Sunday, December 14, 2008

Martyr or Corrupted Politician

7 months after the former president (2000-2008) of Republic of China (Taiwan) Chen Shui-Bian 陳水扁 (aka A-Bian) left the office, the trial phase of the first criminal case against him has begun. On Dec 12th, government prosecutors indicted him along with his wife, son and daughter-in-law, and ten relatives and formal aides on charges of graft, money laundering, embezzlement and forgery. Early morning of Dec 13th, he was released without bail by the Taipei district court on his own recognizance, ending the 30-day drama of his detention by prosecutors since Nov. 12th.

At age 58, Chen Shui-Bian has accomplished a lot and could have left his office with his legacy in the history of democratization of Taiwan. He was born and grew up in extreme poverty but excelled academically. He attended the best schools of the island and obtained a degree in bachelor of laws from the prestige National Taiwan University. He became involved in politics at age 30 as a young lawyer when he represented and defended the "The KaoHsiung Eight" in a military court (Taiwan was still under martial law then) in 1980. These clients of his were the most prominent opposition leaders and co-organizers of the Formosa Incident, the landmark demonstration by oppositions in the largest southern city KaoHsiung.

Since then, he participated in and fought his ways through elections to serve at various capacities in local and national government and was the celebrated mayor of the capital city Taipei from 1994 to 1998 when he demonstrated convincingly his governing ability and integrity. He was a rising political star unlike other opposition party politicians who often were entrenched in party and petty politics. He was pragmatic and moderate in ideology. Promising reforms to the government, he was elected to presidency in 2000 with 39% popular votes in a three way race when the ruling KMT (nationalist party) of 55 years split into two contending camps. Four years later, he was reelected for his 2nd term with a 0.2% margin.

Chen Shui-Bian is a shrewd politician. During his 8 years in office, with lack of mandate from both elections and minority position in congress, he often resorted to rhetoric of Taiwan Independence and acts of Taiwanization during his presidency that are designed to pit citizens against each other by ethnic origin or ideology. While I do not agree with many of his positions, I would like to believe he was driven for a legacy that his autobiography called “The Son of Taiwan”. I would postulate that he had made a conscious choice after he lost his reelection bid of Mayer of Taipei and began to walk down a different path of “end justifies the means”. He must have recognized long ago that for a young politician like him and a new party like DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) to contend with the incumbent KMT’s machinery, he needs significant financial resources. Indeed, by leveraging the power of his presidential office, he and his wife have managed to amass a significant amount of “contributions” at their disposal in short eight years. Whether he will be found guilty by the court as charged, his legacy has already been severely tainted in the court of public opinion. It is a sad day for him and for people of Taiwan.

Corruption of some public officials is nothing new in practically every country including U.S. as evident from historical records and the most recent charge against the Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. This is not to excuse anyone in any government who violated the trust of people including Chen Shui-Bian. We should however take a step back for a moment and examine the issue in a larger social-political and historical context. It is a fact that not until 1991, the opposition DPP was allowed to register and operate legally in Taiwan. It is also a fact that since the end of WWII when Rep of China reclaimed Taiwan from Japan, Taiwan was ruled under the Chiang Kai-Shek’s KMT who monopolized the resources to the extent that the designation of the nation’s vs. Party’s assets was sometimes arbitrary. There is no doubt that the initial growth and success of DPP came mainly from cumulated dis-satisfaction of some to single party rule and the conviction of opposition leaders and their supporters.

Unfortunately, no democratic system is ideal. As each country develops and evolves its own system and rules of game, a fundamental issue emerges. Elections and campaigns are costly. Where is that money going to be coming from? It is ironic but perhaps not totally surprising that Chen Shui-Bian is now alleged to have committed for the very same corruption and crimes that he and DPP have been accusing KMT of doing.

I am not optimistic that the integrity of Taiwan’s political system will see significant improvement anytime soon. The model and balance of executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government does not make it easy. Similar to U.S., attempts of reforms and increased transparency in campaign finance and related laws have been met with much resistance by the very legislators who are impacted but needed to pass such laws. The last hope is the will and priority of the people; after all, that is what the ideal of democracy promises us all. Until we draw a line and send a message that we will vote them out for violation of our trust, corrupted politicians will continue to try to “buy” enough votes to stay and abuse their power for their personal gains. We have no one else to blame but ourselves; that is the beauty of democracy as well.

Talk to you soon!

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