Chen Shui-bian's Taiwan: No steps forward, two steps back

Frank Ching | 29 Nov 2020

When Morris Chang, president of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company who attended the APEC summit in Hanoi as the representative of President Chen Shui-bian, met President George Bush, he assured the American leader that Mr. Chen would honor the commitments the latter made during his 2004 inaugural address, when he promised not to touch on sensitive cross-Strait issues while revising the constitution.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Mr Bush, instead of accepting the assurances at face value, expressed concern over the Taiwan leader's trustworthiness. He asked Chang to convey his concerns to the Taiwan leader.

Mr. Chen, who is facing calls to step down from within his own party as well as from the opposition, has managed to alienate Taiwan's strongest American supporter since Ronald Reagan. He did so by repeatedly ignoring Bush's pleas for moderation, first in 2003 when he insisted on going ahead with a controversial referendum and again this year, when he scrapped the National Unification Council and its associated guidelines, despite having promised not to do so.

It is little wonder, then, that today his word counts for little, both in and outside Taiwan. Chen has a reputation for seeking backing from hard-core pro-independence supporters when he is in political trouble or wishes to create a new issue to divert attention.

In fact, only two weeks before the Chang-Bush meeting, Chen told an interviewer that he favoured drafting a new constitution while freezing the current one—that of the Republic of China.

This proposal clearly violates the commitments that he made in his 2004 inauguration. Yet, he pushed it despite—or perhaps because of—the knowledge that Beijing would be infuriated.

The Financial Times, to whom Chen gave an interview, concluded that the remarks "indicate that Mr. Chen intends to challenge Beijing further before he steps down in 2008."

Chen's performance in office has also damaged what many see as Taiwan's most precious asset—its democracy, won after decades of authoritarian rule.

According to a study by Yun-han Chu of National Taiwan University, little more than a year after he gained power, only 40.4 percent of Taiwan's electorate believed that "democracy is always preferable to any other kind of government" while almost a quarter believed that "under some circumstances, an authoritarian government can be preferable to a democratic one."

And, by 2003, Taiwan was the only new East Asian democracy "where people believing democracy's superiority were substantially less than people being skeptical about it."

Today, opposition politicians believe that the government's security agencies are used for partisan purposes to eavesdrop on them and monitor their actions, just as the KMT did during the bad old days.

Mr. Chen gave his interview to the Financial Times before the indictment of his wife, Wu Shu-chen, on charges of corruption and forgery. The public prosecutor made it clear that Chen himself would face similar charges after he left office.

Taiwan is in the midst of political turmoil, with charges of corruption and malfeasance flying thick and fast. Ma Ying-jeou, mayor of Taipei and chairman of the Kuomintang, has also been accused of misappropriating money from the mayoral special account.

Altogether, something like 6,500 officials—heads of government agencies—are accorded special funds in Taiwan. Also being investigated are Vice President Annette Lu and former Nationalist party chairman Lien Chan. Even Weng Yueh-sheng, president of the Judicial Yuan—the highest judicial official in Taiwan—has been accused of misuse of special funds.

Mr. Chen has promised that he would resign if his wife is found guilty. Part of the indictment against her asserts that she bought a diamond ring and the receipt for that was submitted for reimbursement from a "state affairs fund" on the ground that secret diplomatic work was involved.

Given that rather desperate situation, it is thought possible that the Taiwan leader might be driven to take desperate measures.

It is this because of this that Beijing is reported to be fearful that Mr. Chen might manufacture an incident during the remainder of his term to bring about conflict between China and the United States while himself emerging as a champion of Taiwan. One scenario has him creating a situation whereby the Communists appear to have attacked a Taiwanese ship in the Strait.

Though the idea is far-fetched, Mr. Chen's record of pushing the envelope each time he finds himself in dire political straits suggests that he may be capable of such action. That is why, as long as he remains in office, officials in Beijing and Washington may stay awake at night wondering what plans he has up his sleeve.

Frank Ching is a Hong-Kong based commentator. 

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