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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

Moving to the Hot Seat

The hard tasks range from politics to crime


YEH CHIN-FONG HAS BEEN a public servant for most of her working life. She has held high-level positions -- such as Supreme Court judge and vice chair of the Mainland Affairs Council -- but the Kuomintang veteran has always maintained a low profile. Say goodbye to all that. When Yeh, 54, was appointed interior minister May 16, she stepped onto the center stage of Taiwan politics. And within days she discovered that it gets a bit uncomfortable under the spotlight.

During her first, 90-minute, meeting with Taiwan's combative legislators, opposition party members grilled Yeh, the island's first woman interior minister, on how she would fight violent crime -- particularly crime against women. Yeh, by her own admission, had little time to get ready for her new position before she was sworn in. When she could not provide detailed answers, the session turned nasty. "You should learn more about your job," an opposition legislator scolded.

In another time, women's rights activists might have applauded Yeh's appointment. Today they are among her harshest critics. Says Lee Yuan-chan of the Awakening Foundation, a prominent women's organization: "She doesn't understand women's issues."

True, Yeh has not been in the forefront of the women's movement. But she has not been unaware of women's concerns. Yeh served as deputy director general of the KMT's Women's Affairs Department, and she helped push through a 1994 revision to property laws which strengthen the rights of married women. Yeh may not have ever carried the kind of responsibility she does now, but she has been in tough situations before. Former MAC colleague Chang Shui-ti says Yeh is a shrewd negotiator who oversaw a series of strained talks with China about fishing disputes and repatriation of illegal immigrants.

Diligence and party loyalty eased Yeh's rise through the KMT ranks. The minister is known to have the trust and support of Lee Teng-hui. Yeh was vice manager of his 1996 election campaign. She is considered one of the "king's men." That, indeed, may have been one of her most important qualifications for the sensitive post of interior minister.

Outside the office, Yeh is unassuming. During weekends at home in central Taiwan's Changhwa county, Yeh dons the plain, loose-fitting clothing of an obisan, or middle-aged housewife. She pedals a bicycle to shop for her husband, a doctor.

Yeh has promised to increase the budget for the new Sexual Harassment Prevention Center and to push through a bill reserving 25% of district chief positions for women. Yeh is also under pressure to redirect money and manpower from the National Guard to the regular police force -- more difficult to do. But the best way to prove herself to Taiwan's frustrated public may remain out of reach: catching the killers responsible for some of the sensational murders that have shaken the island.

-- By Susan Berfield and Laurie Underwood / Taipei

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