by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Reuters
From President to Prisoner
ON MONDAY, former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-Bian was released on medical parole after six years of imprisonment on a 20-year sentence on charges of corruption. Medical parole will last for one month, after which his condition will be evaluated. Chen’s release comes after a series of campaigns calling for his release on grounds of human rights. Chen, who attempted suicide in 2013, reportedly suffers from neural degeneration, heart disorders, and sleep Apnea.
The release of Chen comes after a hunger strike calling for his release by his former vice-president, Annette Lu, although officials stressed that the hunger strike had no relation on the decision to grant Chen medical parole. Lu’s hunger strike was undertaken despite growing signs that Chen’s release was an inevitability and Lu wished to continue the hunger strike despite news of Chen’s release until stopped by advising doctors. Lu appears to have viewed it of necessity to draw attention to the political injustice of Chen’s imprisonment on the basis of Chen’s release on medical grounds rather than the repeal of charges against Chen.
Chen, president of Taiwan from 2000 to 2008, was the first and only non–KMT president of Taiwan in Taiwanese history. His presidential victory as candidate of the DPP was hailed as marking a benchmark for Taiwan’s democratization, with the normalization of two-party democracy after so many decades of one-party rule by KMT, which had only recently put its authoritarian history behind it.
However, Chen became an increasingly unpopular figure as his term went on, and was viewed by both members of the Taiwanese public and international observers as too bent upon rocking the boat concerning Taiwan’s relation to China. We can point to the DPP backing away from its position of Taiwanese independence in recent years as likely a product of this period. Despite the fact that Chen explicitly sidelined the issue of Taiwanese independence, Chen was still seen as an unpredictable provocateur regarding cross-strait relations. So, then, can we understand the DPP shelving the issue of Taiwanese independence and considering eliminating it altogether.
As such, when Chen was arraigned on charges of embezzlement in 2009, after the end of his term, many Taiwanese were prepared to accept the veracity of such charges. Chen was first charged to a life sentence, which was then commuted to twenty years of imprisonment. But it is only in recent years that Taiwanese have become critical of the grounds upon which Chen was arrested and skeptical as to whether Chen’s arrest was political punishment meted out by the KMT after its return to power. Even then, Chen’s release has provoked strong emotions for some Taiwanese.
Accordingly, even if Chen’s release on medical parole has been welcomed by Taiwanese activists, civil society actors, and members of the progressive public as a move towards justice, perhaps this is in fact reflective of the recurrent political amnesia of the Taiwanese public. Chen’s unpopularity in his last years of office led to the willingness of Taiwanese public to accept the truth of charges against Chen, as yet another black mark on Chen’s record. And the willingness of the public to accept the view that Chen was corrupt was a mass phenomenon, not one contained to only pan-Blue sectors of the public.
It may be that, as time passed, people have become increasingly skeptical of the KMT narrative and questions of justice in regards to Chen’s imprisonment—and rightly so. It is not insignificant that the only president in the history of a nation not to be of the authoritarian party winds up jailed after his term in office expires. Apart from the truth value of such charges, one should immediately be skeptical as to whether the severity of punishment meted out against Chen might be political retribution, raising serious questions for the Taiwanese justice system. Chen’s original sentence was originally life imprisonment, for one. But such questions were not asked at the time of Chen’s arrest.
But that so many Taiwanese were willing to accept this blindly may indicate that the reality of KMT power, past or present, still has not sunk in for many Taiwanese. And growing suspicion of the charges against Chen with the passage of time also indicates that, it is in part the fading memory of Chen’s unpopularity and the status of political martyrdom he has acquired through jailing which has led to reevaluations of Chen for many Taiwanese, including both members of the general public and activist civil society. It was such that during his imprisonment, Chen’s plight was not more widely known in the international sphere.
The Blind Spot in International Politics
WHILE SUPPORTERS of Chen sought to call attention to his plight on human rights grounds, they were largely unsuccessful. Again, one would think that that the imprisonment of only president in Taiwanese history not of the formerly ruling authoritarian party would receive more international attention. The lack of attention paid to Chen’s imprisonment more broadly reflects Taiwan’s lack of international attention. But seeing as Taiwanese were largely accepting of Chen’s imprisonment at the time of his sentence, so can we comprehend the lack of international attention received by Chen, and why western observers were also willing to accept charges against Chen.
Just as Chen became increasingly unpopular as his term went on among Taiwanese because of the view of Chen as too dangerous to the stability of China-Taiwan cross-strait relations, it is probably not surprising that this was also so for those international observers who were attentive to Taiwan. The reaction of western observers during Chen’s first election was to enthusiastic about what his rise to power marked, as a sign of completed democratization of Taiwan. Chen’s election victory was viewed as a marker of the end of one-party dominance by the KMT in Taiwanese electoral politics.
