Posted by: Bruce Einhorn on November 12, 2008
There was always something Bill Clinton-like about Chen Shui-bian. Like Clinton, the Taiwanese politician came from a poor family, grew up in the rural south of his country, went to a prestigious law school, and became a dynamic leader of the opposition party. Like Clinton, Chen won the presidency in a three-way race without winning a majority. Chen’s rivals, like the Republicans in the U.S., regarded him as a usurper who didn’t deserve to be president but Chen, like Clinton, infuriated his critics by managing to win re-election anyway. (In Chen’s case, thanks in no small part to a botched assassination attempt on the eve of the election.)
Unfortunately for Chen, the similarities don’t end there. Like Clinton, he was dogged by suspicion of scandal that contributed to his party’s loss after his second term. Now he’s gone beyond his American counterpart. Yesterday the former Taiwanese president was arrested and today a court sent him to jail for alleged involvement in bribe taking, money laundering and document forgery.
Chen says he’s a victim of witch hunt led by his successor, the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou, and cheered on by the Chinese government. Ma, who himself was targeted by corruption investigators while Chen was president, denies this is a case of payback. According to AFP, Ma said “I do not intervene in any case. I respect the judicial system,” adding “we do not feel any joy (from his detention).” That may be. But no doubt few leaders in Beijing are shedding tears for Chen, whom they despise as a Taiwanese independence advocate who (they believe) did his best to further the island’s separation from the mainland. While Chen heads off to jail, relations between Taiwan and China continue to improve. Last week, the highest-level delegation from the mainland visited the island for talks and reached an agreement with the Taiwanese to launch direct air and shipping links between the two sides, something Taiwanese business leaders have been wanting for decades. And on the same day the court imprisoned Chen, the Taiwanese Ministry of Education announced it might open up Taiwan’s universities to students from the mainland.
I don’t know the merits of the government’s case against Chen, but Ma is going to have to be careful. The KMT, which ran Taiwan uninterrupted from 1949 till 2000, doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being squeaky clean itself. With the Taiwanese high-tech sector now slammed by the global recession, the current president will need to focus on taking more steps to improve the economy by further improving relations with China. If Chen Shui-bian is like Bill Clinton, Ma certainly doesn’t want to end up like George W. Bush.