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Thu, Mar 16, 2000 - Page 9 News List

Made in Taiwan

DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian is not known for an affable, but he reflects the drive and tenacity that has brought the nation to where it stands today

By Laurence Eyton  /  DEPUTY MANAGING EDITOR OF TAIPEI TIMES

IT is ironic that the life of Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) who, should he lose Saturday, will nevertheless have come closer than anybody ever has to terminating the KMT's rule in Taiwan, is in itself almost a metaphor for the progress that the island has made in the past 50 years.

Chen, like post-war Taiwan itself, was born into grinding poverty. Though a mixture of iron determination and intensely hard work, he got a good education, built a career, achieved financial prosperity, and then experienced a political awakening, demanding a fairer share of the pie.

This is a path well-trodden, especially in post-war Asian and African anti-colonial "liberation" movements, and some might think it is Chen's misfortune to be born in the wrong place two generations too late.

The road to wealth

Chen was born in 1951 in Hsichaung, a village in Tainan County. His parents were extremely poor, neither owning nor able to rent any land. His father was an agricultural day laborer, his mother was an illiterate odd-job worker. They lived in a mud-walled house nearly barren of furniture. His name reflects these humble origins -- "shui bian" refers to the shoulder-borne pole used to carry buckets of water. Chen would often go to school without lunch. At home he had no desk, not even writing paper and had to practice writing by drawing on walls.

Chen's own intelligence and powers of application provided him with his ticket out of this background. His educational achievements were simply outstanding. He was not only first in his class but first in the country in graduating from primary school -- and also when he took the Joint College Entrance Exam for university. His raw intelligence propelled him out of the straight jacket of a KMT-written China-centered curriculum, along with a number of remarkable teachers sympathetic to the Taiwan independence goals of Peng Ming-min (彭明敏).

Chen Shui-bian at a glance

1951: Born in Hsichuang village, Tainan County

1967: Injustices in a local election for a village mayor lead Chen to make his first anti-KMT speech at a temple fair

1969: Scores highest among all students in Taiwan on the Joint College Entrance Exam; moves to Taipei and enters National Taiwan University

1975: Graduates from NTU as an outstanding performance award winner of his year

1975: Marries Wu Shu-jen, despite her father's disapproval.

1976: Joins Formosa International Marine and Commercial Law, speedily becoming a leading authority on maritime law issues. Within five years, he is one of the highest paid lawyers in Taiwan

1980: Asked to represent Huang Hsin-chieh and Chen Chu at the trial of the Kaohsiung eight. When Chen himself cannot decide, his wife pushes him into accepting the brief. Chen's political epiphany

1981: Decides to enter politics, runs for the Taipei City Council and wins a seat as a "tang wai" candidate

1985: Runs for election as Tainan County Commissioner, but is defeated. At a post-election rally, his wife is run over by a small truck three times, leaving her paralyzed from the chest down

1986: Jailed for 8 months and fined NT$2 million as the result of a politically motivated libel suit. Wu Shu-jen is elected to the Legislative Yuan

1987: Joins the DPP on the anniversary of the 228 Incident, becomes member of the central standing committee.

1989-1994: Elected as national legislator

1994: Becomes first popularly elected mayor of Taipei and the highest-ever ranking elected DPP official

1998: Loses reelection bid to the KMT's Ma Ying-jeou.


Chen's first political action was, while a high-school student, to speak out at a temple fair against the KMT's attempt to defame a local mayor in order to replace him with a more compliant candidate from outside. Yet this perhaps showed a concern for justice rather than any incipient political radicalism. Chen's political career was still over a decade away from beginning.

Chen graduated from National Taiwan University in 1975, as usual winning an award for outstanding performance. The next year he married Wu Shu-jen (吳淑珍), daughter of a wealthy medical family, against her family's wishes. The story of their romance and elopement -- of the vivacious, witty, rich girl and the academically brilliant, intensely serious day laborer's son -- has become a modern folk tale throughout Taiwan.

Chen soon joined the Formosan International Marine and Commercial Law firm, where he remained in various capacities until 1989 -- with some shipping clients such as Evergreen continuing to retain him throughout his politically dangerous years. Tenacity, natural ability and mastery of the law propelled Chen rapidly to the heights of his profession, rapidly becoming wealthy as one of the highest-paid lawyers in the country.

Political awakening

The Kaohsiung Incident on Dec. 10, 1979, was to prove a watershed for Chen, though he little knew it at the time. The editorial board of Formosa magazine, a publication advocating independence and democracy, attempted to hold a meeting in Kaohsiung on International Human Rights day. A riot broke out -- which is widely believed to have been started by thugs in the pay off the KMT -- as a result of which the protest leaders were arrested and tried in a military court for sedition. Chen was asked to defend two of the protesters, Huang Hsin-chieh (黃信介) and Chen Chu (陳菊. The trial was a political hot potato, added to which Chen was a maritime lawyer with no trial experience. In two minds about whether to accept the brief, he was pushed into it by his wife who told him by phone, "What is the point of being an attorney if you turn down such a case?"

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