Financial Times

Taiwanese president vows nationhood fight

Kathrin Hille in Taipei
Published: 02 November 2006

Chen Shui-bian could be forgiven for seeming tired or distracted. Faced with a barrage of corruption allegations against himself, members of his family and his administration, the Taiwan president has spent the past year countering criticism while also struggling to address government policies.

It has led some some to declare him a lame duck. But it may be too early to draw any such conclusion: he has less than 20 months left in office, but during this time he wants to “do the work of 40 months”, he told the Financial Times.

Gradually relaxing his guarded, lawyerly manner, Mr Chen made clear his determination to leave his mark by fighting for Taiwan’s separate nationhood even in the face of China’s growing strength.

“I think it is extremely dangerous that many people are ready to give up Taiwan’s sovereignty as a country,” he said. He insisted that real peace was possible only by holding firmly on to independence.

A proposal by Ma Ying-jeou, the Kuomintang (KMT) leader and a presidential hopeful for 2008, for a peace agreement with China under which Taiwan would promise not to declare independence in exchange for China ending its threat of war against the island especially drew Mr Chen’s ire.

“This is sporting the cloak of peace while working out a declaration of surrender,” he said of Mr Ma. “Once Taiwan signs such an agreement, all that is left is wait to die.”

“No independence in exchange for no war, what is that supposed to mean? No war is a matter of course, cross-Strait disagreements should not be solved by non-peaceful means in the first place,” Mr Chen thundered. “And no independence? We are already independent and you still want to make us non-independent. Isn’t that very strange?”

The remarks come as many observers have started to look at the next presidential election in 2008 as a likely watershed in cross-Strait relations. They argue that given the public’s fatigue with Mr Chen and his Democratic Progressive Party, the opposition KMT is set to win, and its more pragmatic attitude towards China is set to bring friendlier ties with Beijing and far-reaching liberalisation of cross-Strait economic exchanges.

However, Mr Chen’s plans for his final period in office bring much uncertainty to that prediction. He pledged to concentrate on giving Taiwan a new constitution,as well as bringing back to state coffers assets that the KMT allegedly illegally grabbed during its authoritarian rule, and pushing for the island to join the United Nations under the name of Taiwan.

Despite the high hurdles the president will face in reaching any of these three goals, analysts said his intention to push once more a pro-independence agenda would make a big difference.

“The Chinese know it’s close to impossible to get a new constitution through, but they are still very worried about the process,” said George Tsai, a veteran scholar on cross-Strait affairs. “The campaigns Chen Shui-bian is set to launch will attract huge attention and cause debate, and you cannot be sure what the outcome will be.”

Mr Chen is clearly aware of that, too. “Of course some say [my plans are] a mission impossible but I think there is nothing impossible under the sun.” He suggested that he would work to create a public movement behind his plans for constitutional reform and pointed to wide-ranging changes adopted last year, such as cutting the size of parliament by half, as proof of his ability to push through contronversial measures.

“I can lead, and I can direct, but in the end we will have to work together,” he said. “Once the people’s will rises, no one will be able to stem the flood.”

Mr Chen presented his pledges with astonishing self-confidence given the constant attacks from the opposition and the media on his integrity and the scrutiny he is under from corruption investigators.

Prosecutors are expected to publish their findings this month in an investigation of whether Mr Chen misused a presidential slush fund. Last month, prosecutors cleared his wife of allegations of influence-peddling, but the investigation confirmed she had accepted large amounts of gift vouchers, leaving the presidential family mired in controversy. Mr Chen’s son-in-law and a former close aide have been indicted on charges of insider-trading and corruption, respectively.

Nothing of this seemed to touch Mr Chen. Dodging a question on what damage the string of scandals under his government had done to Taiwan’s democracy and his political authority, he instead said he and his family had been treated unfairly because of what he called Taiwan’s excessive press freedom and a lack of responsible reporting.

Only when pondering his own historic legacy did Mr Chen admit some mistakes may have been made. “Even if my family members have made some mistakes, we all have to undergo legal scrutiny,” Mr Chen said. “Sometimes I feel ashamed and feel this is a loss of face. But isn’t this also to be cherished as a sign of Taiwan’s democracy and rule of law? Thus personal liabilities become everyone’s assets.”