Taiwan Political Prisoner Report, Jan. 3, 2013. Chen Shui-bian, broken in spirit and serving a lengthy prison sentence for alleged corruption, still remains the ruling Kuomintang’s chief opposition figure in the Republic of China in-exile. Chen was President of the ROC from 2000 to 2008 and found himself in legal trouble just minutes after leaving office.
Chen Shui-bian was born October 12, 1950 into a poor farming community in Tainan County. The young Chen applied himself to his studies and graduated with honors from high school. Chen attended National Taiwan University Law School becoming a commercial attorney in 1974. In 1975, Chen married Wu Shu-chen, the wealthy daughter of a physician whom he had known since high school, and started a family raising two children.
Life was good to Chen, but Taiwan was under strict martial law and the lack of democratic institutions under the Kuomintang regime of Chiang Ching-kuo rankled the young attorney. The exiled Chinese Nationalist government had ruled the island since October 1945 when the Chinese were imposed by the United States on Taiwan, then commonly called Formosa, following the surrender of Japan in World War II.
On December 10, 1979, International Human Rights Day, a large pro-democracy demonstration in Kaohsiung was disrupted by provocateurs resulting in street clashes between police and demonstrators. The ruling Kuomintang elites saw an opportunity to prosecute the top opposition leaders accusing them of fostering a riot. The political show trial against the “Kaohsiung Eight”, and resulting prison terms, was a defining event in the development of electoral democratic progress on the island and the ultimate end of martial law.
Chen Shui-bian rose to the occasion and joined the defense team of attorneys for the “Kaohsiung Eight” representing Huang Hsin-chieh The case changed not only the course of Taiwanese history but launched Chen on a career of public service and political activism.
By 1981, Chen got himself elected to the Taipei City Council as a candidate of the Tangwai movement. In 1984, Chen formed the Civil Servant Public Policy Research Association which published a magazine called Neo-Formosa which Chen edited. In January 1985, Chen was sentenced to a year in prison for libel against Elmer Fung, a Kuomintang strategist who was later elected to the Legislative Yuan.
While appealing his prison sentence, Chen returned to Tainan and ran for County Magistrate. Chen lost the race. Three days later at a rally to thank supporters, Chen’s wife, Wu Shu-chen, was hit twice by a truck and became paralyzed for life. After Chen’s imprisonment at Tucheng Penitentiary over the Neo-Formosa article, Chen went to work as one of the key founders of the Democratic Progressive Party, an opposition party to the ruling Kuomintang party. Chen was also assistant to his wife Wu Shu-chen who was elected to the Legislative Yuan while Chen was in prison.
In 1989, after the lifting of martial law, Chen was elected to the Legislative Yuan as a new DPP member. Chen left the legislature when he was elected Mayor of Taipei in 1994 during a three-way election featuring the New Party which drained votes from the Kuomintang candidate. Chen served as Mayor until 1998 when he was defeated for reelection by Ma Ying-jeou.
Chen’s defeat by Ma opened the door for a bid at the top spot in the ROC governing structure. Another three-way election in 2000 allowed Chen to advance to the Presidential Office, giving the Kuomintang its biggest defeat since Mao Tse-tung evicted the Chinese Nationalists from China in 1949.
President Chen survived an election eve assassination attempt in 2004 during a campaign parade where he was shot in the abdomen and went on to win reelection to a second term. Chen’s reelection was another setback for the Kuomintang who still kept control of the legislature, judiciary, and ROC bureaucracy.
Shortly after Chen relinquished control of the ROC, on his last day in office, Chen was informed that he was under investigation for corruption and restrictions were placed on him. Within a few months Chen would completely lose his freedom and be subjected to pretrial detention which was followed by a lengthy prison sentence.
Ma Ying-jeou, Chen’s successor, claims he has not been involved in Chen’s prosecution and that he has left the matter to the professional prosecutors and has cited the investigation began before he took office. However, many believe that Ma actually orchestrated the prosecution of Chen by pulling strings behind the scenes.
The Chen family was the subject of corruption allegations in 2006 which led to a month-long “Red Army” protest against Chen calling for his removal from office. Chen rode out the storm denying the allegations against him and completed his second term in office. Chen was convicted of bribery following a controversial trial where numerous violations of his rights occurred and the chief witness recanted his testimony.
Chen Shui-bian remains a political powerhouse even from his solitary confinement. Many leaders in Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party have stepped back from Chen, some for fear they will be associated with corruption, but Chen seems to still enjoy loyal public support and increasingly has become identified as a symbol of Taiwan, imprisoned in a “one China” philosophy. In December, Chen had to deny he was forming a new political party as rumors spread in the Taiwanese media.
The allegations that Chen was corrupt have been used to disparage the DPP and rally support for the Kuomintang incumbents. However, the biggest winner in the Chen-is-corrupt scenario is the People’s Republic of China, for which Chen represented a huge obstacle to “unification” and implementation of Ma’s “one China, two areas” slant toward China.
Chen Shui-bian denies he was corrupt and says he was the victim of a rigged trial for political purposes.