Saturday, November 04, 2006

Troubled times for Taiwan

These are troubled times for Taiwan’s young democracy, and its president Chen Shui-Bian. Less than two decades ago the country was still under the four decade long one-party regime of the Kuomintang (KMT, Chinese Nationalists). Since the 1990s, peaceful transitions of power, reforms, a number of free and fair democratic elections have together transformed this little island into the freest democracy and society in Asia.

That the KMT was (and is) corrupt is a well-known. For far too long the state and party were one and the same, which meant officials were able to use or abuse public funds as they please. Billions and billions were siphoned into the pockets and accounts of high-level officials, mostly through kickbacks in grand public construction works and arms-purchases (think Lafayette scandal). No wonder the late dictator Chiang Kai-Shek was nicknamed ‘Cash my Check’.

Many thought the transition of power to the pro-Taiwan/pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DDP) would change things for the better. After all, since the party’s establishment in 1986 it has been championing for reforms, a break from the authoritarian past, and an end to corruption and nepotism. For many years, this was the party whose members were hounded and jailed by the dictatorship. For many years, this was the party calling for change on the fringes of the KMT-monopolised politics, society and media. But it managed to gain ground, push for reforms, democratic elections, and managed to come to power in 2000.

Members of the current government seem to enjoy the hallmarks and heroics of your typical dissident-turned-government legend. The president, who won the Liberal International Prize for Freedom in 2001, himself spent a spell in jail for being the defence lawyer of democracy activists in the 1980s. At about the same time when Chen was becoming politically active, his wife, Wu Shu-chen, was hit by a truck under ‘mysterious circumstances’ and has since been paralysed from the waist. Vice-President Annette Lu spent 12 years in prison for delivering a 45 minute speech advocating Taiwan’s independence. Undoubtedly, these are admirable people, who should be lauded for what they have achieved. But they are people, and people make mistakes.

After a series of (false) accusations and media frenzy, it turns out that the First Lady, and some of the president’s aides are guilty of corruption:

“The High Court will charge Chen's wife, Wu Shu-chen, with corruption, faking evidence and faking documents in a case involving the misuse of more than T$14.8 million (236,000 pounds).

"In the end it was determined through receipts of purchases by other people, that Wu Shu-chen -- between July 2002 and March 2006 -- embezzled over T$14.8 million of the secret state funds,”

And President Chen may also be guilty as well:

The charges relate to the handling of a secret presidential fund used for diplomatic work overseas. Officials say around US$500,000 could not be properly accounted for.

During the four-month investigation, officials looked at six separate cases involving the use of the fund. They said the president's explanation for two were verified, but three were questionable and one was described as pure fiction.”

The opposition KMT is of course overjoyed, and are planning their latest offensive to oust the president out of office. Ever since losing power in 2000, they have been sour and using every chance they can get to discredit and undermine President Chen and the new government’s authority. A bill to purchase necessary defensive weapons against China’s military threats has been blocked 62nd times since 2001. Thousands of protesters took to the streets again demanding the President’s resignation.

I look at this from so far away, and often wonder what is happening… corrupt people should indeed be punished, regardless of who they are and what positions of influences they have. In a way, the fact that the judiciary is able to investigate and charge people in high ranking positions underlines Taiwan’s democractic credentials. In an interview with the Financial Times just before the outbreak of the charges against the First Lady, President Chen put it very poignantly:

“Even if my family members have made some mistakes, we all have to undergo legal scrutiny […] 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.”

An editorial wrote:

“If one good thing has come out of this miserable affair, it is that the investigation has proceeded without substantial interference by the Presidential Office or other executive organs. For those who place stock in the separation of powers, there is satisfaction to be had at witnessing a president, his wife and his staff come undone at the hands of a wide-ranging probe by officers whose agencies he ultimately has some power over.”

Thankfully, Taiwan has been able to undergo these protests, scandals without much disruption to peace and society. People are able to protest and shout anti-government slogans to their hearts content, and they need not fear the government cracking down and jailing people arbitrarily. If anything, these tests of endurance and processes involving mass popular movements and demonstrations serve to strengthen Taiwan’s social and political entrenchment in valuing democratic values and freedoms.

But at the same time the recent developments are worrying too. Why is it that the former government, one that is guilty of murders, disappearances, and levels of embezzlement that far trump the recent charges, is able to get away with impunity? Not only are members of the KMT known for their shady pasts, they seem to be the ones who are most adamant in calling for Chen’s downfall. This shows that even after the transition of power, the roots of the system are very much entrenched and in favour of the old regime.

And then there’s the problem of media-fairness. The KMT still very much dominates the media, and is thus often manipulate news to discredit the government. It seems that the tradition of trial-by-media is still a rampant problem:

“Such things cannot be decided by the mass media, by people like you and me. It has to be decided by the legal system. In fact, I'm very sceptical of our mass media. They don't report news but treat each news story as a drama.

We have to wait and see. I don't think the president should step down just because of these charges. I don't want to prejudge whether he is right or wrong.

The people who are against the president are not used to having a system and they are against him, personally. That is not healthy.”

Here’s another view of the problem:

“I think the media in Taiwan are not fair to Chen Shui-bian and to his DPP party. Most of the newspapers seem to hate him. I don't like that. Such newspapers are not supported by the Taiwanese people”

I really hope that at the end of the day Taiwan will be able to deal with this in an orderly manner, according to the rule of law and respecting democratic principles of justice and fairness.

Because that’s what democratic progress is all about.

See here for more coverage by an American professor living in Taiwan.

The maverick prosecutor who knows no political colours, Eric Chen. Ironically, he is a memeber of " the Black Gold Investigation Center under the Taiwan High Court Prosecutors' Office" estalbished by the current government which is supposed to investigate and curb corruption.

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