October 31, 2003

October 31, 2003 | Commentary on Asia

Staring Down the Dragon

It is not surprising that the State Department has banned the recipient of the 35th annual International Human Rights Award from visiting Washington. No, he's not a Cuban, or a communist, or a bad person. He just happens to be the president of Taiwan. However, the State Department isn't being totally unreasonable - President Chen Shui-bian can transit New York just long enough this evening to be honored by the International League for Human Rights for his contributions to Taiwan's peaceful and thorough democratization.

While the Bush administration has been much more tolerant of Taiwan's democratic process than any other since President Reagan's, the exigencies of world politics make it overly solicitous of Beijing's sensitivities on Taiwan. Still, it is unsettling to see a genuinely important figure in Asian democracy made persona non grata in the nation's capital for no reason other than the objections of the Chinese government.

Who is Chen Shui-bian? Why the fuss? Taiwan-watchers like myself are not surprised that he has once again gotten himself into an emotionally charged political war with China and with the island's entrenched interests - this time, over whether Taiwan is, or is not, part of China. Mr.Chen is no stranger to controversy, and ultimately, he sees a healthy debate over Taiwan's national identity as the only way to reform the country's political structure and break China's grip on the infant democracy's international standing.

As tough a political infighter as he is, Mr. Chen is still a storybook hero of Asian democracy. Born in 1951 to a poverty-stricken farm family in postwar southern Taiwan, his prospects could hardly have been bleaker. But with a cinema ticket as a reward for a well-written grammar school essay, a rural schoolteacher helped ignite his natural competitive instincts. He went on to win a national high school essay contest, he got the second highest score in the country's college entrance exam, and he moved on to pass the national bar exams with the highest score in the country.

Until 1980, Mr. Chen was a highly paid maritime insurance attorney with a prestigious firm who relished the competition of courtroom debate. His devotion to law fired a passion for constitutional issues and he found himself drawn toward Taiwan's underground political opposition, which then was barred from organizing under Chiang Kai-shek's martial-law regime-in-exile.

Mr. Chen reached a turning point in 1980 when friends prevailed on him to serve as a defense lawyer for Taiwan's leading dissident politician - in what became Taiwan's political trial of the century. Although Mr. Chen wasn't a criminal attorney, he painstakingly prepared his strategy and argued his case forcefully and colorfully. However, as the courtroom drama progressed, there was brutality beyond. The mother and daughters of a co-defendant were killed by assassins who were never caught.

In the end, Mr. Chen's client and all seven co-defendants (known as the "Kaohsiung Eight") were found guilty by a court martial and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. The trial's horror and publicity persuaded many of Mr. Chen's commercial clients to take their business elsewhere, and he soon gave up lawyering for politics.

In 1981, he successfully ran as an independent (i.e., non-Kuomintang) for the Taipei City Council, and with his mastery of litigation proceeded to investigate municipal corruption. He combined detailed documentation and persuasive argumentation with a flair for public relations. His office churned out press releases and staged telegenic events that captivated Taipei's press - even the pro-KMT papers gave him prominent coverage.

In those days, being a dissident could be fatal. In 1982, a Taiwanese-American political activist was found dead after a 12-hour interrogation by Taiwan military police. In October 1984, government intelligence officers ordered the assassination of a prominent Taiwan journalist in San Francisco, a crime that resulted in President Reagan's personal demand that Taiwan's spymaster in America be sentenced to life.

Mr. Chen knew the dangers, but they made him even more committed. In 1984, he organized the "Civil Servant Public Policy Research Association" to serve as the core of Taiwan's emerging partisan opposition. He pushed Taiwan's political envelope further, just enough to get sued for libel by a KMT ideologue, and was sentenced to several months in jail.

In November 1985, after a nasty election campaign that Mr.Chen should have won, he and his wife began receiving death threats.Three days after the voting, as he and his wife thanked supporters on the streets of his hometown, his wife was struck by a truck in an incident that Mr. Chen still believes was an assassination attempt. Whatever the truth, Mrs. Chen was paralyzed permanently from the waist down. But by this time, international pressure stayed the hand of Taiwan's authoritarian government. In 1986, Mrs. Chen won a seat in Taiwan's national parliament running as a member of Taiwan's newly-formed though still-banned Democratic Progressive Party.

In 1989, Mr. Chen entered parliament himself and chaired the DPP caucus. He focused on defense reform and frequently clashed with the defense ministry over financial mismanagement and poor troop morale. The DPP's most visible politician in 1994, Chen ran for mayor of Taipei, Taiwan's capital. For an infant political party running against the entrenched autocracy, it was a case study in democracy. He won in an upset.

Facing the task of managing Taiwan's largest city, Mr. Chen freely and enthusiastically recruited top officials who were members of the rival Kuomintang to serve in his administration.As mayor, his priorities were fixing the city's gridlocked traffic, pursuing polluters, reforming public works contracts and a not-so-successful attempt to clean up prostitution. He got things done, and was a breath of fresh air in a city monopolized for 50 years by a one-party state.

Despite a 70 percent approval rating, however, Mr. Chen's combativeness unified the squabbling ruling party. In December 1998, Mr. Chen lost his reelection, but he set himself up for the 2000 presidential race. Chen Shui-bian won that election to become the first non-KMT president of the Republic of China. Like most of his political career, the nearly four years of Mr. Chen's presidency have been combative and highly protective of Taiwan's national identity. His insistence on preserving the dignity of Taiwan in the face of Beijing's unrelenting campaign to isolate the island has alarmed Washington. However, it is to the Bush administration's credit that Taiwan's president is welcome in New York to receive the recognition for his genuine contributions to political freedom in Asia. No doubt, over time, a democratically elected Taiwanese president will truly be welcome in America's capital.

John Tkacik is a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and served in the foreign service in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Appeared in The New York Sun.