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From Our Correspondent: Time for Compromise in Taiwan
President Chen must work for the greater good

November 7, 2000
Web posted at 3:30 p.m. Hong Kong time, 3:30 a.m. EDT

President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan has lucked out. Last week, the opposition was forging ahead with a plan to impeach him for, in their view, leading Taiwan toward economic disaster. But the tragic crash of Singapore Airlines flight SQ006 at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport has taken the media spotlight off what would have been an unprecedented effort by legislators to unseat a president. Since the crash, Taiwan's media have focused on almost nothing but the disaster. This certainly will give Chen and his aides some breathing space to assess just what has gone wrong with his six-month-old presidency.

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When elected by a slim margin in March, Chen became the first opposition leader to oust the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) from power. It had ruled with an iron fist since losing the mainland in 1949, but did one thing right: It lead the island to economic prosperity, transforming it from one of the poorest in Asia to one of the most prosperous in the world. But with its roots in the mainland, the KMT grew Taiwan at the expense of indigenous culture and values. By emphasizing his "native Taiwanese roots," Chen was able to not only marshal his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to victory in county seats but to being a sizable force in the legislature. The DPP has won political points by focusing on issues such as the environment and creating a "green island" free of nuclear energy.

Basically, Chen and the DPP brought together the fringe forces that didn't support the KMT and its hard-fisted economic ways, and then snatched away the presidential office at a time when the KMT had a leadership split. Had KMT's once-popular governor James Soong Chu-yu and its vice president Lien Chan worked together, rather than split the party, it's unlikely Chen would have won.

The new president gave every indication that he would be a president of "all the people" and not just the DPP. He was careful to be respectful to China, assuring it over and again that he would not declare independence. He rallied support from the business community and formed a group of presidential "advisers" made up of Taiwan's wealthiest tycoons. So few expected him to stubbornly adhere to the DPP's bread-and-butter issues. This explains why many Taiwanese voters were disappointed when his administration announced it would ditch Nuclear Power Plant No. 4, which was already was one-third complete.

Many in Taiwan see nuclear energy as a necessary evil for driving Taiwan's export-oriented economy forward. Even Edgar Lin, Chen's appointed director of Environmental Protection, told me at the president's inauguration party that he might consider completing the No. 4 nuclear plant. [should be OK now]. He said: "I wrote a book years ago titled Anti-Nuclear is Anti-Totalitarian, and now that the totalitarian KMT is out of power, we in the DPP have achieved our objective. We are now the ruling party and we must consider all opinions before we enforce an absolute anti-nuclear policy."

But neither Chen nor Lin foresaw the vigilance of the environmentalists. Many of the DPP's early founders came from the environmental movement, and Chen in the end decided that he had to keep his word — his campaign promise — and stick to traditional DPP policy, even if it meant losing majority support on this issue. However, he failed to realize the dramatic effect dropping the power station would have on the public at large. Many citizens in Taiwan are concerned about only one thing: their livelihoods, which have improved so much in the past 30 years. That meant having a pragmatic economic policy, including on environmental issues, that would allow the island to remain an export-oriented powerhouse. Chen's first premier, ex-KMT defense minister Tang Fei, understood this. He knew that Plant No. 4 stood not only for nuclear energy but for Taiwan's vitality. That's why he chose to resign as Chen's head of government in September rather than obsequiously submit himself to orders from the DPP.

Since Chen's election, Taiwan's once-buoyant stock market has collapsed from a high of 10,000 down to the 5,000 level. Economists estimate that more than $10 billion in foreign exchange has fled. Luckily, Taiwan still has some $110 billion in foreign-exchange reserves, and this will prevent an economic meltdown. Taiwanese voters are mad at Chen, but they're apparently not mad enough to kick him out of office. According to the most recent polls, only 57% of those questioned support a recall referendum as proposed by the KMT. However, the same polls indicate that up to one third of those who voted for Chen regret their decisions.

It's time for Chen to seriously consider what being president of "all Taiwanese" means and to focus on restoring people's confidence in his ability to work for the greater benefit. And if that entails finishing Power Plant No. 4 but placing a moratorium on all future nuclear power plants, then he should do it. Once a master politician, Chen should know the art of compromise. He needs to practice that art. Otherwise, he won't survive.

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