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A devil of a job in the City of Angels

Spruced Up

overall rank: 5

country: Taiwan

population: 2,631,230

snapshot: The City at a Glance

Like him or not, Chen Shui-bian has made his mark. In 1994, he became the first oppositionist to take over as mayor of Taipei, long regarded as a stepping stone to the top of the ruling Kuomintang and the presidency of Taiwan. Chen is said to be angling for the job eventually, but for now he is battling to get re-elected.

If his KMT challenger, the equally charismatic Ma Ying-jeou, wins the Dec. 5 polls, it won't be because Chen didn't deliver on promises he made four years ago when he vowed to change the way municipal officials did business, enhancing accountability and cutting away the red tape. He did. Where frustrated residents used to queue for hours to see haughty bureaucrats, now they are served tea in comfortable waiting rooms. Chen also made a habit of dropping into district offices to listen directly to citizens' complaints. He eased traffic problems by introducing bus-only lanes, constructing new highways and getting city police to strictly enforce the rules of the road. In polls, 80% of Taipei people credit the mayor for significantly improving the once-hopeless situation. "A-bian," his childhood nickname, also turned his attention to the garbage that used to accumulate at intersections. His solution: a ban on depositing trash on the streets. Instead, residents must wait for dump trucks - armed with loudspeakers playing a digital ditty to alert households - before disposing of their rubbish.

Chen has also battled to clean up the seamy side of this sprawling city of 2.6 million. He closed down thousands of video-game parlors and hundreds of saunas and nightclubs which he alleged were doubling as prostitution dens. The mayor had the power and water supply to brothels cut off to vocal protests from prostitutes and karaoke bar hostesses.

His crusading can seem abrasive. Once, after inspecting the men's lavatory at a new rapid transit railway station, he advised users to "take better aim." But that's the sort of style with substance that has lifted Taipei's ranking from 10th to 5th place this year. "Taipei is the first city government in Asia to get ISO 9002 service quality certification," boasts Luo Wen-jia, a former city spokesman. Chen's achievement is all the more remarkable because he has had to deal with a hostile city council controlled by the KMT and New Party opponents. He says: "Whenever we tried to get money from the council, there have been difficulties." Chen got around the roadblocks by coaxing the private sector to help finance city development works.

Critics accuse him of being autocratic, hard-headed and a shameless self-promoter (he has appeared in public dressed as Superman). Some say he paid too much attention to infrastructure and too little to improving the environment. Shan Hsiao-lin, an ex-aide, recently alleged that Chen's administration is rife with corruption. However the voters decide, Taipei should easily win the most-improved city award. Under Chen's stewardship, the city's cleaner roads and smoother traffic are a testament to what responsive and competent municipal management can do.

- By Laurence Eyton

Snapshot: The City at a glance

City AverageRank
Overall Score69525
Average Income US$15,1658,7638
State Educational Spending Per Cap/$660.94200.223
a Ratio of House Price to Income22.82428
Hospital Beds per 1,0008.267
Dust/Suspended Particles(ug/m3)62.1240.7310
Vehicles per KM City Roads1037224.6240
Criminal Cases per 10,00067.68125
TV Sets per 1,000388241.695

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a = Average house price divided by average annual income.
b = Household income.
c = Based on household income.
d = Officially, land cannot be bought or sold.
e = National figure.
f = U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Pollutants Standards Index.
g = Air Pollutant Index.
h = Per 100 families
i = Per 1,000 families
j = Per 75,000 people.
k = National figure, TV sets per 1,000 people.
m = % of households with TV sets.
n = Measured in Parts per Million (ppm).
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