CNA
On July 24, the Presidential Office announced Chiu Kuo-cheng as the replacement of the National Security Bureau's director-general.

Ko Cheng-heng (柯承亨), a close affiliate with the DPP, served as Peng's temporary replacement for two days. But the director-general position has since been filled by Chiu Kuo-cheng (邱國正), previous head of Veteran Affairs Council. According to the announcement on President Tsai’s Facebook page, Chiu with his military experience is known for instilling discipline as a leader.

The appointment of Chiu has continued the unspoken tradition of appointing military leaders, rather than civilians, as the NSB director.

What Should We Focus On?

Given how close the January 2020 election is, the media could shape the coverage of the NSB scandal into a political one. Although smuggling cigarettes during presidential state visit has been a bureaucratic practice since the previous Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration, President Tsai will likely have to brace for the criticisms.

Huang, previous chairman of the NPP, is also dragging his party to become an opposition to the DPP rather than an ally. Frequently referred to as the “god of war” (戰神) by his supporters, Huang is known for his fierce attitude, concise questioning, and strong pursuit for transparency against corruption as a legislator. However, he has recently reiterated his opposition to cooperate with the DPP for the upcoming election. With his revelation of the cigarette smuggling scandal, Huang might agitate working-class and progressive voters' discontent towards the Tsai administration’s past policies.

黃國昌
Photo Credit: CNA
Huang Kuo-chang at a press conference detailing his investigation into the cigarette smuggling scandal.

The focus of the issue should be placed on investigating the truth and the likely corporate-government collusion. Since China Airlines containers were used to conceal the cigarettes, it was very likely that the company officials have taken part in the collusion. The cooperation between a flag carrier operator and an intelligence agency can be potentially dangerous and gives room for security issues. Bureaucratic rent-seeking is an excess that ought to be cleansed from Taiwan’s governing and corporate institutions.

Regardless of the political stances of the different interest groups and media in Taiwan, this scandal reminds us of a common priority — that is, to ensure that Taiwan’s bureaucracy continues to transform from the once corruption-rife collection of institutions to one scrutinized by the separation of power, governed under the rule of law.


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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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