As in the 2004 presidential election, polls recently held in Taiwan’s five biggest municipalities are certain to provide the island with conspiracy theories for a long time to come.
On election eve, Sean Lien, the son of a former vice president and Kuomintang (KMT) party heavyweight, was shot in the head. The culprit was caught in a scuffle and the celebrity victim survived, flashing a “V” for victory on his way to surgery. A disabled bystander who got struck by the same bullet was less lucky; he was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.
Minutes after the carnage, the usual reporting on candidates all but disappeared from TV screens. They made way for commentators and KMT politicians who were quick to call the
attack a political crime. Animated clips illustrated how the bullet pierced Lien’s face and skull, causing guests on political talk shows to sobbingly bemoan the victim.
While the effect on the polls’ outcome remains hard to pin down in numbers and bar graphs, it’s clear that politically, the KMT was the beneficiary. Likely due to sympathy votes, the predicted neck-and-neck race between the KMT’s candidates in the northern cities of Taipei and Xinbei and their challengers in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) didn’t take place. In Taipei, the DPP was defeated by a much larger than expected 11.8 % margin; in Xinbei, by 5.2 %. As a consequence, the DPP, with its anti-China, pro-independence background, only grabbed two municipalities out of the five contested.
Not only to the KMT’s opponents, the criminal case of Sean Lien’s shooting is rife with inconsistencies, and the list of clues is indeed dizzying. His father Lien Chan, who holds a rank within the KMT of such a height that it’s him who spearheads meetings with China’s leaders, was back on stage campaigning for the KMT soon after he visited his son in hospital. At that time, according to a statement made by Lien Chan himself, his son’s condition was still unknown. Whether many fathers would have decided to leave their son’s sickbed on such a night is somewhat questionable, given that a 9mm bullet fired by a powerful Swiss military handgun had entered Lien Jr’s left cheek and exited near the right temple.
According to the authorities, the suspect, Lin Cheng-wei, wasn’t the mastermind behind the plot. Lin, reportedly a member of a gang as opposed to being a political zealot, claimed he mistook Sean Lien for a local politician, whom he wanted to kill because of a botched land deal. However, witnesses and Lien himself stated that the gunman had shouted Lien’s name as he ran toward him on the rally stage. Lien later backtracked, saying that while he did hear someone calling his name, he wasn’t sure it was the gunman.
Lin, the shooter, was given a lie detector test, but investigators declined to reveal either what questions were asked or what the results showed. Because Lin possibly received money prior to the shooting and will be given another sum as “family comfort compensation” afterwards as long as he doesn’t expose his backers, it’s not expected that Lin will disclose the name of the mastermind behind the shooting.
The person who stopped Lin from firing a second shot was once a key chieftain of the United Bamboo Gang, one among Taiwan’s most infamous organized crime groups. Its former boss, who is reported to have changed careers to engage in respectable business operations many years ago, was in the front row at the campaign rally when the shooting started. Police apparently lied about the ex-gangster’s role in the incident, initially taking credit for having subdued the shooter.
Tu Yi-kai, the director of the campaign event who received phone calls from the suspect minutes before the shootings, left Taiwan for a whirlwind 24-hour return trip to mainland China in spite of the ongoing probe. The DPP suggested that the campaign director might have gone to China to “bury the evidence”. Police suspect that Tu served as a “mentor” to the shooter. Upon returning to Taiwan, Tu locked himself in his home and has so far refused to come out.
The aspect that raised eyebrows most, however, was Lien’s extraordinary, if not miraculous, recovery. According to the hospital where more than three-and-a-half hours of surgery took place, the bullet caused partial fractures to Lien’s cheekbones and two open wounds. After waking up in the morning following the shooting, Lien said a few words to the medical staff, an indication that his vision and language abilities were not impaired. And a mere 40 hours after the bullet ripped through his face, he received guests and reportedly ate solid foods.
To many members of the Taiwanese public as well as to DPP politicians, this was a bit too much of a miracle. They say at that stage, Lien should not have been eating but receiving injections of nutrients. Apart from this, doubters say Lien couldn’t possibly have chewed while his stitches healed. At least to the DPP’s supporters among the skeptics, the conclusion suggested itself: Lien’s shooting was staged, and the extent of the injuries exaggerated to affect the outcome of the election.
