Sat, Nov 11, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: With friends like Lee Yuan-tseh

For those present it was a memorable night. On March 17, 2000, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was holding its election-eve rally in support of its presidential candidate Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and vice presidential candidate Annette Lu (呂秀蓮).

The location was the Zhongshan Soccer Stadium in Taipei. Behind the stage was a stand full of the party faithful and representatives of civic organizations. One by one, these groups ran on stage to pump up the crowd, witnessed by a VIP group at the front that included foreign media and academics.

A number of celebrities took the stage, carefully chosen for their appeal across the ethnic divide. Yang Chuan-kuang (楊傳廣), the famed silver medalist at the Rome Olympics and Aboriginal icon, spoke to a crowd not accustomed to indigenous support for the DPP. Hsiao Yeh (小野), the beloved children's author and a Mainlander, talked of the need to defy ethnic categorization in politics.

As interminable as election rallies can be, this one was something special, and a surprise had been promised to finish the night.

That surprise was a video endorsement by Academia Sinica president Lee Yuan-tseh (李遠哲), a Nobel laureate and the nation's pre-eminent scientist. He had been courted for months by presidential candidates for his support, but in the end he backed Chen, hoping that a DPP government could crack down on the Chinese Nationalist Party's (KMT) money politics.

The choice was hardly difficult. Of Chen's two main opponents, one was a man who in most countries would already have found himself in jail; the other was a man who in most countries would be denounced as unfit for high office, if not as a traitor.

Even so, Lee's support seemed to lend Chen a last boost in credibility -- 12 hours before voting stations opened. Lee's injection into the campaign has since been mythologized as significant, if not decisive.

In retrospect it is unclear that Lee's support affected the result, as close as it was. But Lee's reputation was enhanced -- not so much as a kingmaker as a person of wisdom who had the needs of the average Taiwanese in mind as much as those of the ruling elite or the academic world.

His role in the Chen administration therefore became more influential as he attempted to ease cross-strait tensions and push for other reforms.

Six-and-a-half years later and the cycle of support and abandonment is complete. Lee, no longer head of Academia Sinica, has urged Chen to resign over the scandals besetting the Presidential Office.

For Chen, though painful, Lee's appeal is merely one of a series of personal blows and can therefore be placed in some sort of perspective.

But Chen's constitutional position remains unchanged, and assuming he survives the third recall motion, his decision to stay or step down should be made with the interests of the nation in mind, not the degree of regard in which he is held by a scientist, even one as venerable as Lee.

Lee's currency as a moral arbiter has also been compromised -- not by any error of commission on his part, but by the fact that his political agenda was never more than half-fulfilled, notably the naive assumption that goodwill toward Beijing would have any meaningful effect.

There is something rather tragic about the Chen-Lee relationship. Chen has been stained by serving his politically fractured country, while Lee's reputation -- for most people -- has only been enhanced. It is hoped that Lee, as he attends his overseas conference with his comfortable scientist's aura, will understand this, and especially that he only ever gained from his association with the president.

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