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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A mother's despair

Taiwan television star Pai Ping-ping withdraws from public view after her daughter is found murdered. Her fellow citizens demand answers

By Tim Healy and Laurie Underwood / Taipei


THIS IS A STORY of how a personal tragedy becomes a public one. First, there is a hugely popular Taiwan television star struggling to raise her only daughter alone. One morning, the 17-year-old girl is kidnapped as she walks to school. The police are called, the media follow, and soon the drama no longer concerns a youth in mortal danger -- it is about a celebrity and politicians and an entire nation gripped by fear.

Even at the end, after the girl is found naked and brutally murdered in a drainage ditch, the mother's pain seems strangely remote. Protests by 50,000 people, marching with signs that indirectly blame Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui for the crime, have grabbed the spotlight. The public wants answers. Why are the police ineffective? Why are politicians not more committed to cracking down on crime? Why are media insensitive and lustful for a grisly story? Suddenly, the original tragedy is obscured.

Investigators say Pai Hsiao-yen, 17, had been dead up to 10 days before she was found, strangled to death, her battered body weighted down by dumbbells. She had disappeared April 14 near the spacious villa south of Taipei owned by her mother, Pai Ping-ping, a singer and all-around entertainer who was hosting several TV shows at the time of the abduction. The kidnappers demanded $5 million in cash and produced photos of Hsiao-yen, half nude and bound with tape, along with a severed piece of her little finger, apparently to show their seriousness.

From the beginning, Taiwan's media intruded aggressively. Two newspapers and a television station violated accepted practice by reporting the kidnapping before there was a resolution. And though the stories quickly ceased, they nevertheless sparked intense criticism that only increased after it was learned that some pre-planned ransom drops were aborted by the kidnappers after they spotted the police and media tailing Pai Ping-ping. "Reporters have sinned," read a sign near the Pai house. Journalist Fang Pao-chu, who directed coverage of the story by the China Times newspaper, admits some reporters went too far. He says some TV stations followed the kidnapped girl's mother with cameras mounted outside their vehicles.

As it turned out, Hsiao-yen may have been dead before the media circus hit the road. Pai Ping-ping reportedly spent three days raising the ransom money from friends and her own reserves, which means she had enough money just at the point when medical examiners say Hsiao-yen was last alive. Days after the girl was slain, the kidnappers were still trying for the ransom. At one point, they had an impersonator place a phone call to convince Ping-ping her daughter was alive.

It is unclear why the kidnappers murdered Hsiao-yen so quickly after the abduction, or why they picked her in the first place. Three suspects, Chen Ching-hsing, Kao Tien-min, and Lin Chun-sheng, have extensive criminal histories. Lin is suspected in the abduction and murder of a female accountant in 1994. Whatever else, the abductors were certainly brutal. In fact, it was details of the crime -- Hsiao-yen was apparently tortured before she died -- that caused such public outrage.

In November, Taiwan suffered its worst-ever mass murder when Taoyuan County Chief Liu Pang-you and seven guests were executed -- execution-style with single shots to the head -- at Liu's home. The following month, prominent women's rights activist and opposition politician Peng Wan-ju was raped and murdered in Kaohsiung. And last month, American Tina Holden was beaten during a robbery attempt in Taichung. She died two days later, leaving a toddler and a two-month-old baby behind. None of the cases has been solved.

After such a string of gruesome crimes, the average citizen of Taiwan is looking hard for someone to blame. "We will take steps to impeach the president and Vice President Lien Chan if they fail to apologize for their incompetence before Mother's Day [May 11]," said opposition politician Cheng Li-wen at the protest last weekend. Afterwards, Lien proffered his resignation, but Lee asked him to stay.

The president had previously accepted responsibility for failing to solve the kidnapping before Hsiao-yen was murdered, though critics said the gesture lacked sincerity. And he wasn't taking the fall alone. By midweek a cabinet reshuffle was rumored, with Interior Minister Lin Feng-cheng facing dismissal. The police, in particular, have been criticized for failing to solve the Pai kidnapping despite a massive effort. In a shoot-out with the alleged kidnappers April 25, police captured three suspects but several others, including Chen and Lin, escaped. Others felt the buck stopped at the president's desk: "If Lee Teng-hui would actively support the efforts of the women's groups to improve safety, those working under him would follow suit," says Jane Her, director of the Taipei Women's Rescue Foundation. "He's the one in power. He should take the blame."

And when the murder of Pai Hsiao-yen is largely forgotten, as it inevitably will be, Ping-ping will be alone. After her daughter's body was discovered, the mother asked government officials to inform TV stations she was dropping out of show business and "not to look for her anymore." Ping-ping's daughter was a good student and reportedly an excellent public speaker. Ironically, she had planned to study journalism. She will be buried on Mother's Day. And though a nation will mourn, the collective sorrow will be no match for a lone mother's.


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