Unsurprisingly, the KMT vehemently dismissed the allegations. “Why don’t you DPP legislators take a bullet and see how that feels? If you survive, I will agree with everything you say,” was how KMT legislator Hsieh Kuo-liang countered accusations that the shooter might have been coached on how to shoot Lien so that he could injure him without killing him.
It is not clear whether legislator Hsieh has forgotten that Lien’s shooting wasn’t the first in Taiwan that turned around hotly contested elections. In 2004, the DPP’s then president Chen Shui-bian and vice president Annette Lu got shot by an allegedly lone and amateurish gunman. The sympathy votes back then favored the DPP, not the KMT. The KMT, which lost the elections narrowly, furiously alleged that the shooting was staged. Just as it is with the current controversy surrounding Lien’s gunshot wounds, the KMT claimed that the fact that no blood dripped into Chen’s underpants somehow proved the DPP itself had hired the gunman to propel its electoral chances.
So who or what is behind Taiwan’s last-minute election shootings? Is it Taiwan’s politicians hiring hitmen, either to get rid of their opponents or for the sake of gaining sympathy votes, or is it, as many believe, gangsters who had bet huge sums on the contest’s outcome? For Taiwanese scholars, the answer doesn’t come easily.
“Although Sean Lien’s attacker has been arrested, I have pondered for days over a possible motive before daring to give you an answer”, said Cheng Kun-shan, professor at the Department of Criminology of Taiwan’s National Chung Cheng University, in an interview with Asia Times Online. “In Taiwan, there’s not only the split between political parties, but also between the media outlets. We have the same evidence, but the biased reporting made me lose the ability to judge the case”, Cheng laments.
Some experts, however, are not so concerned about who is responsible but instead worry about the repercussions when elections can be manipulated in such a relatively easy way. “Taiwan always had a problem with vote-buying, but the election shootings are a much bigger threat to Taiwan’s democracy”, cautioned Chen Yaw-shyang, an assistant professor of public policy at National Taipei University. “If the government of President Ma fails to get rid of this problem, then we will see shootings before every future election.”
When shootings of campaigning politicians occur in other parts of the world, conspiracy theorists usually don’t hesitate to suspect intelligence agencies of foreign countries that have open or hidden stakes in that election. China has an obvious interest in a win for the Beijing-friendly KMT, and likely also in deepening the divide between Taiwan’s political camps, in order to undermine Taiwan’s democratic system – which is both a hindrance to cross-strait unification and a threat to the Communist Party at a time when Chinese tourists, journalists and scholars traveled to Taiwan in droves to witness the “atmosphere” of democratic elections. But Taiwanese political observers flatly dismiss the possibility that China could have had a hand in either Chen and Lu’s or Lien’s shootings.
“I don’t think the incidents have to do with cross-strait relations in the slightest”, said Wang Yeh-lih, chairman of the Department of Political Science at National Taiwan University.
“Why would China want to shoot Chen Shui-bian?”, asked Arthur Ding, a research fellow in the China Politics Division at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University. “If China was behind the shooting of Chen, then it helped Chen a lot.”
Wang Jyh-Perng, a military expert of the Association for Managing Defense and Strategies, is convinced that China’s intelligence agency is fundamentally different from the CIA and KGB. “China won’t carry out assassinations, especially not in Taiwan. And that Beijing wants Lien Chan’s son Sean Lien killed is absolutely impossible, because the two belong to the KMT.” In a statement that hints at a contradiction of what Professor Ding said, Wang added: “If China really wanted to kill someone in Taiwan, then that person would be from the pro-independence camp.”
But putting aside conspiracy theories and returning to the million-dollar question of whether someone who got shot in the face can chew on a sandwich 40 hours later, a foreign dental surgeon not affiliated with either the KMT or DPP doesn’t see a stringent reason against it. Dr Carolin Wattenberg said: “If the victim’s jaw-bone was fractured, he could eat as soon as there were titanium plates attached, which would likely have been done right away.”
However, there’s still one circumstance regarding Lien’s case that Wattenberg finds puzzling, and it could give additional fodder to conspiracy theorists. She said: “Somehow I wonder where the victim’s tongue had been the moment he got shot.”