Wednesday, November 12, 2008 11:51 PM By Melinda Liu
China has denied that it put pressure on Taiwan to arrest former President Chen Shui-bian, who's been arrested, accused of embezzlement, money laundering, taking bribes, and forging documents while in office. Chen, a long time opponent of reunification with Beijing, accused his successor Ma Ying-jeou of ordering his detention to curry favour with mainland China’s leaders. He has yet to be charged, but may be held for up to four months while prosecutors prepare their case against him. As Newsweek’s Duncan Hewitt writes, the case highlights growing political rifts in Taiwan over relations with China:
The detention of Chen Shui-bian on corruption charges, coming so soon after new president Ma Ying-jeou signed accords authorizing historic direct shipping links with mainland China, could be seen as yet another victory for Mr Ma and his Kuomintang party (KMT), as they seek to consolidate power after eight years in opposition. But in practice, Mr Chen’s detention is likely to highlight political tensions which have growing in Taiwan since President Ma’s accession in May this year.
Hopes that Mr Ma, a Harvard-educated lawyer seen as relatively moderate, would bring consensus to a society long fragmented over attitudes towards reunification with the mainland, have been shattered. Polls have shown his popularity plunging from some 60% to around 23% in late October. There is undoubtedly much public anger in Taiwan towards Chen Shui-bian, who has admitted breaking the law by not fully disclosing campaign donations -- but the arrests of seven other figures associated with his Democratic Progressive Party, also in connection with corruption allegations, over the past few months, have led to fears being raised about the independence of Taiwan’s judiciary under the new leadership.
Such warnings have not just come from traditional DPP supporters. Last week, before Mr Chen’s arrest, twenty prominent international Asia specialists, including Professors Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania, Bruce Jacobs of Monash University and June Teufel Dreyer of the University of Miami, along with former Far Eastern Economic Review Taipei correspondent Julian Baum, issued an unprecedented open letter expressing “deep concern” at the behaviour of Taiwanese prosecutors. “It is obvious that there have been cases of corruption in Taiwan,” they wrote, “but these have occurred in both political camps.” The recent detentions, they said, had created an impression that the KMT authorities “are using the judicial system to get even with members of the former DPP government.” They accused prosecutors of “a basic violation of due process, justice and the rule of law,” by holding several detainees incommunicado without being charged, and of “trial by press” by leaking detrimental information to the media. They suggested that such actions were jeopardizing the achievements of Taiwan’s transition from one party rule (by the KMT) to democracy in the late 1980s and early 90s.
Allegations of a regression to past authoritarianism also surfaced last week, when China’s top negotiator, Chen Yunlin, visited Taiwan to sign the historic accords allowing direct air, postal and shipping links between Taiwan and the mainland. There is actually a fairly broad consensus of support in Taiwan for the opening of such links – indeed most of the details of the accords were negotiated when Chen Shui-bian and the DPP were still in power. But final agreement could not be reached back then because Mr Chen would not accept China’s demand that he must first accept Beijing’s “One China” concept (which basically means accepting that Taiwan is part of China and the two sides will one day be reunified, even if they differ on the exact means to achieve this.)
But President Ma’s approach to the visit of Chen Yunlin, the most senior mainland official to visit Taiwan for six decades, seemed calculated to upset his opponents. Critics accused him of bending over backwards to “give face” to the mainland delegation: the official flag of Taiwan, which Beijing does not recognise, was not flown at the presidential palace when Mr Chen visited; the President was addressed by the mainland delegation as plain Mr Ma, since Beijing does not recognise his presidential status. Equally controversially, would-be protesters were refused permission to stage demonstrations against Mr Chen’s visit.
Such refusals are rare in Taiwan’s democratic era – and when protesters did try to demonstrate anyway, they were met with police beatings that left over 100 people injured and shocked many who thought Taiwanese society had turned its back on such brutality. “People were very upset,” says Frank Muyard, Director of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China in Taipei. “For the police to use force against peaceful protesters is something which hasn’t been seen in Taiwan for perhaps 16 years, since before [former President] Lee Teng-hui took full power during the transition to democracy.”
Public anger spilled over, leading to chaotic scenes when Chen Yunlin was prevented from leaving his hotel for hours by furious demonstrators. Students and academics seeking to protest peacefully at the government’s handling of the affair were also dispersed by police, leading to an open letter by 500 academics calling for the right to free speech to be protected, and for a probe into police violence. The English-language Taipei Times newspaper, while criticising leaders of the opposition DPP for not discussing plans for Chen Yunlin’s visit with the government in advance, accused Ma and the KMT of ‘reverting to time-dishonored tactics reminiscent of the Martial Law era.”
“Deploying 7,000 police officers over a four-day period and restricting the public’s freedom of movement were a recipe for disaster,” it said in an editorial, adding that Mr Ma “either misjudged public opinion, showing how ineffective he is as the nation’s top decision-maker, or he didn’t care about the political ramifications of his actions — at least not in Taiwan.”
Critics accused him of grandstanding by turning Chen Yunlin’s visit into such a big event – when the accords could have been signed with much less fanfare and public fallout – and of alienating anyone with doubts about closer ties with the Chinese mainland. This was highlighted on Tuesday when an 80-year \-old man, claiming to be a long-standing KMT member, set himself on fire in central Taipei, in protest at what he said was excessive police brutality against marchers carrying Taiwan’s official flag during Mr Chen’s visit; he was taken to hospital with third degree burns over 80% of his body.
These events have left a society long used to fragmentation - where most academics, analysts and media organisations are on one side or the other of the political divide – still reeling at the increase in political tension under President Ma: “Chen Shui-bian was a very divisive figure,” says Frank Muyard of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China. “People hoped Ma would be more conciliatory – they saw him as a gentle, well-educated, nice person who would help Taiwan come together and do something for reconciliation. But he hasn’t done that. Now many people see him as partisan, too eager to please China – they don’t trust him to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty.”
For the mainland government, which has reported the opening of cross-strait links with great fanfare as a ‘win-win’ situation for both sides, there’s a clear degree of satisfaction in seeing Chen Shui-bian under arrest. Beijing despised him for his background in Taiwan’s pro-independence movement of the 1970s and 80s. “Chen Shui-bian in handcuffs” was the banner headline in the popular nationalist tabloid newspaper the Global Times on Wednesday. And for months China’s state-run media has revelled in reporting every detail of the various allegations of corruption against Mr Chen, his wife and associates (in marked contrast to the minimal amount of detail it gave in the corruption case of another Chen, former Communist Party Secretary of Shanghai Chen Liangyu, who was jailed for eighteen years in April.)
Ma Ying-jeou’s popularity with China’s leaders, on the other hand, is clearly at an all-time high: as well as agreeing to direct links and the One China principle, he has also relaxed restrictions which prevented Taiwanese companies from investing more than 40% of their assets in the mainland, further boosting economic ties. Yet recent events suggest his actions may also risk provoking a deeper anti-mainland backlash, at the very moment when physical links between the two sides of the Taiwan Straits have become closer than ever.