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David Hartung for Asiaweek.
Tang said that he accepted his job only to "build and stabilize a new government.

The Man in the Hot Seat
Taiwan's PM feels the pressure to deliver

'Give Us Time, and You Will See Results': Key aims are a range of reforms for Taiwan's Tang Fei

As a four-star air force general, former defense minister and Taiwan's second most powerful man, Premier Tang Fei should by rights be on the offensive. Instead, the onetime ace fighter pilot employed defensive tactics when confronted by reporters at his first press briefing last week. He even appeared apologetic, humble. "I honestly do not have political ambitions for higher office," he said when asked if he would be just a transitional figure. "I am not a student of politics, nor is my age suitable. I accepted President Chen Shui-bian's invitation for one reason: to build and stabilize a new government."

As a result, Tang, 69, occupies arguably the hottest seat in Taiwan politics. One reason: He is launching a series of key reforms, most notably a drive against deep-rooted corruption in both government and the private sector. At a time when public concern is shifting from stalled ties with China to domestic issues, the success — and future voter appeal — of the Chen administration may hinge on Tang's efforts. His approval ratings have soared above 70%, beating the president's by a large margin. But while he could have been spending retirement days on the golf course, the premier finds himself working overtime fighting political fires.

Barely a hundred days into Taiwan's new government, stalwarts of Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) are openly talking about dumping Tang, a member of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT). Despite his popularity, they have accused him of embarrassing the president by not running his cabinet effectively. Back in July, Tang lost Deputy Premier Yu Shyi-kun, who quit to take blame for a botched river rescue that resulted in four dead and made the government look inept.

Indeed, the entire administration lacks the cohesion developed by the KMT during its five decades of rule. Chen's narrow win in the March presidential election boosted local democracy but set back political efficiency. The DPP has only 68 of 220 seats in the legislature, and simply didn't have the talent to rule. It was obliged to borrow heavily from KMT ranks. Only a third of cabinet members were from the DPP, and most had just local-level experience.

"Unless Tang shows more decisive leadership, we will push for his ouster," says party legislator Chen Zau-nan. "Who says the DPP doesn't have the talent to fill the post?" That's precisely the question. Tang, after all, was appointed because of his credentials: a China-born, pro-unification general and stalwart of the KMT. That makes him the mirror image of President Chen, who needs Tang to shield himself from Beijing's suspicions about his pro-independence leanings as well as criticism from Taiwan's opposition parties.

Other observers say the premier isn't to blame for the lack of cohesion in the cabinet. "Criticisms from the public are the result of high expectations," says defense analyst Andrew Yang. "After the election, the government made many promises that it hasn't been able to deliver. If its performance continues to be weak, the criticism will turn into disappointment, which will destabilize the economy."

Since Chen's election, the Taiwan stock market has fallen 25%. Though profits churned out by high-tech companies have been healthy, the administration's anti-corruption campaign (sao hei jin, or "sweep out the black gold") is causing jitters in the finance sector. Recent investigations reveal that some local banks may have been involved in questionable loans to property developers and construction firms, with kickbacks going to both bank officials and legislators. In July, Taiwan's foreign reserves fell by $303 million, despite a trade surplus of $125 million. That suggests some of the island's moneyed elites are sending cash abroad, says regional economist Andy Xie of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter.

Tang has asked the public to put up with a jittery stock market while his government cracks down on illicit dealings among politicians and businessmen. "By sweeping out hei jin, we will build a healthier economic and political system," said the premier. Yet many citizens are skeptical about the government's determination to ferret out the corrupt. Though several lawmakers and city officials with shady backgrounds are being investigated, no one yet has been prosecuted.

DPP legislator Parris Chang says the media are partly to blame for inciting public impatience. "When President Clinton was elected eight years ago, it took many months before he could govern seriously," notes the former politics professor. "We must give the administration more time. The media have been too critical." So far, Tang has taken the brickbats in stride. "Criticism motivates improvement," he told his media interrogators last week. Clearly, the veteran warrior doesn't mind being in the hot seat. But how long can he stand the heat?

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