Saturday, May 24, 2008

A flawed patriot

Chen Shui-bian leaves office a deeply unpopular man. But even his critics credit him for greatly strengthening Taiwan identity

by Jonathan Adams
Newsweek Japan, May 19 issue

In the center of Taipei, at a popular tourist site, is one of the most visible -- and controversial – signs of Chen Shui-bian's legacy. Last December, Chen's government pried from the arch above the plaza four characters, 大中至正, a reference to the late dictator Chiang Kai-shek.

In its place, they attached four new ones: 自由廣場 -- Liberty Plaza.

That small change was symbolic of Chen's main achievement: throwing out many of the remaining signs of the Kuomintang's authoritarian regime, and consolidating Taiwan's democracy and national identity.

The former Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, before the name change

To be sure, by the end of his eight-year term – Chen steps down Tuesday -- a cynical public had little patience for such symbolic changes. They saw Chen and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) stirring up needless culture wars and controversy while neglecting the economy. And even his own past supporters became disillusioned by his government's bungling, corrupt rule.

"Many people are heartbroken because of Ah-bian [Chen's nickname]", said Antonio Chiang, a former pro-democracy journalist in the martial law era, and member of Chen's National Security Council. "We worked so hard, and sacrificed so much, and then he threw it all in the river."

History will likely be more kind to Chen. Though deeply flawed, he presided over a critical period of maturation for Taiwan's young democracy. This was the fruit of a long process begun by the DPP and other activists more than twenty years ago.

Under his watch, Taiwan scrapped the National Assembly -- one of the last major institutions of the authoritarian past. Taiwanese people gained the right of referendum in 2003, and the right to approve constitutional revisions in 2005.

Chen's contribution to democracy included strong support for freedom of expression and an independent judiciary. His government accepted the scrutiny of the press and courts to an unprecedented degree in Taiwan's history.

The island's media -- recently ranked Asia's freest by the US non-governmental organization Freedom House –- broadcast relentless criticisms of Chen, much of it deserved. For example, some TV stations ran 'round-the-clock, clearly partisan coverage of anti-Chen protests in the fall of 2006, without interference from Chen's government.

Anti-Chen protesters throng downtown Taipei in the fall of 2006

Taiwan's judiciary remains a work in progress, but Chen's government by and large submitted itself to the rule of law. Ironically, this was part of his downfall: independent prosecutors traced corruption back to his own top aides and relatives; Chen himself may be charged after leaving office.

"All the talk about the DPP being the most corrupt government in Taiwan's history, I don't think that's true," said Bruce Jacobs, head of the Taiwan Research Unit at Australia's Monash University. "What was true is that people who were corrupt got pulled in and convicted." Dirty practices that were routine under the Kuomintang government were exposed and punished under Chen.

Consolidating Taiwan identity – a process begun by his predecessor Lee Teng-hui – may be Chen's most significant legacy. More people now identify as "Taiwanese only," (44%, up from 37% when Chen took office) and fewer as "Chinese only" (5% now, down from13% when he took office).

Even his harshest critics give Chen credit for challenging Taiwanese to reflect on their heritage and identity.

"He used a very unconventional way to provoke people to think about Taiwan's status," said Liao Da-chi, a political analyst at National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung. "He made us think about ourselves and our position in the world."

His conservative successor, Ma Ying-jeou, represents a sharp contrast to Chen. But the "status quo" Ma will conserve is one now firmly rooted in a sense of Taiwan-first pride. Indeed, Ma got elected by copying the DPP and embracing the patriotism Chen fostered. He took pains to learn phrases in Taiwanese, Hakka and Aboriginal tongues, and spent months of his campaign in the south, soaking up rural culture.

Will Taiwan's democracy and identity be rolled back under the new administration? One test will be whether Ma removes the sign 自由廣場, as some KMT supporters would like. The inscription may seem like a small matter.

But as a symbol of Taiwan's hard-won democratic gains, Ma will likely think twice before changing it.

Anti-Chen protester, fall 2006

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