Taiwan Scores a Disappointing First

Friday was a historic day – the first criminal indictment of a former president of Taiwan or anywhere in the Chinese world, for that matter, and the darkest day in the history of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), virtually guaranteeing the presidency for the Nationalists at the 2012 election.

The special prosecutor charged Chen Shui-bian with money laundering, embezzlement and forgery and asked for the courts to give him the strictest punishment, which could mean 30 years or even life. He also charged the former president’s wife, son, daughter- in-law and 11 other family members and aides.

It was the culmination of an investigation by eight prosecutors that began during Chen’s second term (2004-2008). During the last four months, they interviewed more than 300 people and examined over 1,000 bank accounts at home and abroad.

Chen, aided by a team of highly-paid lawyers, strongly denies the charges, describing them as a political witch-hunt orchestrated by his successor, Ma Ying-jeou.

“During his eight years in office, he caused so much damage to the country,” wrote the pro-Kuomintang China Times in an editorial Saturday, echoing the sentiment of millions of Taiwanese. “The law must miss nothing and not allow this man who took bribes and perverted the law to continue running wild. It must give justice to Taiwan people and Taiwan society. He destroyed the hope of people for a clean government and the reliance of society on law and democracy. Each time new evidence appeared, he exploited the mood of the public to create conflict in society.”

The indictment is a devastating blow for the DPP, whom Chen led to the presidency for the first time in 2000. He resigned from the party on August 14, 2008 as the evidence against him became overwhelming.

In a somber statement, the party said that Chen was a part of its history and that it would accept full political responsibility. “We must tell our members that this is the most difficult period in the party’s history. If we descend into internal fighting and forget our historical responsibility to Taiwan, we will make our supporters lose hope … The DPP believes that, to be a national leader, a person must meet the hopes of the people and the core values of the party – honesty, hard work and patriotism. The party will make a criticism of itself.”

The party was founded in September 1986, on a platform of ending one-party rule and the endemic corruption and special privilege rife in the then-governing Kuomintang. The indictment, published by the prosecutor, reads like the cases which Chen fought as a young lawyer with the DPP. It is likely to condemn the DPP, which has no strong or charismatic leader, to a second consecutive defeat in the presidential election in 2012, especially because the case is far from over. While the trial is expected to start soon, Chen will appeal any guilty verdict, dragging the case on for most of Ma’s first term in office.

Even worse for the DPP, Chen is a showman. After his detention on November 12, he went on a five-day hunger strike: in prison he started work on a diary and a book entitled ‘Independent Taiwan’. Although he has become a liability to his party, he will continue to defend himself loudly and boisterously, keeping public attention on the case.

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While some DPP leaders echoed Chen in saying that the case is a political vendetta, most were low-key and preferred not to insult the judicial process. In its editorial on Saturday, the pro-DPP Liberty Times presented the indictment as a great step in Taiwan’s democracy, the first time that the president had been treated like an ordinary citizen.

“In the era of absolute power, no-one dared to expose the rampant corruption,” the paper said. “The leader was like an emperor. Now the president has a fixed term and enjoys no legal privilege.” “I voted twice for Chen and am very disappointed,” said Liang Mei-ling, a primary schoolteacher. “He rose from a very humble background to be president, with its high pay and good pension. Why did he need to steal this money? Was it to appease his wife?”

Chen’s wife, Wu Shu-jen, is charged with illegally wiring US$21 million in campaign funds to an overseas bank account: Chen said that he was unaware of what she was doing.

The well-educated daughter of a wealthy doctor, Wu was paralysed and confined to a wheelchair after a farm truck ran over her three times on November 18, 1985: most people think that it was a failed attempt to kill Chen.

This tragedy made Wu an enormous political asset for her husband: the sight of the two together, with Chen sometimes carrying her in his arms, attracted thousands of votes, especially from women. But did it also make Chen emotionally indebted to her? It was his ambition that caused her to be paralysed: so was he unable to refuse her demands for money and gifts?

The case now moves to the law courts and a trial by judge. While television cameras will not be allowed in, journalists will cover the proceedings. Taiwan’s voracious and competitive media will ensure that not one detail is missed. The judge will, like the prosecutors, work under intense media and political scrutiny.

Along with the ruling Kuomintang, the biggest victor in the story is Beijing, which refused to negotiate with Chen during his eight years in office, calling him a supporter of independence and deeply corrupt. It will use the indictment to damn independence for Taiwan and the process of democracy.

A small number of intellectuals at home and many abroad are demanding that China follow its sweeping reforms in the economy with similar changes in politics, which seems extremely unlikely.

Beijing points to Chen as an object lesson in the failure of Chinese democracy. If two popular elections result in a president like Chen, what is the value of democracy, they ask. They seem to be missing the point and will until a Chinese leader faces the same trip to the dock.