A Chinese Leader Aims to Be One of the Folks Taipei's Mayor Taps 'People's Power' and Catches the Eye of the Mainland

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Tapei Mayor Chen Shui-bian is becoming one of the fastest rising stars in Taiwan's political firmament by bringing something new to the island: town hall-style democracy.

By fielding questions from residents on radio and TV phone-ins and setting up "citizens' meeting points" where anyone can talk to him, Taipei's first freely elected mayor "is changing the entire face of Taiwan politics," says independent filmmaker Wu Yifeng.

Taiwan was ruled with an iron fist for decades by Chiang Kai Shek and his Nationalist (Kuomintang) Party. Chiang fled here after his 1949 defeat by Communist troops on the Chinese mainland. Although Taiwan was then called "Free China," Chiang's execution or imprisonment of dissidents made his ruling style indistinguishable from that of the Communists or the generations of emperors that preceded them. Since the lifting of martial law here in 1987, democracy has gradually been introduced to the island. Yet some Nationalist Party officials, who still dominate the executive branch and the broadcast media, are perceived as being aloof, calling the shots from their ivory towers. In contrast, "Chen Shui-bian is a man of the people, and he represents a new era for Taiwan," says Deng Linan, a taxi driver. "Chen's charisma and down-to-earth style have fueled a 'people-power revolution' here, and even the president and premier are being forced to adopt some of his tactics," says Mr. Wu. Chen rose to power on a wave of discontent with the ruling Nationalists, and his 1994 campaign was engineered by an unlikely group of pop artists and former student-protest leaders. "Chen Shui-bian and other young leaders like him are bringing a new kind of dynamic democracy to Taiwan that is unmatched in any other area of Asia," which is dominated by autocratic rulers, says Tu Weiming, a China scholar at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Scholars and workers here say Chen's growing popularity, and his clampdown on organized crime and official corruption, could propel him to victory in the 2000 presidential race. During an interview at his office in central Taipei, Chen dodged a question on whether he plans to run for president. "Right now, I want to concentrate on being the best mayor in Taiwan. If I reach that goal, I can do anything in the future." The Nationalists, who officially back eventual reunification with China, are attempting to halt the rise of Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) by branding it a dangerous, pro-independence group that could trigger an armed attack by Beijing. China's Communist leaders regard Taiwan as a rebel province and have said that any declaration of independence by the island would be considered an act of war. Although the DPP used the independence issue to wrest power from the Nationalists, it has since blurred its stance to reassure voters who were apprehensive about armed conflict with China. …