Summer heat may be receding in Taipei, but the temperature is certainly rising for the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), which, for much of the buildup to Taiwan’s 2024 election, had looked like the most viable opposition to the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
First, instead of publicly clearing his name in relation to allegedly facilitating the supply of organs removed from Falun Gong followers and other victims of the Chinese Communist Party, TPP leader Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) had a defamation case rejected for the third and final time against Ethan Gutmann, an author who had made such claims.
Then, the TPP publicly endorsed former Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) member Lee Chuan-chiao (李全教) in his bid to become a legislator for the city of Tainan, even though he has not long finished a nine-month prison term for vote-buying and appears to excel at electoral tampering.
Now, internet celebrity Liu Yu (劉宇) has claimed that two of the party’s Taipei heads, the Benz-driving Chen Ta-yeh (陳大業) and Wang Chen-hung (王振鴻), are members of the Hongmen, an organization sometimes likened to the masons, but often more ominously described as a pro-China triad group. Chen has denied the accusations. Wang published a clear criminal record and announced resignation from his post in response to the media storm.
In the background, Hsinchu’s TPP mayor, Ann Kao (高虹安), appeared under subpoena in relation to supposed plagiarism of her doctoral thesis. She has already been indicted on corruption charges last month related to falsely pulling salary from public funds for her boyfriend, and scandals surround her residence and transport arrangements, which seem to be connected one way or another to construction companies.
By rights, the first of these allegations ought to be the most serious, and, for some, even the hint that a hopeful for Taipei’s Presidential Office Building could have enabled the grotesque crime of non-consensually removing the internal organs of another human being, especially one who had been detained for nothing more than their beliefs, will be enough to banish them from consideration wholly, permanently and unequivocally.
For others, however, it is perhaps beyond contemplation. How can one begin to suspect that a figure so familiar as the avuncular former Taipei mayor, who brought in pet-friendly spaces and came out fighting for a tragic young corporal who lost his life over a cell phone, could possibly be associated with something as gruesome as organ harvesting? Unlike the Chinese Communist Party, Ko also has plausible deniability. He has survived these claims before.
Fiddling funds and payments for votes, on the other hand, are a lot less horror movie and a lot more digestible for the average person on the street. When coupled with a figure like Lee, who has actually been convicted, it becomes very difficult to explain, and many would-be (or would-have-been) TPP voters must be scratching their heads right now as to why the party would make such an endorsement. At best, it suggests desperation due to a lack of suitable personnel. At worst, it indicates a favors-for-favors approach with a KMT cast-off accused of gangsterism. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Yet, from a certain perspective, it is the Hongmen rumors that reverberate most deeply, as these kinds of connections threaten to destabilize Taiwan at the deepest level. Although the Hongmen is loose and diverse with a broad membership and complex history, its splinters and representatives have, in recent years, led calls from Taiwan to Hong Kong for “patriots” to defend the Beijing-laid order against pro-democracy protesters; tabled a threat towards the former Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kei (林榮基), who has taken refuge in Taiwan following his previous abduction by Chinese authorities; and engaged in what looks very much like a strategized attempt to organize chaos in Palau, one of Taiwan’s few United Nations allies.
Here, it is important to emphasize both that the Hongmen connections of Chen and Wang are alleged, not confirmed, and one must be careful in extrapolating what Hongmen membership means in individual cases anyway. The antics of one branch do not automatically correlate with another of the same name.
Nonetheless, it would be naive to dismiss the danger of relationships between Hongmen organizations and the Chinese Communist Party or the risk that they might be covertly mobilized to smoothen the pathway towards Beijing’s goals. If accusations in local media and information on Baidu Baike, China’s Wikipedia equivalent, is accurate for Hongmen’s Saint Wenshan branch, to which Chen and Wang have been linked, ties are likely with entities that seem to be acting against democracy on Taiwan soil, too.
Furthermore, while the TPP was once seen as the clean alternative to two parties with a history of scandal, that reputation is tarnished now, regardless of whether the multifaceted claims against its management, members, allies and Ko Wen-je himself ultimately stand or fall. In essence, the party is appealing to the electorate as a breath of fresh air. Whiffs of corruption, shady influence and even organ-harvesting are not supposed to be ingredients of the fragrance.