Celebrity killings stir rage in Taiwan

If you had to come up with an occidental equivalent of Pai Ping- ping, you might describe her as the Cilla Black of Taiwan. Even before the awful events of this spring, everyone with a television set knew her as a singer, comedienne and presenter.

Like her British counterpart, Ping-ping was born in a northern port city, Keelung, and became famous for her bantering use of the local dialect. She began her career as a pop starlet; in middle age she hosted one of the most popular variety shows.She was also admired as a devoted single mother, and it is the fate of her daughter, a beautiful 17-year-old named Hsiao-yen, which has brought Ping-ping a greater, though more terrible, fame than she had as an entertainer.

In April, Hsiao-yen was snatched from the street by a group of men who demanded a ransom of pounds 3.2m. They sent photographs of her, naked, her face covered in masking tape, with a note from the girl begging for the money. A later delivery contained her little finger.

Four times, Ping-ping agreed to meet the kidnappers and hand over the ransom; four times they failed to turn up.

The country held its breath for Pai Hsiao-yen, and a distraught Ping- ping gave almost daily news conferences beseeching the government to do something. A thousand police were mobilised and Lien Chan, Taiwan's Prime Minister and Vice-President, made a personal visit to assure her that every effort was being made. Then, two weeks after her disappearance, Hsiao-yen's body was found, naked, bound and mutilated, at the bottom of a water-filled drainage ditch on the outskirts of Taipei.

Almost immediately, the search for scapegoats began. The charismatic Mr Lien blamed first the media - at least one planned drop-off of ransom money was spoiled when camera crews turned up at the appointed spot - and then local officials. But over the next few weeks, the Taiwanese made it clear whom they blamed for their island's crime problem.

The Saturday after Hsiao-yen's body was found, 50,000 marched to the presidential office in Taipei calling for President Lee Teng-hui to dismiss his cabinet. Lasers projected anti-government slogans on to the buildings around the square. "I watched it and it was clear that these people were not the average political agitators," says Ma Ying-jeou, then a cabinet minister. "They were housewives, civil servants, professors, the middle class. I thought about it for three days, then I decided to resign."

Two other ministers then resigned as well, and President Lee made an apology, but the public were not assuaged. Two months on, the killing seems to have been the final straw.

A few months earlier, a well-known regional commissioner was gunned down in his office with seven associates. A week later, the naked body of a popular women's rights activist was found in southern Taiwan. She had been raped and stabbed 35 times. Hsiao-yen's death was just the most shocking manifestation of an epidemic of violent crime.

Between 1990 and 1996 the crime rate rose by 80 per cent. Three million Taiwanese - one in seven - were assaulted or robbed in the second half of 1996.

Much of this crime is organised. Police figures reveal that Taiwan has 10,582 gangsters belonging to 1,236 gangs.

Even more disturbing is the degree to which crime is a part of the political system. Taiwan's Minister of Justice, Liao Cheng-hao, estimated last year that between 5 and 10 per cent of members of parliament have gang affiliations; at local level he reckoned the figure was about one- third of councillors.

The government has promised to clear up the problem and passed a Bill this year barring those convicted of gang crimes from running for office. The credibility of this initiative has been undermined, however, by a simple fact: it depends for its majority on a number of MPs who openly acknowledge their links to gangs.

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