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,
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. …