ad info

 web features
 magazine archive
 customer service
  east asia
  southeast asia
  south asia
  central asia

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

MARCH 31, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 12

Chris Stowers for Asiaweek
The Buck Stops Here

Chen: Pop Icon Piranha
The country charmer is one tough politician

Dr. Jekyll Chen, meet Mr. Hyde Shui-bian. Taiwan's president elect is a man with a split personality. On the one hand, Chen Shui-bian is a devoted husband who gives his paraplegic wife a massage every night, and a down-home populist who as Taipei city mayor dressed up as Superman to host rock concerts. On the other hand, he is a politician infamous for his arrogance who ruthlessly mows down opponents, making enemies and alienating friends. His supporters call Chen by his nickname "A-bian," a folksy moniker that harks back to his country-boy roots. His detractors call him "Siao Bian," a homonym for urine. Behind that double image is a man who in many ways mirrors modern Tai-wan, a diligent student and worker, not political in nature but guided by fate - and his iron-willed wife - to the pinnacle of his society.

Chen, 49, was born the eldest son of a poor sugar-plantation worker in a village near the city of Tainan in Taiwan's south. His father could hardly afford to send him to school, but made sure that A-bian had money for books and tuition. Serious and studious, Chen always graduated at the top of his class. As a junior studying law at the elite National Taiwan Univ-ersity in 1973, Chen become the youngest person to pass the bar exam - even before he graduated from law school. It was there that Chen met his future wife, Wu Shu-jen, whose father, a rich medical doctor, originally opposed their courtship. Over her father's objections, Chen and Wu married as soon as he found his first job at a maritime law firm.


COVER: Seismic Changes
Can president-elect Chen Shui-bian meet the historic challenges posed by a changing Taiwan - and by China?
The Challenge: Now comes the hard part
Reality Check: Beijing will have to deal with the new Taiwan
Profile: Chen's split personality

Editorial: Taiwan and China have reason aplenty to make peace
Editorial: Asia needs new policies to combat prostitution

South Asia: Clinton to India and Pakistan - Start Talking
'Limited War': Don't let the term fool you
Philippines: Sister Christine vs. Estrada - yet another scandal
Extended Interview: Salamat Hashim calls for independence
Myanmar: Behind the secret "Chilston" meetings
Inside Story: Asia's "Insiders" - four people who have blown the whistle on wrongdoing
Viewpoint: A Malaysian race for Islamization?

People: Sumo's big brother calls it quits
Heritage: The struggle to save Penang's old George Town
Art: Digital works blur the line between tech and expression
Books: Why healthcare was so bad in Suharto's Indonesia
Health: Noni - The craze over a smelly green fruit
Newsmakers: Thai "List of Shame" riles the privileged

Games: Microsoft's X-factor
Computing: IBM's Deep Blue man is now into e-commerce
Cutting Edge: An e-book horror story

Bankruptcy: The court-ordered restructuring of TPI suggests Thailand is coming to grips with deadbeat borrowers
Room to Improve: Inadequate laws in Indonesia and Korea
No Hype: Can Singapore's Pacific Internet regain investor favor?
Renong: The Malaysian conglomerate sells off key assets
Business Buzz: A deal to lift Singapore's spirits

Investing: How rising U.S. interest rates will affect Asia

Chen gained quick success as a lawyer and was soon earning a high income. At Wu's urging, he also be-gan serving during his spare time as a pro bono counsel for political dissidents. Wu had a flare for activism, while Chen at first was indifferent. But the 1979 Meilitao or Formosa Magazine incident changed him. Dissidents who published Meilitao were accused by the ruling Kuomintang of committing libel and inciting a riot in the city of Kaohsiung. Defending them, Chen lost the case but gained a political cause, and career. He first won a seat as a Taipei city councilor. He next ran for Tainan county commissioner and lost. Worse, he almost lost his wife, who was run over three times by a van allegedly driven by KMT-hired thugs. Wu survived but was paralyzed from the chest down. Chen was later jailed for libeling the Kuomintang, but Wu carried on his political cause, campaigning in her wheelchair and winning a Legislative Yuan seat. Once out of prison, Chen acted as his wife's office manager, joined the newly legalized Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and won Wu's legislative seat for himself in the 1989 polls. Then, in 1994, he became the first elected mayor of Taipei, the island's capital and largest city.

Mayor Chen gained popularity and respect for making the city administration more efficient and responsive. He also gained a reputation for arrogance and ab-rasiveness. "He's not a big schmoozer. That is part of what made him successful in Taipei," says Shelley Rigger, a Taiwan expert at Davidson College in North Car-olina. "He came in and lowered the boom on a lot of people, and he didn't let people off the hook just because they were friendly or nice. He looked for competent people and really grasped the reins of power in the city in a way that no other DPP executive has managed to do anywhere." Despite his success, Chen lost his re-election bid in 1998. But far from crushing him, the defeat tempered Chen and set him on course for the island's highest job.

As president, Chen is expected to reprise the pragmatism he showed as mayor, reaching across party lines - even into the KMT - for help in running Taiwan. "He doesn't quite have the international political vision that I would like to see," says American Linda Gail Arrigo, a personal friend and longtime Chen supporter, as well as ex-wife of former DPP chairman Shih Ming-teh. "But he's an excellent administrator. He can give people a vision and keep the pressure on them to do their jobs well." Chen's pragmatism - and the success it brought - is also helping pull the DPP away from its old Taiwan-independence line and has allowed him to cultivate support in the business establishment, long a KMT fiefdom.

For all his seriousness, much of Chen's appeal lies in his country-bumpkin image that has made him a pop icon among Taiwan's youth. Around the island, 27 stores sell "A-bian" hats, dolls, T-shirts, umbrellas, and other products emblazoned with Chen's smiling face and the "A-bian" brand. "He's now a social icon," says Joyce Lee, managing director of public relations firm Hill & Knowlton in Taiwan. In the A-bian Family store on Taipei's ritzy Tunhwa South Road, 16-year-old Beatrice Mih can't get enough of the president-elect. "I would vote for him if I could, but I'm not old enough," she says, holding an A-bian pencil set she picked off the shelf. (The goods are sold by a company set up by Chen friends and supporters. Chen and his family do not have stakes, and the firm plans to give any profits to charity.)

With Chen about to become president, A-bian T-shirts and dolls are likely to be around for a while. But their popularity - and the fate of Taiwan's 22 million citizens - depends on how well the poor boy from Tainan shoulders his new burden.

With additional reporting by Alejandro Reyes/Taipei

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home


Quick Scroll: More stories and related stories
Asiaweek Newsmap: Get the week's leading news stories, by region, from Newsmap


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

Launch CNN's Desktop Ticker and get the latest news, delivered right on your desktop!

Today on CNN

Back to the top   © 2000 Asiaweek. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.