Former Taiwanese vice-premier turned senior official steps down amid bribery probe

Asia World

A senior Taiwanese official involved in mainland affairs has resigned as head of the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) following a bribery investigation.

Cheng Wen-tsan, a former vice-premier of Taiwan who became chairman of the foundation under the Mainland Affairs Council on June 7, announced his resignation on Sunday, saying he did not want to disrupt the body’s operations.

Cheng, 57, known for his moderate stance on cross-strait relations and advocacy for normal exchanges, was summoned by prosecutors on Friday for questioning about alleged bribery during his tenure as mayor of Taoyuan between 2014 and 2022.

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The Taoyuan district prosecutors’ office said on Saturday it sought court approval to detain Cheng after 16 hours of questioning over suspected acceptance of a bribe seven years ago.

However, the Taoyuan District Court rejected the detention request and released Cheng on NT$5 million (US$154,000) bail. This decision was later overridden by the High Court, which requested a review of his detention case on Monday.

The prosecutors’ office did not provide details of the case but local news media reported that the bribery allegation was linked to a land rezoning project near a science-based industrial estate in Taoyuan.

Cheng maintained his innocence in a statement on Saturday: “I have not committed any illegal acts, and I will cooperate with the judicial investigation. I hope to clarify the truth and prove my innocence as soon as possible”.

Cheng announced his resignation through the SEF the following day, citing the need to “avoid disrupting the team’s normal operations” and expressing his commitment to “clearing his name through the judicial process”.

Taiwan’s presidential office, cabinet and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) expressed “respect for the judiciary” and hoped for a “swift clarification of the matter”.
Cheng is the first senior official from William Lai Ching-te’s government to step down, resigning just a month after taking office.

The investigation has embarrassed the DPP, which pledged to combat corruption when Lai became the head of the party in 2023 and won the island’s top post in the January election.

On Saturday, Lai said that regardless of party affiliation or individual, anyone involved in illegal activities “should be investigated and prosecuted by law enforcement agencies without bias”.

“The fight against fraud, organised crime and corruption remains a critical task for the current government,” he stressed.

Cheng, who is seen as a close confidant of previous leader Tsai Ing-wen, assumed the position of vice-premier in January 2023 under Tsai. After the change of leadership in May, Cheng was left out of any cabinet post and was instead named by Lai to head the SEF, a post he assumed just a month ago.

The SEF was set up in the 1990s to serve as the “white glove” of the island’s government, to deal and talk to Beijing in the absence of official cross-strait exchanges. It was crucial when Ma Ying-jeou, of the mainland-friendly Kuomintang, was the island’s leader and adopted a policy between 2008 and 2016 of engaging Beijing.

Over the past eight years under Lai’s predecessor Tsai, the SEF’s role has been largely sidelined and limited to day-to-day non-political matters, including aiding Taiwanese citizens who are involved in accidents on the mainland.

Beijing views Taiwan as part of its territory to be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary. Most countries, including the United States, do not recognise Taiwan as an independent state, but Washington is opposed to any attempt to take the self-governed island by force and is committed to supplying it with weapons.

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Beijing has suspended official exchanges with the island since Tsai refused to accept the one-China principle after assuming office in May 2016.

Cross-strait ties deteriorated further after Lai took office on May 20 and declared Taiwan and the mainland “are not subordinate to each other”.

Beijing responded three days later by conducting war games surrounding Taiwan, simulating a blockade of the island.