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Taiwan: Another President–Behind the Bar?

Corruption and nepotism has been not only cause of major concern in developing countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or China but it has also haunted more developed society and regions. One of the regions in the world where it has thoroughly shaken the faith of people in bureaucracy and politicians is Taiwan. There are very few countries / territories in the world where the former Head of State has been caught under the powerful claws of judiciary, and Taiwan is one of them. Not only the former President of Taiwan—Chen Shuibian has been incarcerated for 19 years, the first democratically elected President of the island-nation, Lee Tenghui is now being indicted on graft and money-laundering charges and accused of embezzling US$7.79 million in public funds.

Ironically, both Lee and Chen are the two figures, which the communist regime in the People’s Republic of China loathes a lot. Lee, born on 15 January 1923, now 88, was the first major figure in Taiwan who advocated complete independence of Taiwan and was vehemently criticized, ridiculed and looked down by the Chinese authorities. In his pursuit and hankering for the complete independence of Taiwan, Lee has been accused for engaging himself in “Blank cheque diplomacy or black gold politics”—trading off smaller countries support for regaining Taiwan’s mislaid position in the UN. Predecessors of Lee, General Chiang Kai Shek and his son Chiang Ching Kuo always dreamt of winning back the “Lost mainland” during the civil war— post Second World War, while Lee after being directly elected by the People of Taiwan in 1996, openly preached for the complete independence of Taiwan, understanding fully well that it was impossible to win the vast and increasingly powerful mainland—the People’s Republic of China. China on its part reviled Lee calling him as   the “scum of the nation” who should be tossed into the “dustbin of history.”

Lee earned the favour of Chiang Ching Kuo and served as Mayor of Taipei city and Vice-President of the country before succeeding him after his death in 1988; however he wanted major democratic reforms inside the country. In 1996, he was openly elected by the People in the first ever election inside the nation and also became the first native Taiwanese to be the President and Chairman of the ruling Nationalist Party—KMT. Lee also vouched for more power in the hand of local Taiwanese (Bensheng ren) and not in the hands of those who had fled away from mainland China to the island (Waisheng ren).

Most of us remember the June 1989 Tiananmen incident led by the students of Peking University in Beijing, but we have almost forgotten a similar movement with the same kind of mission (Bringing liberty and democracy) in Taiwan which lasted for more than 6 days— March 16 to 22, 1990 in Taiwan.  The movement, known as Wild Lily student movement (Ye Baihe Xueyun), in contrast with the Tiananmen movement, which was completely crushed by the communist authorities, was a very successful movement and its demand of direct elections for President and Vice-president was met by Lee Tenghui. Lee met the representatives of students in his Presidential office in Taipei, whereas, the peaceful students demonstrating for the similar cause in Beijing were crushed under the army tanks at behest of Li Peng and Deng Xiaoping. Explaining the name of this movement Prof. Yang   Yongming of National Taiwan University (NTU) wrote in Taiwan Review in 2003, “For years, Taiwanese poets have employed ‘lily’ as a symbol of grace and resilience. It was Taiwanese literature’s use of this wild lily as a metaphor of simplicity and fortitude that inspired its use by those in the student democracy movement.”

In 2005, as Taiwanese President Chen Shuibian on eve of the 15th anniversary of this movement, also noted the major contrast between Tiananmen incident of Beijing and Wild Lily student movement of Taipei. He said, “The most memorable impression of the Tiananmen incident of June 4 related to the small, thin person holding up a line of tanks, which was a heroic and disturbing impression. On the other hand, the Wild Lily Movement, set a timetable for further reform and pressed for the establishment of a National Affairs Conference  for the changing the way in which the Legislative Yuan and the National Assembly are elected, and arriving at a consensus on realizing the direct election of the President.

Coming from a humble background, Lee has been an outstanding student from the very beginning and was educated in Japan and USA on scholarships. He also taught at premier Taiwanese Universities – the NTU and Chengchi University, Taipei. His research works on agricultural economy of Taiwan is a seminal work for understanding the agricultural situation of the region.

In 2000, during the Second Presidential elections in Taiwan, Lee Tenghui, however did not support his own party’s candidate and hence, the Nationalist-KMT lost their power for the first time in the country. Chen Shui Bian, the leader of opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was elected as the President by a very slight margin of victory and Lee was subsequently expelled from the party on charges of sedition and treason then. Since 2001, Lee has not worked in favour of KMT and has been regarded as the spiritual leader of Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), one of the major political forces in Taiwan.

KMT came into power in 2008 under the leadership of charismatic and Harvard educated, Ma Ying Jiu. The next elections are just 7 months away in early 2012. Lee has recently voiced his party TSU’s support for opposition DPP candidate Ms. Cai Ying Wen against the re-election of Ma Ying Jiu of KMT and many people see indictment of Lee Teng Hui, as politically motivated and a manipulation by Ma administration gearing up for the next elections. They think that by indicting Lee—a main voice in support of DPP, on corruption charges, Ma would dent into the voters’ bank which would have otherwise gone to the opposition party. Ma, of course, has scoffed off all these allegations and said that he would never tolerate any form of political revenge or manipulation of the judiciary. Lee has also been accused of using bank accounts of several proxies and wiring off hundreds of millions of Taiwan dollars to Singapore.

On Lee’s indictment, Ma has said that he has always respected the judiciary and that he would not allow any interference in ongoing legal cases. “Judicial independence is a crucial line of defence in a democratic nation and it requires a joint effort by the government, the opposition parties and the public to protect it. Time will prove that I have always respected the judicial process and that there is judicial independence,” Ma has affirmed.

On the other hand, Lee accuses Ma of his incompetence and thinks that Ma’s “China-leaning” approach has weakened Taiwan’s international role and recognition on the world map while it has also encouraged wealth-gap and corruption in the island.  He thinks that his indictment is politically manipulated and this case has just come “Out of the Prosecutor’s head” suddenly. Lee’s Party TSU also thinks that these are also done at the behest of rulers in Beijing pointing out that the Prosecutor General of Taiwan Huang Shi Min recently held talks with the authorities in Beijing during his week-long visit to the country.

But, are the Taiwanese mature enough not to attach a political tone to judicial cases? Only the election result of 2012 will tell!

(The writer Dr. Yukteshwar Kumar, is the Course Director of Chinese Stream at the University of Bath, UK. Email:

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