TAIPEI, Taiwan -- A doctor gives up parking his Mercedes-Benz near his Taipei home and leaves his beat-up Citroen in front instead to throw off potential extortionists.
The president of a Taipei securities firm who used to do the rounds of business dinners now avoids going out whenever possible. His colleague down the street, meanwhile, has hired security guards to escort him to and from work.
Crime has arrived in full force in Taiwan in recent years, fueled by the lifting of martial law and the fast growth of a wealthy class.
'It's a very serious problem,' said legislator Gary Wang, who was forced to pay $185,000 to extortionists during his campaign last December. 'If we don't take action, Taiwan could become like Colombia.'
The last seven months of 1989 saw more than 3,200 violent crimes, a leap of 25 percent over the same period last year, according to police. Kidnappings alone were up 53 percent last year.
The majority of crimes consist of kidnappings and extortion of well-to-do businessmen, many of whom have taken to hiring bodyguards and trading in their imported cars for less flashy models.
'Sales of high-class imported cars fell by as much as 50 percent last year,' said Paul Lin, a dealer for BMW. 'Our customers come in and say they're afraid of being extorted.'
In one of the most publicized cases, the chairman of the giant Evergreen shipping company, Wang Yung-ching, last year shelled out almost $2 million to ransom his abducted 32-year-old son.
A recent survey by the Ministry of Economic Affairs shows that more than one-third of small and medium enterprises have been extorted or harassed by gangsters.
'We've been threatened eight times,' said Liu Shen-chu, executive officer of TenRen Tea Co. 'It's the same with other big companies.'
TenRen Chairman Lee Rei-ho has hired two personal guards and posted another four to guard the firm's Taipei headquarters around the clock.
Officials attribute the skyrocketing crime rate to a liberalization of society following the lifting of martial law in 1987 after nearly 40 years and to the growing wealth gap.
Forty years of hard work and savings have vaulted Taiwan into the ranks of world economic powers, holding $69 billion in foreign exchange reserves and ranked 13th among trading nations.
Rampant speculation in stocks and real estate over the last two years has resulted in the formation of a new wealthy class eager to spend its money on status items.
'They buy fancy clothes and drive imported cars,' said Chang Chin-heng, director of the investigation division at the National Police Administration. 'Those without money see them and want them too.'
'There's a lot to do and buy, but you can't do any of it if you don't have money,' said a 20-year-old man sentenced to life imprisonment for kidnapping a 10-year-old child. 'So you turn to doing bad because it's the easiest way to make money.'
Since the lifting of martial law, the number of smuggled guns, especially those from China, has risen dramatically in Taiwan.
Police seized 687 Chinese-made shotguns last year, up sharply from 57 in 1988. Such guns were used to kill 111 people last year, according to official statistics.
The government has launched an anti-crime campaign led by Premier Hau Pei-tsun, a former four-star general with a tough reputation.
Within a week of taking office, Hau dispatched naval vessels and military police to patrol the northern fishing port of Nanliao, notorious as a point through which guns and other contraband are smuggled in from China, less than 90 miles away.
'The situation is definitely improving since Premier Hau took office,' said George Chang, assistant vice president of a local construction company that used to receive an average of four or five extortion threats for each building project.
But it may take more than official muscle to check the crime rate. Rapid industrialization has unraveled Taiwan's basic social unit, the family, as both parents in most households work and children move to the city to find better jobs.
'Essential informal social controls are being destroyed as everyone chases after money,' said Sheu Cheun-jim of the Central Police College. 'There's nothing left to take their place.'
And Chinese culture, heavily grounded in Confucianism, has always accepted and even encouraged bending the law.
'Confucius says if your son steals, you should help him destroy the evidence,' said Perng Shaw-jiin (cq), an attorney with the Taoyuan District Prosecutor's Office in northern Taiwan.
'Police are so busy earning money that they don't have time to chase criminals,' said opposition Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Lin Cheng-chieh.
According to Lin and other sources, police and gangsters often cooperate to extract 'protection fees' from underground clubs and videogame parlors. Retired officers reportedly take jobs at these establishments to pay off the policemen sent to close them down.
'We say crime doesn't pay,' said Chow Chen-ou, a professor at the Chinese Culture University. 'But in Taiwan, it's the fastest way to make money.'NEWLN: