Thursday, May 20, 2004

Profile: Chen Shui-bian

Chen Shui-bian, a native-born Taiwanese and the island's first president from an opposition party, was re-elected in March 2004 by the narrowest of margins.


Strengths: Taiwanese-born, populist touch, stands up to China.
Weaknesses: Unpredictable, economy has been weak, DPP lacks depth.

A charismatic public speaker from a poor rural background, he is seen as a steely fighter with a populist touch.

Mr Chen insists he is a "peacemaker, not a troublemaker", and says he has no plans to declare independence except in the event of a Chinese invasion.

But his often prickly approach towards Beijing, and his Democratic Progressive Party's traditional pro-independence stance, have caused some to worry about Taiwan's long-term stability and prosperity now he has won a second term.

China remains deeply suspicious of him, accusing him of planning constitutional changes that would destroy its hopes of eventual reunification.

Chen Shui-bian's life is an astonishing tale of tenacity in the face of adversity.

He was born to illiterate tenant farmers in a village in southern Taiwan in 1951.

Education became his ticket out of poverty. He was the best student in his county and earned himself a place at the prestigious Taiwan National University where he gained a law degree.

As an ambitious young lawyer, he joined a maritime legal firm and married Wu Shu-jen, the daughter of a wealthy doctor.

Mr Chen fell into politics in the early 1980s when he defended a group of pro-independence leaders following a protest in the port of Kaohsiung.

He lost the case, but he was won over by his clients' ideals. The defendants and their lawyers subsequently became the core of the democratic opposition

Tragedy struck in 1985, when his wife was paralysed from the waist down after a truck ran over her in what many believe was an assassination attempt on Mr Chen himself.


The following year, Mr Chen was jailed for eight months after losing a libel case involving the ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT).

But if his enemies hoped to keep him out of politics they achieved the very opposite.

He became a member of the Taipei municipal council, and after the birth of multi-party politics and the formation of the DPP became the capital city's first popularly elected Mayor in 1994.

Mr Chen fought corruption, shut down brothels, improved traffic and levelled a large slum to create a park. But his abrasive and sometimes autocratic style also made him enemies.

When Taipei's voters threw him out four years later, he turned his defeat into an opportunity to run for the presidency in 2000.

His personal success in that campaign was followed by his party's victory in parliamentary elections the following year - the first democratic transfer of power from one party to another in the Chinese world.

Much of Mr Chen's appeal to voters lies in his personal dynamism and his down-to-earth background - many refer to him by his nickname, A-bian.

Theatrical showman

"At his public rallies," says one observer, "he is quite brilliant at working the crowd. He gets them laughing and uses elaborately choreographed music, fireworks and balloons to build up the atmosphere. He's a real showman."

He is also seen as something of a maverick.

In February, in the first-ever televised presidential debate in Taiwan's history, Lien Chan focused on the president's character, calling him "capricious," "irresponsible" and "unreliable."

Mr Chen indignantly dismissed his allegations. "My hairstyle has never changed over the years," he said, "nor my love for my wife."

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