Later on, the election of Ma Ying-Jeou was largely thought of in similar terms; that is, it became that Ma Ying-Jeou’s election was similarly advanced as being a sign of Taiwan’s completed democratization. For example, by political scientists of a certain bent, Ma Ying-Jeou’s reelection and the return to power of the KMT was thereby viewed an indication of Huntington’s two-turnover test for democratic transition, in which the completion of transition to democracy is marked by two exchanges of political power between parties—never mind that just before they had been talking about Chen’s election victory as the definitive proof of democratization.
That western observers first viewed Chen’s election, then Ma’s as marking the critical benchmark in the progress of democratization evinces the growing dissatisfaction of international observers with Chen for upsetting the status quo of cross-strait relations between Taiwan and China. Of course, what political scientists studying Taiwan from abroad largely turned a blind eye to was the unbroken power of the KMT during the Chen administration. Even during the Chen administration, the DPP did not control the legislature. As a result, the actual amount of political power held by the DPP was far less than the apparent victory of DPP presidential candidate would seem to indicate—a means by which in Taiwan, as with in other countries, presidential elections can sometimes prove a distraction to the true distribution of political power in focusing all public attention upon who holds one political office. The return to power of the KMT was not the return to power of the KMT as one among two equal political powers, as certain political scientists would have it, but more the return to power of the KMT after an interlude in which it had suffered some political setbacks with the growing political power of the DPP. And it is generally not surprising that political scientists studying Taiwan have often been hostile towards the cause of Taiwanese independence for fear of it disrupting regional stability in East Asia.
But were Taiwanese much better? In light of how Taiwanese reactions to Chen’s imprisonment went at the time of his imprisonment, it is not altogether surprising that western observers took on such views. And so can we understand how news coverage of Chen’s imprisonment in recent years by western media has gone so far as sneering at medical conditions suffered by him as an “election ploy” by the DPP, or even playing the “death card.” Certainly, no small part of it was that the charges against Chen were serious, and the moral taint against Chen placed limitations upon the degree to which he could be portrayed as a guiltless prisoner of conscience imprisoned on the basis of political beliefs. Yet let us not forget, more significant than Chen, what Taiwanese people rejected at the time of his imprisonment was largely the politics he was perceived as standing for—those of Taiwanese independence.
Time Heals All Wounds?
WHERE TAIWANESE activist politics tends to acquire the character of an echo chamber, more supportive as it is of Chen, one must also be cognizant of the large sectors of the Taiwanese public still firmly of the view that charges against Chen are true. Despite non-Taiwanese NGOs calling attention to Chen’s poor health during his imprisonment, many Taiwanese are still of the conviction that Chen spent the last years in some luxury prison suite. For them, the release of Chen on medical parole comes as a travesty of justice—and, indeed, the release of Chen on medical grounds does in fact sideline the larger question of justice altogether and overly focus attention on Chen himself. These segments of the public are still constituents that must be accounted for. But however one cuts it, it is not yet that the Taiwanese public or Taiwanese civil society became questioning of the truth charges against Chen or the justness of the severity of his punishment and successfully campaigned for his release. Chen’s release is, once more, purely on health grounds.
Significantly, Chen’s release comes after a period of waning animosity towards Chen from the broader Taiwanese public. We can also point to the unpopularity of the Ma presidency after a presidential victory in which Ma came to power with promises of change that he was unable to fulfill and provoked public outrage in the attempted realization of pro-China as best reflected in this year’s Sunflower Movement. In this environment, it is not surprising therefore that people would become more questioning of Chen’s imprisonment after a period in which Chen’s unpopularity during presidency is slowly forgotten because of the even more unpopular Ma administration.
To be sure, the Taiwanese people themselves put Ma Ying-Jeou in office because of their dissatisfactions after Chen’s administration. Dissatisfaction with Chen came from all camps at that point in time, in fact, no less than Dangwai Movement martyr and former DPP chairman Shih Ming-Te was calling for Chen’s arrest on charges of corruption. But if the average Taiwanese rejected Chen because he was seen as rocking the boat too much, what is ironic is the fact that just as Chen was unpopular during his administration on the basis of his being perceived as too pro-independence, this finds parallel in the later unpopularity of Ma Ying-Jeou on the basis of being too pro-China.
We can point to something quite ironic about the back-and-forth of the entire affair to date, but also that Chen’s release only comes after a process of forgetting has taken place. Moreover, through this process of forgetting, the truth of political justice or injustice becomes buried. In the reality of Chen’s ailments, Chen’s release on health grounds may have just cause but, actually, Chen’s release—if his medical parole continues for longer than one month—may just bury the question of whether his sentencing against him was political retribution or not. With focus placed upon Chen the individual and his personal salvation, the question of systematic injustice as represented by the use of charges of corruption against him—whether or not true—as a rationale for political punishment may be buried.
