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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


After a year in power, a once-invincible Lee Teng-hui is very unpopular. Is this fair?

By Robin Ajello and Laurence Eyton / Taipei

Go to Yeh Chin-fong profile

Go to list of five politicians to watch

A YEAR AGO, THE EXPECTATIONS were bordering on delusive. The people of Taiwan had just elected Lee Teng-hui as president, and they just could not get enough of his outsize smile and superhuman powers. If he couldn't leap tall buildings in a single bound, well, he could sure irritate those guys in Beijing. His tee-offs with the leaders of the Free World were legendary, as were his exploits of checkbook diplomacy. As the dragon across the Taiwan Strait hissed and roared, he stood firm, resolute. And the voters rewarded his pluck, giving Lee's Kuomintang a landslide victory, even as mainland missiles plopped harmlessly offshore. The Taiwan president became an instant media darling, and periodicals the world over sang the refrain: "He's the first elected Chinese leader in 5,000 years. Hooray!"

Last week Lee, 74, marked his one-year anniversary -- and no one was cheering. Originally he had planned to celebrate with a grand gesture of public service: a return to his northern hometown of Sanchih, where he would humbly sweep the streets. Instead Lee visited a retirement home and rode the new mass transit railway. Not a day for champagne. Rather than basking in the adoration of his public, Lee was coming to grips with a new wrinkle in his career -- unpopularity. That was manifested yet again as thousands of people poured into the streets to protest what they consider a decline of law and order.

"During the election Lee projected himself as a superman, single-handedly knocking China's missiles out of the sky," says Democratic Progressive Party legislator Shen Fu-hsiung. "Then at his inauguration, he said there would be a big shake-up that would transform society in six months. People took him at his word. Now they feel cheated." Academic Joseph Wu is blunter yet: "Lee's year has been a failure."

Is Lee to blame? Or is he a victim of unrealistic expectations (partly of his own making) and a political system that, apart from elections, has retained a large helping of its sleazy and undemocratic flavor? Indeed, amid all the hype and hoopla surrounding Lee's triumphant victory, a lot of people overlooked some unpalatable truths that were bound to emerge once the dust had settled. First and foremost is the fact that the KMT remains in the grip of gangsters, who do not always put the public good ahead of their own interests. Progressive agendas just don't sit well with these characters. Second, despite Lee's brave defiance of Beijing's missile diplomacy, everyone knows the People's Republic holds most of the cards -- especially now that it is wielding the investment carrot. Moreover, there was no way Beijing would sit back and watch Lee continue to win friends and influence people around the globe. With Lee taking hits on everything from the economy and crime to foreign relations and cross-strait ties, it is instructive to measure his performance against the yardstick of harsh reality.

One of the worst pieces of news was one that Lee probably could have done little about. Late last year South Africa, by far the most important nation to recognize Taiwan, said it would switch to Beijing next January. Since then, lesser countries have made similar noises. "Let's face it," says Kao Yu-jen, a legislator from Lee's KMT party. "We keep losing our allies, there is no chance of joining the U.N., and even getting equitable treatment at APEC seems out of the question." In short, another win for the biggest market on Earth.

Even when Lee tried to get his own people to reduce Beijing's clout in their own country he was rebuffed. After suggesting limits on investment across the Strait, his economic minister rushed home from an overseas trip to reassure investors that the president's remarks were advisory. Lee was concerned about Taiwan's increasing economic reliance on the mainland, but he was up against his own cabinet and Big Business. "These politicians are totally economically illiterate," blasts an aide to a prominent industrialist. "They don't understand the first thing about how investment works." Such frustration is typical of Taiwan entrepreneurs, who want the 48-year ban on direct transportation, commerce and communication lifted. Nor is Lee's case helped when the cornerstone of his government's development strategy is to become an Asia-Pacific business hub; without direct links this is a dream.

Relatively good news on the economic front did not help, either. Though the recession bottomed out at the end of 1996 and the economy is growing at over 6%, this has yet to trickle down to ordinary folk and translate into the so-called feel-good factor. And then there were unwise promises. Following the election, Premier Lien Chan vowed to boost Taiwan into the world's top-five most competitive nations. Hence the considerable embarrassment when the august Institute of Management and Development lowered Taiwan five spots in its annual ranking, from No. 18 to 23. "The real sting of the report," says DPP legislator Shen, "was that it was precisely in those areas in which the government plays more of a role that we scored unusually badly."

