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Key Economic Data 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2002)
Millions of US $  406,000    
GNI per capita
 US $ 18,000
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

Books on Taiwan

Update No: 082 - (29/11/10)

Is Chen Shui-bian the victim of political retribution?
In normal circumstances, municipal elections spark little interest and have little bearing on national policy, but when the Taiwanese troop once more to the polls on November 27 to elect officials in five special municipalities, the result, whichever way it goes, will have national significance for Taiwan’s longer term future. The electorate is polarised to an extent to which we have not seen before.
While there will be no transfer of power at the national level, these elections in five major conurbations will involve 60 percent of Taiwan’s population and the outcome will have considerable implications for the major political parties and their 2012 presidential campaigns, for the political future of Taiwan and for the relationship between Taiwan and China.

The Kuomintang Party (KMT), which regained the presidency and won back national government in 2008 after eight years of rule by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has fared poorly in other recent local polls. Perhaps, this is not surprising. Mid-term and by-elections are often used by the electorate to deliver a protest vote. But this time, in Taiwan, there is more at stake.

President Ma is in trouble. Since gaining power he has seen his approval rating plummet – not only because of his failure to deliver the promised growth – a promise thwarted by the onset of the GFC – but also because of fear that he has sold Taiwan down the river.

During the first two years of Ma’s presidency he put all his eggs in the China basket. After eight years during which former President Chen Shui-bian sought to distance Taipei from Beijing, much to the alarm of the PRC which saw in Chen an “avowed separatist”, Ma – himself of recent mainland ancestry (like many in his party) has chosen to embrace China. In doing so, he has gone far ahead of the average Taiwan citizen (and voter) who would much prefer to continue the status quo and he has backed himself and his country into a corner, from which there may be no way out. The question in many people’s minds is whether he has done this deliberately.

Relations warmed at a fast paste when the KMT returned to office. Negotiations were conducted both at the quasi-official state level through the bodies set up on each side of the Taiwan Straits to manage relations (which which had been dormant throughout the DPP administration) and through informal party-to-party visits between senior communist and KMT officials - after all, back in the 1930s their predecessors were both part of the “united front” in the war against the Japanese. This exchange culminated in the signing of an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in June this year which, while an economic agreement, effectively draws Taiwan even closer to China in terms of economic integration.

By contrast, President Chen was an avowed pro-Taiwan democrat who favoured de jure independence for Taiwan from China rather than the de facto form it has enjoyed for the past sixty years. To native Taiwanese, Chen was known as the “Son of Taiwan.” A lawyer by training, he worked tirelessly to reform a corrupt and oppressive political system even through at the time it was dangerous to do so. His democratic credentials are impeccable.

He was imprisoned by the KMT during the martial law years and an assassination attempt was made on his wife which has left her a paraplegic ever since. In what was officially deemed at the time to have been an “accident”, she was run over by a truck – not once but three times by the same truck!

It was the manner in which the mainland dominated KMT oppressed native Taiwanese during the martial law years and the culture of impunity adopted by those with mainland connections towards the native Taiwanese that informed DPP attitudes. To many in the KMT, Chen was a dangerous and hated traitor. Later when he entered mainstream politics, Beijing adopted the same attitude.

The depth of this hatred became apparent soon after Ma assumed office. Chen was summarily arrested on charges of “corruption” and has so far spent seven hundred days in detention. Appeals to be released on bail so he could prepare his defence went unheeded. There was an inescapable feeling among many Taiwanese that this was both pay-back for his pro-independence stance in government, as well as a card for the KMT to play with China. His incarceration served both to defang the DPP while being seen as a means of pandering to Beijing and validating its credentials.

It was perhaps no coincidence that President Chen’s trials and court verdicts came to a head just three weeks ahead of the polls.

