TAIPEI — Chang An-le is accustomed to being on the wrong side of the law. The former gangster, known as the White Wolf, spent 17 years as a fugitive from Taiwanese justice in mainland China and a decade behind bars in the United States on drug-trafficking charges.
Now Mr Chang, back in Taiwan since 2013, runs the Chinese Unity Promotion party that backs unification between communist China and democratic Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province.
Pro-China organisations are in the spotlight as the island’s authorities investigate alleged Chinese efforts to destabilise Taiwan by funding triad gangs, a move that follows a series of clashes between CUP supporters and pro-independence protesters. The tension comes amid a broader squeeze on Taiwan by Beijing since the election victory last year of President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive party, which wants the island to remain democratic and free.
Mr Chang is quick to defend his supporters, whose most recent alleged violence was against student protesters calling for independence at a cross-strait music festival late last month.
“Chinese people say: if you don’t bother me I won’t bother you,” the 70-year-old told the Financial Times from his office in central Taipei. “But if you bother me, I will bother you back.”
The Criminal Investigation Bureau’s probe into the links between political parties and organised crime will trace the parties’ sources of funding — potentially revealing whether China has funnelled money via illicit channels to fund fledgling pro-unification groups in Taiwan.
The CIB has not named the people or organisations it is probing.
Mr Chang says he is no longer a leader of the Bamboo Union, a criminal gang that Taiwan officials believe has 3,000-4,000 members and which last month was accused by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte of being behind his country’s drugs crisis.
But delineating politics, business and the underworld in Taiwan and across the strait to China is not easy. The CIB concedes it will be “difficult to clarify the grey areas”.
Triads notorious for drugs, weapons, gambling and prostitution have for years been shifting to the legitimate economy.
Taiwan’s two main political parties — the DPP and the Nationalist party, or Kuomintang — have historically had ties to triad groups, including the Bamboo Union.
“In politics it used to be the gang leaders themselves who ran for public office, but now they support a family or relative who is not in the gang to represent them,” said Ko-Lin Chin, an expert in Asian cross-border crime at Rutgers University, adding that there are still “many gangsters” from Taiwan living in China.
In his office adorned with traditional swords and pro-Beijing slogans, Mr Chang agrees that his goal of unifying Taiwan with China is in line with policy in Beijing but he denies following orders from Chinese officials or receiving funding for the CUP from Communist party-controlled groups.
However, he confirms that he travels back to China most months and has frequent dealings with Chinese officials, mostly in Shenzhen, where he lived from 1996 to 2013 while on the run from Taiwan police.
“We have contact, yes,” he said. “Sometimes we talk about policy.”
His supporters have at times received small financial “benefits”, such as discounted travel, from Chinese officials because they are seen as loyal to Beijing, he says.
Taiwanese nationals with businesses in China donate to his party to help their relationships there, he adds. Mr Chang says Chinese officials have tried to direct his activities in Taiwan only once, when they asked him not to use a Chinese flag in his rallies, a move they thought would be too provocative.
And he insists his interactions with Chinese officials are no different from those of other Taiwanese businesspeople. Hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese live and do business in China.
Outside of directly funding people or groups, Communist party officials may have rewarded businesses that support pro-unification groups, according to Lennon Yao-chung Chang, criminology lecturer at Australia’s Monash University.
“But you can’t really know whether this kind of thing has any link to what Chang An-le’s party is doing in Taiwan,” he said.
Mr Chang is aware that people find it hard to take him at his word about his connections to the Bamboo Union and China. “I tell you the truth. I don’t care whatever you want to write,” he said. “I spent 10 years in prison. People say I’m a drug dealer. I don’t care. I know if I deal drugs or not.” THE FINANCIAL TIMES