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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 MAVERICK MAYOR

Taipei's pro-independence Chen Shui-bian could become president

By T. J. Zheng / Taipei


TWELVE YEARS AGO SOMEONE tried to run Chen Shui-bian down with a truck, and the near-death experience is etched on his brain. It was Nov. 18, 1985. Chen was at a political rally. He had just lost a county election. The truck came for him through the crowds. Then the driver began veering toward Chen's wife. Powerless amidst the throng, he watched the truck hit her. He heard her scream. Three times the driver hit and backed over her. Wu Shu-chen, then just 31, would never walk again.

Chen still can't tell the story without his face giving him away. His eyes close. He blinks. Every evening he goes home to give his paralyzed wife a half-hour massage. There has been no real closure because the shadowy figures behind the attack were never caught. But it is an open secret why someone wanted Chen dead -- or at least permanently sidelined. He had dared to run against the candidate of Taiwan's thuggish ruling party, the Kuomintang. Though Chen had lost the election, the KMT did not look lightly upon this brazen upstart. Three months after the attack, he was jailed for advocating the right to start opposition parties. His enemies hoped to force Chen out of politics. They got the exact opposite.

Today Chen is the mayor of Taipei and Taiwan's most powerful opposition leader. Thanks in no small part to a well-known aversion for double-talk and his steely resolve to clean up the capital, he is Taipei's most popular mayor ever. On a recent inspection of the toilets at the city's new rapid transit railway, he said: "Hey, you men out there. Next time, please take better aim." That is vintage Chen-speak, and some citizens consider him uncouth. But the 46-year-old maverick's support rarely dips below 70%. The KMT had hoped to unseat Chen in next year's mayoral race by putting up Ma Ying-jeou, a popular, young former justice minister. But Ma declined to run against Chen -- a major embarrassment for the ruling party. And this, after all, is Taipei, KMT central.

A few years ago it would have been unthinkable that a man of Chen's political persuasion might actually have a shot at the presidency. Yet Chen is already seen in some quarters as the man to beat in 2000. Should he run and win, that would spell the end of the KMT's five-decade grip on the presidency and usher into power a man whose Democratic Progressive Party hopes to hold a referendum on independence -- though lately the DPP has been more circumspect on the issue.

If that is not enough, Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui seems to have a soft spot for Chen -- Lee has had him to the presidential residence for cocktails several times. Chen is useful for Lee because since he became mayor Chen has sought a higher international profile for Taiwan's capital. Chen plays down his relationship with the president. But the fact is, Lee has never had the mayor of Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second city, to the presidential palace. And he is a KMT man.

Chen Shui-bian grew up poor in rural southern Taiwan, the eldest son of a sugar plantation worker. His first lesson in politics came when he was 15. A man from his village wanted to run in local county elections. Though he was a member of the KMT, party bosses refused to back him. He ran anyway, infuriating the elders who promptly supported a man from another town. Chen was indignant. He went outside the village temple where people sold medicine over loudhailers. Grabbing one, Chen chastised villagers for not standing up to the KMT. The local man won -- and a KMT nemesis was born.

At the National Taiwan University, where Chen graduated with a law degree in 1974, the future mayor was by many accounts an introvert who put studies well before campus politics. Nonetheless, he rankled at martial law and how outsiders from the mainland were running his country.

In 1980, Chen, by then a successful maritime lawyer with a slew of major shipping clients, took on his first political case. The experience would change his life. At the time, dissidents were beginning to agitate for change and needed lawyers to defend them against the mighty resources of the state. Chen became the lead attorney in the Meilidao or "beautiful islands" incident in Kaohsiung. During a human rights rally there in 1979, a scuffle broke out between police and dissidents. Nine were arrested and charged with sedition.

Chen did his best, but the political climate did not favor dissidents. All nine were found guilty and sentenced to 14 years each in prison. "What I discovered," says Chen today in his booming voice, "was that the best way to help was not to appeal their sentences or seek a retrial, but to join them in their democratic cause, to help them complete their task." And so, a year later, Chen successfully ran for Taipei City Council, where he served five eventful years as a firebrand opposition councilor. In 1985, he returned to his native Tainan County to run for commissioner. That was the race that nearly cost him and his wife, Wu Shu-chen, their lives.

After the attack, Chen began a sentence for sedition. The KMT had forced him from the political arena -- but the ruling party had completely underestimated Wu Shu-chen. Just out of hospital and newly confined to a wheelchair, Chen's still photogenic wife was ready to take his place and run for one of the few seats then up for grabs in the legislative yuan.

Public sympathy didn't hurt, and Wu easily trounced her KMT opponent to represent a Taipei district. It was 1987, and martial law was on the way out. Chen was released and immediately became his wife's assistant and wheelchair attendant. When Wu's term ended in 1989, Chen won the seat and quickly became the rising star of the Democratic Progressive Party. He was ready to take the battle to the floor of the legislature -- with spectacular and sometimes violent results.

At the time, the legislative yuan was for the most part a rubber-stamp body filled with doddering old men who "represented" mainland districts that had been under the communists for 40 years. Chen and his allies knew little would change in Taiwan until the old men died -- or were forced out. So began a riveting piece of ugly political theater -- old men being beaten mercilessly inside and outside the legislature. Chen rarely threw a punch, but he is considered a mastermind of the ultimately successful offensive.

