See Chen Run

Taiwan’s hyperkinetic president still needs to prove to his people—and to Beijing—that he can be as effective a leader as he is a candidate

May 20th 2002

By Nisid Hajari and Melinda Liu

Chen Shui-Bian must be the most photographed man in Taiwan. When he invites new guests over for dinner, he has his picture taken with each one and then presents it to them, framed and autographed, at the end of the meal. Foreign delegations have their portraits clicked; even journalists interviewing Chen get a snapshot. On a recent sweltering afternoon in the port city of Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s snap-happy president outdoes himself. Presiding over an outdoor mass wedding, Chen bounds up to the podium to recite vows for the 40-odd couples lined up before him, the women resplendent in white silk and chiffon, the men awkward in black and beige suits. He returns later to share a bit of fatherly advice (“If you love Taiwan, you must love your spouse first”) and strides down the aisle, using a meter long sparkler to light a similar firecracker gripped by each couple. Only then—when tiny ballerinas have taken the stage and the moment has moved from the mildly comic to the truly surreal—does he prop himself up against a floral backdrop and diligently, with the same half-smile that has been frozen on his face all afternoon, have his picture taken with each and every couple. One member of his entourage cocks an eyebrow and notes wryly, “At least 80 votes.”

If Chen, who two years ago ousted the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) from the presidency for the first time in Taiwan’s history, sounds like he’s still running for office, that’s because he is. The former lawyer has some of the same Energizer-bunny unstoppability of a Bill Clinton. He speaks in wonky catch phrases, grips hands firmly and with an intense look into one’s eyes. He maintains a frenetic pace of meetings and appearances and dinners—and strides equally quickly from one to the other. His friends, even his wife, admit that he has no hobby, no calling other than politics. That also means he faces the same question as all perma-politicians: what does he stand for after the election?

Chen has reached the halfway point in his term as president, and it’s still unclear which direction his political urges will push him. Arguably, the longtime independence activist might grow increasingly conciliatory toward Beijing in hope of a dramatic breakthrough in time for his re-election bid in 2004; just last week he announced he would send emissaries from his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to the mainland later this year to jump-start stalled cross-Straits talks. Or the populist in him—the former mayor who unsnarled Taipei’s traffic and cleaned up its sewers—might choose to keep China at arm’s length, blocking direct trade and transport links with the mainland in a bid to keep factories and jobs at home. Most likely he will try to do both, to be like Clinton: all things to all people, which not coincidentally does nothing to answer the question.

A similar kind of strategic ambiguity has served Taiwan well thus far, keeping the People’s Republic at bay and the United States at the island’s back. But Chen is beginning to find the balancing act harder to maintain. Up to now he has had either Beijing or the KMT to blame for a lack of progress internationally and domestically. Since its strong showing in December elections, however, the DPP has become the largest party in Parliament, while Beijing has made increasingly friendly noises toward the island, even welcoming lower-ranking DPP figures—though not Chen and his outspoken vice president, Annette Lu—to visit the mainland. Now the candidate must show he can govern—must learn, as Taipei security analyst Andrew Yang says, “how to be a statesman, how to solve his people’s problems.”

He approaches the challenge the way he—after 23 years in politics and eight elections—knows best, as a campaign. With the world turning its attention to Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao, who’s expected to succeed President Jiang Zemin over the next year, Chen has found a ready opponent against whom to hone his message. The two are similar in age, Chen, 52, points out while relaxing in the first-class cabin of the Boeing 737 that serves as his Air Force One. Both have one son and one daughter. Aides note that they even look alike, with close-cropped helmets of black hair parted on the left and large, squarish glasses. (Chen, though, “will tell you that he’s handsomer than Hu,” says Vice President Lu.)

In the same breath, Chen rattles off the reasons they should be judged differently. “Mr. Hu is a loyal supporter of communist authority and despotism,” he notes. Whereas Chen was elected by popular mandate, Hu was anointed by the late Deng Xiaoping more than a decade ago. Whereas Chen loves to mix with the public, even shaking hands with mainland tourists visiting Taiwan, Hu has walled himself off while he awaits his promotion. Whereas Chen earned his stripes as a democracy activist, spending time in jail and even suffering what is presumed to have been a politically motivated assassination attempt on his wife, Wu Shu-chen, that left her paralyzed below the waist, “Mr. Hu was the first local governor in all of China to support the repression of people in [Tiananmen] Square,” says Chen.

The implication is clear: Taiwan—the young, plucky democracy—deserves the votes of the world. Chen sounds almost wistful when he argues that he and his countrymen deserve greater “space” internationally. “When I was a lawyer, I could go anywhere I wanted,” he says. “Even as mayor of Taipei, I could still go to some places. But as president, I’m grounded here in Taiwan.” He has dubbed his residence, a modest two-story home originally built for the vice president, “Jade Mountain”; his wife calls the place “Jade Mountain Jail.” In the same way, he argues, Taiwanese are being held back by international isolation, becoming more parochial in their outlook and frustrated in their global ambitions. “Few countries have suffered as Taiwan has,” he says. “For 23 million Taiwanese, the only solution is to make more noise, to draw more attention to Taiwan.”

