Taiwan's Chen Rats Out His Benefactor

Last week’s accusation of corruption by jailed former Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian of his predecessor and former mentor is a serious blow to the Democratic Progressive Party and further damages Chen’s already-thin credibility among his own supporters.

Chen was returned to jail Tuesday while a jury deliberated his future on charges, along with 10 other family members and aides, of corruption, forgery and money-laundering during his eight-year stint as Taiwan’s leader. He was arrested in November.

On Friday the special investigation bureau of Taiwan’s Highest Procurate Office revealed that Chen had accused Lee Teng-hui, 85, of laundering US$51 million through foreign bank accounts. The revelation that, in an effort to reduce his own sentence, Chen would implicate his mentor and the man who played a major role in delivering the presidency to him in 2000, stunned Taiwanese citizens.

The next day, Lee denied the accusations, saying that Chen and his associates were the “corrupt rulers and collective corruption, the worm in the heart of Taiwan. Chen has said so many lies. He is an evil man.”

Lee occupies a special place in Taiwan’s history. He became president in January 1988, after the death of Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek, the onetime strongman ruler* of China who led his people from the mainland ahead of the advancing Communists in 1949.

Lee was regarded as nothing more than a stopgap leader while the mainlanders who dominated the KMT chose another long-term candidate. Unexpectedly, however, Lee outmaneuvered his opponents within the KMT. He appointed native Taiwanese to senior posts, abolished remaining martial-law legislation and forced the resignation of members of the legislature who had been elected to mainland China constituencies in 1948, the so-called ‘representatives for 10,000 years’.

He instituted one-man, one-vote elections for the legislature and the presidency, winning in 1996 with 54 percent of the vote. He stepped down in 2000, observing limits on terms in office he had helped to enact.

He achieved this transition to full democracy, a free press and a largely independent legal system without bloodshed, an achievement for which many Taiwanese hold him in high esteem.

President from 1988 to 2000, Lee chose as the candidate of the ruling Kuomintang party the uncharismatic Lien Chan in the 2000 election. Most in the party favored James Soong, who left the party in disgust and ran as an independent. This enabled Chen to win the presidency with just 39 percent of the vote, because Lien and Soong split the majority vote.

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Many believe that Lee was a Trojan horse who wanted Chen to win. He resigned as chairman of the KMT on March 24, 2000 and was expelled from the party in December that year. He became a strong advocate of Taiwan independence, expressing positions and ideas which he had never mentioned as president. As a result, many in the KMT despise him as two-faced and dishonest.

In the early years of Chen’s presidency, the two men worked closely together, with Lee advising a man with no experience at the national level. People called Chen ‘the son of Taiwan’ and Lee ‘the father of Taiwan’.

But their relationship cooled after Chen’s second election victory in 2004 and soured after Chen’s wife and three other high-ranking officials were charged with embezzling NT$14.8 million of government funds with forged documents.

Lee became increasingly critical of him, saying that he had no sympathy for him in prison. “Some say that they love Taiwan, but they actually love the (New) Taiwan dollar and personal status,” he said. They stopped meeting. His son, Chen Chih-chung, is a US citizen after obtaining two law degrees, from the University of California at Berkeley and New York University Law School. He is said to have two US passports, one with his name written in pinyin – the romanisation used in China – and the other written in the form used in Taiwan. The pinyin version facilitates his travel in the mainland – and would be unthinkable for a supporter of Taiwan independence.

Chen’s accusations have lowered him even further in the eyes of Taiwan people who see them as the act of a man who knows he is condemned and is trying to bring down others with him. They think the worse of him because he accused the man who played a critical role in his coming to power.

The biggest loser in Chen’s accusations is the DPP, the party of which he used to be chairman. Because his influence and support in the party remains strong, its leaders have failed to draw a line between themselves and the disgraced president. It lacks a strong, charismatic leader able to lead them in a new direction.

With the two most prominent native Taiwanese politicians and chief advocates of independence now accused of corruption, the DPP’s chance of gaining the presidency or a majority in the legislature are becoming increasingly remote.

Chen has presented his detention as political oppression, revenge by the KMT after eight years out of power. However, opinion polls show that fewer than 25 percent of the electorate, the hard-core base of DPP support, believe it. More than 65 percent support his arrest and believe that it is due to crimes and not political revenge.

They point to the fact that Chen’s wife and three high-ranking officials of the Presidential Office were indicted of corruption in November 2006, while Chen was still in office. The prosecutor said at that time that, once Chen left office and lost his presidential immunity, he would press charges against him.

The indictments against Chen and his family are a sign of the increasing independence of the public prosecutor. A majority of Taiwan people see this as a major step forward in their democracy, the first time in China’s history that a former president has been detained on criminal charges and charged through a legal process.

On his desk, the public prosecutor has many cases which he can investigate: he does not have the staff to go after all of them. The one involving an 85-year-old man who was president of his country for 12 years is one he is likely to leave untouched.

*Editor's note: Because of an editing error, we originally referred to Chiang Kai-shek as the founder of the Kuomintang. We apologize and thank your reader for pointing out the error.