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Inventing the public enemy: the gangster in Taiwanese society, 1991-2006

Santos, Percival (2007) Inventing the public enemy: the gangster in Taiwanese society, 1991-2006. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Much of the literature has framed the study of Taiwanese politics in terms of the persistent existence of certain informal institutions like factional politics, patron-clientism, heijin (political corruption), and finally, heidao (gangsters). These institutions are perceived to be more characteristic of a third world country, and inappropriate to Taiwan, given it’s advanced economy and democratic system. This thesis looks at the contemporary phenomenon of heidao. Heidao, in the strict sense of the word, are a new class of wealthy and powerful people from the countryside who have accumulated their wealth through dubious means and then run for political office. The thesis relies primarily on ethnographic research and it focuses on the life histories of a few rural politicians who are reputed to be heidao, namely Legislator Yen Ching-piao of Shalu Town, and the Jen brothers from Dajia Town, Taichung County. This thesis borrows the ‘big man’ or ‘man of prowess’ model from the traditional political culture of Southeast Asia. It compares the Taiwanese heidao with the Thai chaopo (godfather), rural politicians from Taiwan and Thailand. I argue two things. First, that contemporary anxiety in Taiwan about heidao represents a clash between two incompatible notions of politics and governance. The dominant notion involves contemporary western ideas of politics based on the ideal of good governance, ransparency, integrity, and honesty, which predominate in the urban areas. The other involves traditional notions of power and politics based on the ideal of a benign and paternalistic patron which is prevalent in the rural areas. Second, scholarly literature portrays Taiwanese politics as anomalous. This is a result of using idealized categories of politics and governance that are characteristic of a western liberal democracy. The anomaly disappears when we look at the country within the broader context of the traditional political culture of Southeast Asia. Heidao are really Southeast Asian big men.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2007 Percival Santos
Library of Congress subject classification: H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
Sets: Departments > Anthropology
Supervisor: Stafford, Charles and Feuchtwang, Stephan

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