One of the criticisms most often hurled at Lee is that he is out of touch with the aspirations of ordinary people -- hardly an unusual charge for a politician. His proposed constitutional reforms, for instance, have drawn fire because they would give the president more powers. Voters want Lee to focus on crime and graft instead. The KMT's Kao Yu-jen speaks for many when he says: "With rising crime, corruption everywhere and a sluggish economy, constitutional change is peripheral to the real issues."

And yet in some quarters the president's proposals are seen as an oblique way of removing opportunities to collect bribes. On the face of it, the reforms seem decidely undemocratic. They include scrapping the Taiwan provincial government and making leaders below the county level appointed rather than elected.

But DPP legislator Lin Chung-cheng sees it differently. "People don't seem to understand that the reforms are a massive attack on the conditions that breed money politics," he says. "By taking away elections at the city mayor and township chief level you remove these positions from the control of the local factions and many of the gangsters who control and milk them." Wu says there are two ways to fight corruption: by creating draconian laws that infringe civil liberties or by destroying the system that nourishes graft. Nonetheless, such changes do not find universal favor. New Party legislator Hau Lung-bin wonders "how you can call it democratic change to abolish elections."

Nothing, though, has hurt Lee's credibility more than the perception that violent crime is increasing and the government is doing little to stop it. The president certainly miscalculated the depth of public feeling. To begin with he tried to dismiss the popular discontent as mischief-making by the opposition when clearly these were heartfelt demonstrations of people power. Lee made things worse when he let slip that foreign relations were more important than the murder of TV star Pai Ping-ping's daughter, Hsiao-yen. It was her brutal slaying, coming as it did after other murders, that sparked the rallies in the first place. "Lee has become aloof," says DPP legislator Parris Chang. "We do not want an imperial presidency. We want a president on the same wavelength as the people."

To be fair, the Lee administration inherited a police force woefully unprepared to fight crime. The Pai case illustrated the cops' lack of professionalism. News of the crime was leaked to the press. Though the criminals drove into an armed trap, poor coordination allowed them to flee, while unsecured radio communications enabled them to stay one step ahead of the manhunt. When Pai's body was found, reporters trampled the crime scene. Part of the problem is that police were trained for martial-law activities. Lee has blasted the force for not adapting to new realties. But DPP leaders say two-thirds of the police budget goes to units of the peace preservation corp. Their duties include protecting officials and state property, riot control and smuggling prevention. If the government was serious about law and order, says the opposition, it would put money toward fighting crimes against ordinary citizens.

Having returned Lee to power last year with a sweeping mandate for reform, Taiwan's voters are now demanding he apologize for letting the island slip into what they see as lawless, badly governed chaos. Even Lee's party members are disappointed by the administration's performance. Yet perhaps this was inevitable -- given what and who Lee has to work with.

Academic Joseph Wu says no one has frustrated Lee's program more than his ministers, apart from a few notable exceptions. "Cabinet members do not innovate," he says. "They wait to be told what to do, and their golden rule is, when in doubt do nothing." Wu cites the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease that almost wrecked the pork industry. "It is typical of the way things work in Taiwan that an effort was made only after the disease broke out, and the agriculture chief could say he was not responsible since he was never told to be prepared." Even Lee's political foes in the DPP are sympathetic; they understand what he is up against and applaud his efforts to purge the KMT of authoritarian elements and keep Taiwan on the world stage. Lee can only wish that the voters would be so understanding.


The Economy

The recession is over and the high-tech sector continues to thrive, but other manufacturing is rapidly moving offshore. The government wants to turn the island into a regional economic hub but this is unlikely without direct links to the biggest market of all -- China.

Foreign Relations

Taiwan continues its checkbook diplomacy in Africa and Central America -- with uneven results -- but more and more nations find the lure of China's markets more attractive than supporting an Asian democracy.

Cross-strait Relations

The two sides have not talked in two years. Nor, says Beijing, will they do so until Taiwan accepts that it is a province of the People's Republic. Good luck. The current chill is unlikely to end anytime soon.

Domestic Affairs

The No. 1 issue is law and order. The police force is under-funded, under-trained and undisciplined. The ties between gangsters and politicians can only be broken with draconian measures against vote-buying, but the ruling KMT probably could not win an election without loading the dice.

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This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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