One time Chen asked former premier Hau Pei-tsun a question about highway price fixing. When Hau refused to answer, Chen ran to the floor, pointed a finger at him and yelled: "Why don't you answer?" Hau couldn't believe the temerity. "How can you threaten me like that?" he asked, and summoned a guard. As Chen was being turned away, he flung a crumpled piece of paper at the premier. Before you could say ready-aim-fire, DPP assemblymen were engaged in a furious paper-ball attack on the hapless Hau. The man who threw the first missile just stood back and watched the action.

Today Mayor Chen is not quite the hothead he was, but he is no less a maverick. A few years ago, he founded a hardline faction within his party called the Alliance for Justice. It refuses any compromise with the KMT and believes the DPP can win power without joining a coalition government, as proposed by President Lee. In fact, Chen ran for the Taipei mayorship partly to prove the point. His campaign was a startling departure from Taiwan politics as usual.

While the doomed incumbent, Huang Ta-chou, relied on the KMT machine to throw lavish banquets and hand out gifts, Chen canvassed neighborhoods and appealed to hearts and minds with catchy slogans that addressed people's living conditions. He oozed a shy folksiness and went by his childhood nickname A Bian. Here I am, he was saying, just a regular Joe from the countryside. And he made a slew of promises, ranging from cleaning up Taipei's traffic mess to ridding it of crime, garbage and prostitution. Enough voters bought in, and Chen won by the narrowest of margins.

From the start he has been an active mayor; twice a month he goes to district offices to hear citizens' complaints. He had the counters at city hall cut from chest-height to waist-height so people can look officials in the eye. And he sorted out the traffic, setting up bus lanes and dispatching cops to major intersections during rush hour, where they handed out stiff on-the-spot penalties. Within 12 months Taipei was no longer coming to a dead halt at 5 p.m.

Chen personally fired the chief of the Taipei Rapid Transit Corp. and installed a KMT bureaucrat with a record for getting things done. Within two years Chen opened two transit lines, a feat the previous administration had failed to achieve. He demonstrated confidence by hiring KMT officials. At the same time Chen wisely did not prosecute ruling party hacks who were apparently on the take in the previous administration. For someone with a possible eye on the presidency it was not politic to insult powerful rivals. In fact, Chen's pragmatism is most evident when you consider the people he is willing to offend.

Last year the mayor ordered closed more than 5,000 of Taipei's video game parlors -- he claimed they were becoming youthful gambling dens. He shut hundreds of saunas and nightclubs where sex was reputedly for sale. And in recent weeks, Chen ordered the power and water cut off to hundreds of brothels. For every one he shuts down, reckons a local reporter, he gets 50 women's votes. The mayor is not winning any friends in the sex industry, of course. In October, hundreds of prostitutes and karaoke hostesses marched on city hall.

"A Bian may mean well," says a pretty nightclub hostess who hails from Chen's county. "But he doesn't consider the results of his actions." And they are? "Young men who used to get sex cheap," says a mamasan, "now pay a higher price because we've gone underground." Some find Chen's crusade puritanical, but the mayor is unapologetic. "If a woman stands in front of your son, pulls up her skirt and exposes her thigh," he asks, "what would you do?"

Most days the indefatigable Chen rises at 6 a.m. and eats breakfast at home. He is usually in the office by 7:30, where he scans half-a-dozen newspapers before holding a clutch of meetings with Taipei officials. He frequently amazes aides with his prodigious memory. The mayor attends at least one public function each day, a practice that keeps his profile high and gives him a platform before the television cameras to attack his critics or lecture the citizenry on one of his cherished moral issues.

Chen is a chameleon who switches effortlessly from a father-figure persona to attack mode. In fact, he looks more like a professor than a take-no-prisoners politician. Away from the fray he can be warm and affectionate, but he always conveys a seriousness of purpose. He is not necessarily authoritarian but he demands results. "He has two faces," says counselor Wang Chi-huang. "He's quiet and shy in private, but in public he's very vocal."

The mayor eats lunch at the office, and usually dinner too, surrounded by his staff as they watch the news on television and analyze the day's events. Chen is media-savvy to a fault and will shamelessly play to the press if he thinks it will win votes or support for an initiative. Last year he asked reporters who he should dress up as to appeal to teenagers. Superman, said one. Michael Jackson, said another. Cult leader Sung Chi-li, said a third. Chen dressed up as all three. It was a goofy act, but the photos were seen around the globe. Another time, he discovered a favorite reporter was to wed and performed the ceremony at the opening of a mass transit line -- before 60,000 spectators and on national TV.

There are those who say Chen has reaped the efforts of his predecessors. "But he is charismatic," says one such critic, businessman Fred Lin. "There is no one strong enough in the Kuomintang at this moment to challenge him. The only person is President Lee -- if he were to run." That is unlikely; Lee has endorsed Vice President Lien Chan as the KMT candidate for 2000. Lien is not much of a contender; given his aloofness, he does not poll well.

Mayor Chen has not announced his candidacy and is playing coy. "Critics say I want to be president," he says. "This is a big misunderstanding." And of course a lot can happen in two years. But Chen Shui-bian is positively youthful by the standards of Chinese politicians. Whether or not he runs or wins, chances are good that he will be around for a long time. And Beijing will be watching.


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