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Possible Taiwan government role in murder strains ties with US

The initial verdicts in the Henry Liu murder trials have done little to answer the many questions surrounding the case. Two guilty verdicts were handed down here yesterday in the trials for the killing of the Chinese-American writer, a dissident writer who was shot in his home in California last October. Yet the conviction of two Taiwanese underworld figures has not lifted the cloud of suspicion hanging over the government.

Allegations of government involvement in the Liu murder have proven acutely embarrassing to the government of President Chiang Ching-kuo. A military trial of three senior members of the government's Defense Intelligence Bureau, who were implicated in the case, began last week.

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Also, the revelation that a network of Taiwan-based criminals have been operating in the United States has strained the island's unofficial but close relations with Washington.

There are now two major outstanding issues. First, how involved was Vice-Admiral Wong Hsi-ling in the murder? And second, as chief of the Defense Intelligence Bureau, did he act with higher authority?

An official conclusion on the first question is likely to be reached when the military trial resumes Friday, or when a verdict is delivered, probably a week from then.

It is increasingly apparent, however, that the trials are likely to end without an investigation into the possibility of official involvement at a level higher than Admiral Wong's. This has contributed to a widespread belief here that the proceedings are essentially exercises in judicial containment.

On Tuesday morning, two longtime members of Taiwan's powerful Bamboo Union crime syndicate were pronounced guilty of the murder. Chen Chi-li, the reputed leader of the gang, and Wu Tun, a senior deputy, were both given life sentences.

In testimony last week, Mr. Chen said he was recruited in August by Admiral Wong to murder Liu in the United States. But on the first day of his military trial, Wong said he ordered only that Liu be ``taught a lesson.''

Wong headed the Defense Intelligence Bureau until January, when he was first placed under investigation. He is now charged as a principal accomplice in the murder.

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Mr. Liu himself was a graduate of the intelligence agency's political-warfare training school. But both Chen and Wong maintain that Liu was also acting as an agent for Peking. Liu had written extensively against the Taipei government and had recently republished a critical biography of President Chiang.

Chen has repeatedly stressed Liu's background -- which may also have included work for the American Federal Bureau of Investigation -- in justifying the murder as a patriotic act.

Wong, it is also alleged, offered Liu $80,000 not to publish a new biography of Wu Kuo-cheng, a former governor of Taiwan and a longtime political opponent of President Chiang. In the months before he was killed, Liu published three excerpts from the book in an opposition magazine in Taipei. All three editions were banned.

Opposition sources are vocal in saying that Admiral Wong may have taken his orders from superiors. They claim those orders may have come from Chiang Hsiao-wo, one of the President's three sons and, these sources say, an influential figure in the island's intelligence and security communities. Chiang Hsiao-wo has denied any involvement in the Liu case.

The Chiang government would be embarrassed, Taipei political sources believe, by any widespread exposure of the close relations that have reportedly developed between underground gangs such as the Bamboo Union, the Kuomintang (KMT, or Chinese Nationalist) government party, and the nations' extensive intelligence networks.

The ruling party's relations with similar groups date to its activities on the mainland prior to the Chinese Revolution in 1949.

In recent years, such ties are thought to have expanded. The Bamboo Union, for instance, has grown from a few thousand members to more than 10,000 in the past five years. Many gang members view their association with officialdom as expressions of their fierce anticommunist patriotism and their loyalty to the KMT.

Taipei also appears unwilling to risk exposure of the activities of both crime syndicates and its intelligence networks in the United States. These concerns have been a major factor in the government's decision to resist US demands that the murderers be returned to the US for trial.

The stiff sentences meted out to Chen and Wu are viewed here as an effort to demonstrate the government's resolve to punish Liu's murderers, as President Chiang said recently, ``no matter what their rank.''

Concern here over the damage the Liu case may cause in Taipei's relations with Washington remains widespread -- and will until the trials are finished. It is generally recognized, however, that the State Department and congressmen who are sympathetic to Taiwan want to limit the long-term fallout. Yet there now seems to be little question, from the government's point of view, that US arms sales, worth $700 million in the 1984 fiscal year, will be curtailed.

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