Politics & Law

Taiwan: Changing times and presidents

05 October, 2022

Taiwan has certainly changed since the first election of its president by the people in 1996. Author and long-term Taiwan resident, Jerome F Keating, relates his personal experience with each of the four and how Taiwanese identity has evolved over time.

By Jerome F Keating

“Do times summon their leaders, or do leaders shape their times?” So runs the question posed by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Doris Kearns Goodwin, in Leadership in Turbulent Times. It is a question anyone in international business must consider.

Taiwan has undergone tremendous change as it went from the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) one-party state and martial law to its present thriving democracy. National Chengchi University has tracked its changing identity from 1992 on when the Garrison Command was disbanded, and the people could freely elect legislators. (Refer to the chart at the end of this article).

I came to Taiwan in 1988 as Manager of Technology Transfer on Taipei’s Mass Rapid Transit Project. Martial law had just ended (July 1987) and President Chiang Ching-kuo had died (January 1988). His hand-picked vice-president, Lee Teng-hui, succeeded him as the first Taiwan born president. Taiwan was in uncharted waters.

In the coming three decades, Taiwan would have four different presidents, all of whom I had the honour to know, talk with, and write about. I also married a Taiwanese and became an associate professor. I would go on to write five books (three translated into Chinese) and innumerable op-eds on Taiwan’s history, identity, struggles for democracy and mapping and was later given citizenship for “contributions to the nation.”

This brief article relates my impressions of each president in light of Goodwin’s question. Space only allows me to present a selected vignette about each.

Of the four, Lee Teng-hui shaped Taiwan the most. His life reads like one navigating numerous minefields that could destroy a normal person. Born in colonial Taiwan and educated in Japan, he served in its military in WWII. After the war, he finished his studies in then Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) “occupied” Taiwan.

Lee went on for a doctorate at Cornell University in the US and proved invaluable in Taiwan land reform, so much so that he impressed Chiang Ching-kuo. He was selected as Chang’s vice president in 1984 as Chiang brought more native Taiwanese into his cabinet.

As president, Lee listened to the democratic protest of the Wild Lilly Movement in 1990, disbanded the Garrison Command and got rid of the “iron rice bowl” legislators that had held offices since being elected in China in 1947. He also allowed the president to be elected by the people (1996). He capped his presidency with the famous “two state theory” quote on Taiwan/China relations in his 1999 Deutsche Welle interview.

I had a one-on-one, hour-long interview with him at his home in 2005 after he retired. Lee, who had blended Christianity with the Japanese Bushido code, was reserved and stoic but personable. Two items stood out. He spoke of how as vice president he met daily with Chiang and meticulously took notes; they shared an affinity of minds.

That led me to ask the pointed ‘times or man’ question: “Did Chiang open Taiwan to democracy because he believed in it, or because he saw the writing on the wall?” An assassination attempt had been made on Chiang in the US in 1970; the US moved its embassy from Taipei to Beijing in 1979 and the Kaohsiung Incident later rocked the nation. In 1984, the US was upset that Henry Liu, a Chiang critic, was assassinated in California. Lee thought and answered: “Both.”

Taiwan born Chen Shui-bian was totally different. I interviewed him as mayor of Taipei and as president and shared books with him. Dedicated and combative, he could express himself clearly in English. The times had benefited him as he became both mayor of Taipei in 1994 and president in 2000 when the pan-blue vote split over two candidates. Taiwan identity was changing but not enough to completely help him. As president, he always faced a pan-blue dominated legislature.

I chose as the most telling interview when a friend arranged for me to visit him in prison. It is not so much what was said but the double standard by which the dominant “dinosaur judiciary” from the one-party state KMT era had treated him. Even then, Chen was still seen as a dangerous “Taiwanese spirit” that had to be stamped out. A prison observer listened to and recorded everything we talked about. I jokingly wondered if they expected me to give him a hacksaw blade or relay a secret escape plan.

Before his earlier trial, he had not been allowed privacy with his lawyers to plan a defence and judges were switched when the first allowed him out on bail.

I could only contrast this with when corruption charges had been levelled against “rebellious” James Soong from the Chung Hsing Financial scandal in the 2000 presidential election. The charges were enough to cause Soong to lose the election, but they were dropped and never pursued afterward.

Again, in Ma Ying-jeou’s “misuse of funds” scandal as Mayor of Taipei, no one was held incommunicado. Ma could meet with his assistant who then took the fall for “unknowingly” putting nearly half a million US dollars into Ma’s bank account. The assistant served nine months in prison and had his job when he got out. I always wondered if he got back pay.

Ma was elected president in 2008 and immediately set out to shape Taiwan/China relations with his Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). I had followed Ma’s eight years as mayor of Taipei and his efforts. I had listened to him explain how he came up with his 6-3-3 campaign promise when running for presidency. Of the four, he was the most guarded even when speaking one-on-one. He did not come across as a “bumbler” but you never felt you were talking with his real self - only a projected image.

Born in Hong Kong, Ma is the only non-Taiwan born president of the four. The moment I choose in his career was when he invited Chen Yun-lin of China’s Association for Relations Across the Strait (ARATS) to visit Taiwan and begin the plans for trade exchanges. Ma was acting fast to shape Taiwan’s history, but it would not end well. Taiwan politics always have a local as well as international side.

A friend had anticipated Chen’s arrival and booked a suite at the Grand Hotel long before bookings were blocked. When we drove up there for dinner, it was like entering a foreign country; we had to pass two check points and show identification to get to the top. Strolling around in the back of the hotel, we saw over 50 police, idle but ready to put down any potential protests that might occur.

The dining hall was empty except for us and some media from China. We stayed to see Chen return from an outside dinner with KMT bigwigs. The hotel staff lined up and received him with cheers like returning royalty. Ma definitely controlled the mountain but not all going on in the city.

The growing sense of Taiwan identity continued. The Wild Strawberry Movement (2010) was another misread sign, but Ma’s ECFA defeat would come with the Sunflower Movement in 2014.

The Sunflowers occupied and shut down the Legislature. However, local politics again came into play. The year before Ma had tried and failed to oust Wang Jin-ping, the KMT speaker of the legislature in what was called the “September Strife.” Ma felt Wang was not doing enough to get ECFA through the legislature.

Wang as speaker was now the only one who could give the police the order to remove the Sunflowers and he was silent. Ma had overplayed his hand. ECFA became dead in the water. it would eventually expire under the coming pan-green dominated legislature elected in 2016.

I last chatted with Ma when we were both at the head table at a dinner at the Shangri-La Far Eastern Plaza Hotel. I gave him a copy of my book, The Paradigms that Guide Our Lives and Drive Our Souls; I don’t think he read it.

Tsai Ing-wen became Taiwan’s first female president and the first elected president who had not been mayor of Taipei. I met her and chatted with her when she was head of the Democratic Progressive Party and even as president. Here, I choose to highlight her failed 2012 bid for the presidency. I hosted a meeting where she spoke (in English) of her presidential goals for Taiwan and answered questions from over 85 people, primarily expats (read non-voters).

Tsai was articulate and personable and a tireless campaigner. She was not a firebrand, but you felt her sincerity and care for Taiwan and issues. She lost to Ma that time, but later came back and won by a landslide in 2016. Thus far she has kept Taiwan on an even keel.

I don’t know who will be elected to lead Taiwan in 2024 but I do note that the nation’s sense of identity continues to change. Anyone doing business in Taiwan would be well advised to be conscious of that along with both sides of the question: “Does the leader shape the times or do the times summon the leader?”


Source: National Chengchi University

Jerome F Keating is a consultant, educator, and writer who lives in Taiwan

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