Former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) detention last week dominated the nation’s headlines, but it also attracted the attention of many international news outlets.
In a culture where “face” is everything, some commentators say TV footage of a defiant, manacled Chen shouting “political persecution” while being bundled into a waiting car or footage of him lying motionless on a hospital gurney following a week-long hunger strike have blemished Taiwan’s international image.
Some pundits, however, argue that the news could be a plus because the fact that Taiwan’s legal system is able to investigate a former leader for abuse of power during his presidency is a sign of the country’s democratic sophistication.
Type in “Taiwan” on a Google News search and close to 2,000 entries on Chen’s detention are readily available, ranging from news outlets like al-Jazeera to Radio Netherlands. On the day of his arrest, CNN not only broadcast the news repeatedly, but also treated Chen’s detention as breaking news with a running headline at the bottom of the screen.
One Bloomberg headline read, “Taiwan detains Chen on suspicion of money laundering.”
The British Guardian used “Former Taiwanese president arrested over corruption allegations,” while Malaysia’s the Star wrote, “Taiwan’s ex-president arrested in graft probe.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs acting spokesman James Chang (章計平) said on Tuesday: “Taiwan’s rule of law and human rights have won the approval of the world. The world will continue to trust Taiwan’s legal system to deliver a fair and impartial trial.”
Alexander Huang (黃介正), a political science professor at Tamkang University, said some voices in Washington political circles view Chen’s detention as a sign of Taiwan’s maturing democracy and that the nation’s judiciary is independent enough to prosecute a former leader.
Others expressed concern with the legitimacy of the legal process, especially on the appropriateness of putting Chen in handcuffs when he has not been formally charged of any crime, Huang said.
“Personally, I don’t think it’s a good thing for Taiwan. Chen was detained on corruption charges. I hate to be asked by my foreign friends [about the] corruption we have in Taiwan because that’s what they see and hear,” he said.
Soochow University professor and political commentator Luo Chih-cheng (羅致政) said both the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) are responsible for upholding Taiwan’s international image.
“There are two images that are involved here. One is an image of rampant corruption in Taiwan so that even the highest leaders are tainted. The DPP should be held accountable for that image because the alleged corruption took place during its administration,” he said.
However, the KMT has the crucial mandate of presenting to the world an image that Taiwan’s judicial system is neutral and fair.
“The world is monitoring the situation very closely,” Luo said, adding that Chen’s detention prompted the US State Department to publicly comment that it expects Taiwan’s legal system to adapt a “transparent, fair and impartial” approach on this case.
Luo said although Taiwan’s international image has been somewhat marred, the government could try to reverse the damage by acknowledging and acting on public demands in the prosecution process.
“But we shouldn’t kid ourselves by saying that Chen’s case can be seen as Taiwan’s democratic advancement. There have been several presidents in South Korea who were indicted for corruption and the international community has never equated those cases with a sign of democracy,” he said.
Putting Chen, who is so far only a suspect, into detention before he had his day in court was a setback for Taiwan’s hard-won democracy both in reality and in the perception of the international community, Taiwan Association for Human Rights secretary-general Tsai Chi-hsun (蔡季勳) said.
“The world will undoubtedly ask if it is really necessary to strip someone of their freedom just for being suspected of wrongdoing before he had a chance for a fair trial,” she said.
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