This is the “A-bian”—his nickname since childhood—the world expects, the one whose election prompted dire warnings from Beijing in 2000. Trained as a maritime lawyer, Chen rose to national prominence as a member of the defense team for the notorious “Kaohsiung Eight,” a group of democracy activists (including Lu) charged by the KMT regime with treason in 1980. Later, as a DPP legislator and mayor of Taipei, he played the role of conciliator in the party, tempering its pro-independence firebrands in the interests of winning elections. But until he took office, he actively supported efforts to legitimize Taiwan as a nation. Even though he chooses his words extremely carefully these days, his dedication to cementing the island’s place in the world—what Beijing calls “incremental independence”—is obvious.

The problem is that the vast majority of Taiwanese have moved beyond the symbolism. They can already travel almost anywhere in the world, even to mainland China; more than 300,000 Taiwanese live in and around Shanghai alone. The island’s largest private travel agency, Tiptop Tour and Travel, says its bookings to the People’s Republic have doubled in the past two years. These tourists and businessmen may have noticed that their passports now say issued in taiwan rather than republic of china—a move that incensed Beijing—but it’s unlikely that they feel like new people as a result. “Most middle-class people are [politically] neutral,” says Tiptop owner Eddie Lee. “They know their life is based on economics.” For Taiwan, prosperity now requires a stable relationship with China, its largest customer and home to as many as 50,000 Taiwanese companies. Nearly 80 percent of Taiwanese thus say they prefer the ambiguous status quo to either full-fledged independence or reunification with the mainland.

What these citizens care about, naturally, are bread-and-butter issues—the kind of unglamorous reforms that Clinton, ever the policy wonk, excelled at. There are plenty of problems to be solved: last year’s global slowdown hit Taiwan hard. The island’s economy shrank nearly 2 percent in 2001, while unemployment hit 5.3 percent, its highest rate in modern times. Cheap Chinese labor has prompted an exodus of factories to the mainland; Taiwanese investment has “accelerated sharply in the last two years,” says Emile Tsang of Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs, reaching as much as $50 billion. A recent drought caught the government flat-footed, forcing the island of Matsu to import water from the mainland.

Thus far Chen has shown himself less adept at such details. He prides himself—rightly so—on presiding over the first democratic transition of power on Taiwan after more than 50 years of KMT rule. He argues, again justifiably, that the bureaucracy needs to be streamlined, while the once all-powerful military needs to be consolidated under civilian control. But at the same time, say critics, his economic team remains weak. The island has been slow to attract new investment in services and high-value-added industries.

The banking system is a mess, with the real rate of nonperforming loans somewhere between 15 percent and 18 percent, and companies reluctant to repatriate their profits from the mainland. Chen has agreed that direct links with the People’s Republic are inevitable. But he’s still balking at allowing businessmen to take the lead in forging such connections informally. While Beijing has invited Taiwanese airlines to invest in mainland carriers, for instance, Taipei has only recently begun to seriously discuss regular aviation links that could double cross-Straits air traffic.

That’s not to say there is no substance to the reforms Chen has imposed, including lifting the long standing cap on investments in the mainland and opening the real-estate market to Chinese companies. But impatient entrepreneurs argue they are being hamstrung unnecessarily. The recent decision to allow Taiwanese companies to build eight-inch wafer fabs on the mainland is so riddled with caveats that only two firms are likely to qualify, and then not until next year. A report by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan released this month chides the administration to relax restrictions on the hiring of mainland professionals and generally stop trying to “micro-manage market forces.”

Chen doesn’t help matters with his sloganeering style. When asked about his plans for reinventing the Taiwanese economy, he declares like the A-student he is that by working hard, Taiwanese are sure to achieve strong results. He drops the usual buzzwords -- research-and-development center, regional hub -- without providing any specifics of how the island will reach those goals. His economic advisers have come up with ideas for dozens of reforms, but most have not been implemented.

Chen is not wrong when he says the government can only be so involved, that certain major initiatives require Beijing to show some flexibility as well. (“You cannot do this simply through wishful thinking,” he says. “It takes two to tango.”) Yet there are those who sense a pattern here, an inclination to go for the big prize rather than the crucial baby steps. U.S. officials have grumbled privately that Taiwan’s arms purchases are often shortsighted—focusing on winning a shipment of submarines, for instance, rather than on the battle-management system that would integrate the vessels into a more coherent, efficient navy.

Analysts point out that Taipei has made much of its accession to the World Trade Organization while paying little attention to its new obligations under the trade pact; the island still keeps a lengthy list of banned imports from the mainland. And Taiwanese officials seem desperately keen to participate in the World Health Organization—a slim possibility, at least this year—but less excited about joining the lower-profile NGOs that could provide a more gradual steppingstone to membership.

Chen’s saving grace may be that he is not only a politician, but a pragmatist. The former lawyer “knows you don’t always have to win a case as long as you reach a decent settlement,” says a friend who’s known Chen for decades. The president well understands that the next election will be decided on the strength of the economy, not on how many backwater tropical countries extend diplomatic recognition to Taiwan. He also knows that Hu is not likely to have consolidated his position enough to make any major concessions before 2004. Much of Taiwan’s current muscle-flexing internationally is simply an attempt to strengthen the island’s bargaining position when and if negotiations with Beijing do resume. “Chen knows that down the road there will be more links with China and not less,” says Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China.

In fact, the Taiwanese president already carries around a slip of paper with the name of his ancestral home on the mainland—a place called White Leaf Village in Fujian province—written in Chinese brush-and-ink calligraphy. When asked why, he says simply, “We should never forget where our ancestors are from.” Practiced or sincere? Political or personal? The comment is as opaque as Chen himself can be—and just as full of promise.

With Brent Hannon in Taipei and Paul Mooney in Beijing