And Chen’s release effaces the still open question of the politics he is seen as standing for. Despite the lessening of hostilities towards him from the Taiwanese public, is not necessarily because the Taiwanese public has become more fond of pro-independence political positions. Where this is concerned, the concern with Chen personally has effaced the larger question of the politics he represents in the eyes of the public.
Tensions between Pro-Independence and Pro-China Positions
SO THEN, what will the release of Chen mean? Some have pointed towards that the release of Chen may mean resurgent factionalism in the DPP. Perhaps so. The DPP, which spent the last several years trying to extricate itself from the damage the Chen did to its reputation during his administration, and with Chen’s freedom, it now has to guard itself against public statements by Chen which may be detrimental to its upcoming campaign season for 2016 presidential and legislative elections. Pro-DPP commentators are already calling for Chen to keep out of the limelight, so as to not negatively affect the future moves of the DPP.
But rather than ask the question of Chen’s release’s effect upon Taiwanese electoral politics, the more interesting question to ask is what the effect of Chen’s release will be upon the culture of Taiwanese civil society and activism which has developed since Chen’s imprisonment. Namely, while Taiwanese activists largely tend to view Chen in a more positive light, the average voter remains much more likely to be suspicious of Chen. What the contestation about the release of Chen indicates is that despite in the past year Taiwanese civil society has become much closer to the public at large through developments as the Sunflower Movement, there is still a substantial gap between the Taiwanese public and activist civil society.
Taiwanese civil society and Taiwanese activists are generally much more advocating of the pro-Taiwanese independence positions that Chen is popularly seen as standing for. Despite the past year’s Sunflower Movement and the defeat of the KMT in nine-in-one elections, where Chen is an object lesson for Taiwanese activists is that just as this year’s Sunflower Movement foregrounded that the Taiwanese public will react against public policies that bring Taiwan too close to China for comfort, so, too, did the Chen administration previously illustrate that it is possible for the Taiwanese public to react against those who are too pro-Taiwanese independence.
The past year likely does reflect a historic shift in the Taiwanese public, but what Chen’s release and the tensions it has brought out foregrounds is that the rift in Taiwanese politics still holds, between pro-independence positions, pro-China positions, and pro-status quo positions. And the pro-status quo position, in which Taiwan continues to exist the muddled state between being a de facto independent political polity but which has not ever formally declared its de facto independence from China, may still be the one held by most members of the Taiwanese public. Have the fundamental divisions in Taiwanese politics truly been breached?
What Can Chen’s Release Accomplish?
IN RECOGNITION of that the Chen administration proved that the Taiwanese public is still not ready for Taiwanese independence is what led the DPP has backed away from public Taiwanese independence positions. This was also a factor in why Taiwanese civil society became increasingly disconnected from the DPP in recent years, although when one actually goes back and looks at the developments dating back to Chen’s first election, the disconnect of Taiwanese civil society from the DPP actually began during Chen’s administration. During the Chen administration, many previous activists and civil society actors were welcomed into the Chen administration with official positions, but dissatisfaction with Chen’s political tactics led to the cut off between electoral politics and civil society which led to the existence in the present of Taiwanese civil society as a formation which operates largely outside electoral politics and seeks to avoid alliance with either KMT or DPP. Forgiveness of Chen over time came, too, from Taiwanese civil society, as part of the general tendency of fading of animosity against Chen in the public eye.
Like many members of the DPP leadership, Chen first came to public prominence during the Kaohsiung Incident of 1979. Chen was the defense lawyer for the “Kaohsiung Eight”, pictured here, which included his later vice president, Annette Lu.
Yet if Chen is seen as representing a pro-Taiwanese independence position which the DPP is willing to shelve as too radical, too alienating of voters, perhaps Chen’s release and future public life by Chen may be an occasion to push the DPP on issues in which it has become increasingly conservative, too quiet upon, and too willing to accommodate the status quo. Chen may be not be a spotless idol free of moral taint, as until recently the Sunflower Movement student leaders were seen as being, although as with Sunflower Movement leaders, the temptation to make Chen into a hero or idol is always there. As recent events indicate with Sunflower leaders, the tendency within Taiwanese politics orients towards personalist politics grounded upon the public adulation of individuals on the basis of their public image. Chen is no exception to this phenomenon. Taiwanese civil society and Taiwanese activists have forgotten their own conflicts with Chen during his administration.
But what is larger than Chen is the politics he is seen as representing. And, at the very least, even if Taiwanese activists and civil society activists should also remain critical of Chen, the present moment is a chance to raise longstanding questions of Taiwanese independence. Chen’s release is an opportunity to force the issue of Taiwanese independence with the DPP and to advance the issue of Taiwanese independence as an issue which is not relegated to the margins in mainstream public discourse, in order that the issue can find widespread public discussion.