A legacy of lost hopes in Taiwan

Special to The Times

A few yards from the four-room house where President Chen Shui-bian grew up, a life-size cutout leans against a wall. Tourists used to arrive in droves and have their photo taken with the “president,” earning neighbors a steady income. These days the visitors are largely gone, the prop weather-worn and seemingly forgotten.

“We haven’t had any real business in years,” said Chen, a 60-year-old retiree and distant relative with silver teeth and a pink shirt, who declined to give her first name. “Interest is gone, and people aren’t coming around much anymore.”

As President Chen prepares to step down after the March 22 election, he leaves a legacy of broken dreams and missed opportunities, an eight-year rule marked by particularly tense relations with China, strained links with Washington, a limping economy and a battered bureaucracy.

“Taiwan has paid a very high price for what happened in the past eight years,” said Tang Fei, Chen’s first prime minister, who left the administration after five months over differences in energy policy. “Everyone has advantages and disadvantages, but I have a difficult time finding positive things to say about him.”

Frank Hsieh, Chen’s colleague in the ruling and generally pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, next month faces off against the more pro-Beijing Nationalist candidate Ma Ying-jeou in the race for president.


Analysts say Chen’s weak record and continued maneuvering have hurt Hsieh’s prospects.

Chen, 57, was the first opposition candidate to win election after decades of rule by the Nationalists, viewed by many as corrupt and authoritarian. As such, he faced a polarized public, uncooperative legislature and biased bureaucracy.

Yet even supporters criticize his impetuous style, capped in later years by his entanglement in corruption scandals. “I think society misjudges him,” said Antonio Chiang, a former presidential aide. “But he surrounded himself with people who worshiped him and cheered him on, even when he approached the cliff.”

In 2000, even Chen didn’t expect to win, insiders say, his narrow victory made possible only by a divided opposition.

Four years later, his prospects equally grim, Chen was reelected with the aid of sympathy votes after an eleventh-hour assassination attempt. The timing was so fortuitous that opponents accused him of staging the attack.

Chen’s seemingly miraculous ability to win elections against great odds -- until Jan. 12, when his party was trounced in legislative voting -- may have been his undoing, some analysts say, engendering overconfidence. Chen arrived in office with a golden opportunity to deepen ties with Washington. President Bush was one of the island’s strongest supporters in the White House since Taiwan and China politically separated in 1949 during a civil war.

After years of complaints that the U.S. wouldn’t sell Taipei its best military hardware, Bush promised Taiwan whatever it needed to defend itself against a possible attack by China. Although the opposition Nationalists share blame, Taiwan dragged its heels for years, ultimately rejecting most of the U.S. package.

Some blame Taiwan’s desire to save money, others say it hasn’t been serious about its defense, and still others blame the U.S. for heavy-handed pressure. But the long delay strained transpacific relations.

Chen, meanwhile, repeatedly ratcheted up cross-strait tension with pro-independence moves, forcing the Bush administration to spend time trying to calm the waters at a time when it was stretched globally and needed China’s support on Iran and North Korea.

Eventually Bush got so angry that in late 2003 he publicly chastised an absent Chen while standing beside Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

Shelley Rigger, a political science professor at Davidson College in North Carolina, likens the situation to a cartoon of Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff. Chen’s people “assumed they had support from the Bush administration when they really didn’t, and they kept on running,” she said. “I’m not sure they’ve yet hit the bottom of the canyon.”

Taiwan’s ties with China have not necessarily worsened over the last eight years. In fact, China was very suspicious of Chen from the beginning, said Bonnie Glaser, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But given his pro-independence political leanings, Chen was ideally positioned to forge a breakthrough with Beijing in the same way a conservative President Nixon could without being accused of selling out.

“It was such a historic moment in Taiwan’s history,” said Emile Sheng, a political science professor at Soochow University in Taipei, the island’s capital. “But he blew it.”

After extending a hand early in his first term, Chen offered up a string of controversial referendums, name changes and other largely symbolic gestures aimed at appealing to hard-liners in his party and “baiting the panda” in Beijing.

“Eventually the Taiwanese people became quite exhausted,” said Wu Yu-shan, senior analyst with Academia Sinica, a Taipei think tank.

All the while, Beijing was outmaneuvering Taiwan diplomatically as its economic clout grew. When it came to the mainland, Chen’s government often appeared more interested in fighting economic reality -- limiting Taiwanese investment there, for example, which many quickly circumvented through offshore havens -- than in looking after the island’s business interests.

This hurt Taiwan’s economy, which in the decade before Chen came to power grew by 6.5% annually. It’s now growing at about half that rate. Unemployment averaged 4.5% during his term, compared with 3% when he took office. Per-capita growth has also badly lagged behind Taiwan’s peers, including Singapore and Hong Kong.

“Chen’s been talking about promoting the economy, but nothing has happened,” said Lin Su-jen, 48, owner of the Rongjen hardware store a few miles from Chen’s hometown. “Crime’s gone up, education has been a failure and there are more drug addicts around.”

Chen repeatedly attacked bureaucrats rather than nudging them out of their lethargy, and increasingly treated Cabinet ministers as personal assistants. He has had five prime ministers, six finance ministers, six economic affairs ministers and four foreign ministers since 2000. Supporters, meanwhile, counter that he has helped build Taiwanese pride, expanded farmer pensions and stood up to Beijing while juggling a deeply divisive society.

“He’s had so many issues to deal with,” said Hu Chien-yen, head of the temple in Hsichuang. “He’s not a superman.”

Those close to him say the president, a lawyer, is defined by his enduring drive. Chen rose from humble roots, worked tirelessly and earned scholarships, consistently heading his class.

He built a successful maritime law practice but gravitated toward politics in the late 1980s after defending pro-democracy dissidents.

Those around him say he barely takes time to eat except at political functions and doesn’t do much but work. There’s little evidence Chen is corrupt himself, some analysts say, but he could have done a better job supervising his family. His son-in-law was accused of insider trading and his wife of taking thousands of dollars in department store vouchers. They have denied wrongdoing.

Supporters say he was much more inclusive as Taipei mayor and say he could have done better as president if he hadn’t faced so many obstacles, including a flawed constitution, a divisive society and an unwieldy number of local and island-wide elections.

“We should look back after three generations to really understand his legacy,” said his niece, Chen Hsiu-chu, a farm cooperative employee. “Views can change over time.”


Magnier is a Times staff writer and Tsai a special correspondent.