The state prosecutors had thrown the book at Chen and his family with accusations of corruption, bribery and money laundering – all of which many KMT politicians were equally guilty of perpetrating, even if Chen was guilty as charged – which he is now found to be, although many including ourselves, believe the entire trial process to have been severely flawed; and despite claims by witnesses that monies paid over were donations to the DPP; and that neither Chen nor any other politician for that matter could influence unduly the commercial decisions of corporations.
Indeed, citing insufficient proof, on November 5, the former president, his wife and nineteen other co-defendants were found not guilty of money laundering by the Taipei District Court. The KMT immediately protested the ruling and – in an extraordinary display of partisanship – tried to turn it into a political issue and rally the faithful against the verdict, seeking to infer, by implication, that the entire DPP was corrupt and unfit to govern. Ma went as far as to claim that the judiciary should “not isolate itself from the outside world or deviate from public expectations.” That sounds ominously like an opinion that might be expressed in those countries where the judiciary is seen as implementer of the will of the state, called in other words ‘totalitarianism’.

Chen’s respite was brief. Any hope that the high court might dismiss the remaining charges were dashed when on November 11, the Supreme Court upheld with finality two bribery convictions relating to a land purchase scandal. Chen and his wife were each sentenced to eleven years and eight years imprisonment for each charge. The court has not yet finally ruled as to whether the sentences should be served concurrently or consecutively. The court also fined the couple NT$150 million ($4.92 mn, £3.1 mn) each and directed three other cases back to a lower court for a retrial.

KMT supporters cheered the verdict; those allied to the DPP expressed sadness and regret while being careful, given the political timing, to be seen to respect the judicial system. However flawed they might think it to be, for the most part, people were guarded in their public statements although some claimed publicly that the verdict was politically motivated and urged voters to deal the government a defeat in the upcoming special municipality elections.

In anticipation of the verdict, the government had, in September, amended the law regarding preferential treatment for retired presidents and vice presidents to suspend privileges for life to any top leader convicted of corruption, insurgency or treason in a first trial and to deny any privileges for life once convicted of corruption in a final trial. The amendment was clearly directed at adding to Chen’s woes by denying him his pension, office and any security detail. Prior to passage of the amended law, Chen had received a monthly stipend of NT$250,000 ($8,200 or £5,250) and between NT$5 million and NT$8 million in subsidies for his office and assistant. He was also guarded by a security detachment of up to 12 government bodyguards.

Even accepting the court ruling at face value, Chen’s indiscretions pale into insignificance compared to those of some KMT politicians and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the KMT leadership has acted with venality believing that there will be no accounting for its actions.
On learning of the Supreme Court ruling which cannot be appealed, Chen Shui-bian called the decision “political murder” and, according to one of his close aids, it was an orchestrated decision “because the Chinese Nationalist Party and the Chinese Communist Party want him dead”.

Chen will be transferred to Taipei Prison to serve out his sentence and he and his wife met briefly for an emotional farewell in the knowledge that it could be the last time they see one another. The former president is 60 years old and his wife is aged 57 years. In addition to the present sentence, three further cases are pending an appeal to the Taiwan Court for which they have received sentences of 20 years.

So the people of Taiwan are facing the present election in sombre mood. Many are confused.

The KMT wants the electorate to focus on the improving economy and its willingness to deal “without mercy” with corrupt officials. That would be all very well if it applied that maxim without fear or favour but it does not. The government appears to only apply harsh measures against opposition opponents. As one newspaper editorial opined:

While the “Harvard-educated” Ma reiterated his belief in the inviolability of an independent judiciary, his enthusiasm seemed to collapse once the same judiciary handed down a decision he did not like. This led him and others to engage in vague discussions about the “will” and “expectations” of the people, much as CCP officials tend to arrogate upon themselves the desires of 1.3 billion Chinese. (Taipei Times Tuesday 9 November 2010).

More than anything else, this present episode has shown to the world, the mindset of the KMT which has not democratised its thinking despite its eight years in opposition. It has not, it seems, yet learned to separate party and state interests. It remains true to its Leninist values. Moreover the fundamental concept of a trial in any democratic nation is the presumption of innocence, which never applied in these cases, nor yet of the court demonstrating its independence from the politicians;
How the people of Taiwan view the drama played out in the Supreme Court will be shown at the poll. We will not have to wait long to find out. 

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