Although independent presidential candidate James Soong's (
First, how has this servant of an authoritarian regime reinvented himself as a populist politician of Bill Clinton's ilk? The financial scandal the KMT unleashed on him at the end of last year would have felled almost any politician. Yet Soong is almost single-handedly keeping himself in the race.
Soong is not old (he turns 58 tomorrow), and he could have had either the vice presidency or the premiership for the asking. What made him decide to break away from the party that had raised him, rather than wait for the presidency?
A most diligent student
Few clues emerge from Soong's early years. His father, Soong Ta (
Although Soong's early childhood was dislocated by the wars in China, his father's status protected him from the serious deprivation experienced by the foot soldiers of the bedraggled KMT -- even though General Soong apparently ran a Spartan household.
Surprisingly, the younger Soong's classmates remember him as a taciturn boy, who stayed out of most of the usual social activities all the way through his days at National Chengchi University. Instead, he kept his head buried in his books -- but still only received middling marks. No matter: as his father's first son, Soong was marked out for success. And by choosing to study diplomacy, Soong had apparently chosen his path. He took the field seriously: he is well remembered for insisting on wearing business suits every day (he was said to have 101 suits), in a concerted effort to "look the part" of a diplomat.
The first important break in Soong's life came when he left university and decided to study abroad. At the University of California at Berkeley, he was easily distinguished from the other students from Taiwan, since he was the only one who didn't study engineering or hard sciences, but instead chose political science. Also at Berkeley, he met, courted and married Viola Chen (
A loyal defender of CCK
Soong's political career began in earnest toward the end of his doctoral studies. Frederick Chien (
Soong burst into the public view on December 16, 1978, when the Carter administration suddenly announced it was switching US diplomatic recognition to the PRC. As the story is now told, only Soong dared to wake up CCK with the news, and, far from being punished for his temerity, he was allowed to make the public announcement.
When this, at the time, rather dashing young man took to the airwaves with a ringing defense of the honor of the ROC and a denunciation of the perfidy of the US, he became an instant celebrity. CCK further rewarded this performance by eventually promoting him to Director-General of the GIO, making Soong the youngest ever to have held the post.
At that time, Taiwan was in a ferment. The "tang wai" opposition movement had organized itself more cohesively than ever before to contest the supplementary legislative elections that were to have been held the following week. CCK's decision to cancel the elections, citing the break in relations with the US, soured the public mood. As government spokesman, Soong became the public face of the repression of the opposition movement. After the Kaohsiung Incident of December 10, 1979, he famously characterized leading dissident Shih Ming-teh (
Soong was also in charge of press censorship, a task he carried out with what is now seen as unseemly relish. During his tenure, he had opposition magazines shut down hundreds of times. In one especially notorious incident, he revoked the license of Associated Press correspondent Tina Chou (
Moving to the KMT's cultural affairs bureau, Soong continued to be active in the party's control of the press. He was instrumental in deflecting attention from CCK's son, Chiang Hsiao-wu (
He was also an architect of the new strategy for handling the press through the use of libel suits. In a leaked internal document, Soong argued, "In the elimination of dissent and the control of culture, the root causes as well as the symptoms must be cured." He described the case of Professor Elmer Feng (
Soong's personal service under CCK, which continued concurrently with his other duties, provided the greatest possible education in the arts of palace politics. He was able to observe nearly every important figure in Taiwan, not only first-hand, but at their weakest moment, as they came before the paramount leader.
As CCK's agent and messenger, Soong gained intimate knowledge of the workings of the sprawling party-state, as he moved throughout the power structure on behalf of his patron. However, he had little opportunity to develop true friendships with his peers, since he was assumed to be representing CCK at all time, and this situation suited the paranoid CCK perfectly. A symptom of Soong's isolation was his solitary pre-dawn golf practice.
However, those who also served CCK during these years formed the nucleus of what later became Soong's clique. None of the other second-generation KMT figures dared to form such tight-knit bands of personally loyal followers, traditionally seen as a mark of dangerous ambition. But Soong carried it off and used his "gang" to great advantage. For the legendary visits as governor to all the towns and villages of Taiwan, Hsia Lung (
Another skill that Soong cultivated from the beginning was the art of empathy. His capacity in this regard is legendary. Even his foes frequently comment that, "when he talks to you, he makes you feel that you are the only person in the world." In addition to very careful preparation -- he researches every person he meets -- he looks into your eyes, he talks only about you, he "feels your pain."
This tendency explains his preference for individual or small-group meetings over large gatherings or public speeches, even as an election strategy. Soong measures his progress not by how many speeches he has given, but by how many hands he has shaken, how many people he has personally connected with.
Soong has also used this ability to defuse the fallout from controversial actions. For example, he habitually invited for dinner the editors or the producers of magazines or Hokkien television programs he had banned. Out of the public eye, he would turn on the charm, assuring his victims that his decision was "nothing personal."
Switch to Lee
When CCK passed away in 1988, Soong moved quickly and adroitly to align himself with Vice President Lee Teng-hui (
An emergency meeting of the KMT's central standing committee was called the day after the funeral, when the "Palace Faction" maneuvered to delay the elevation of Lee to the party chairmanship. Suddenly, Soong stood up and shocked the assembled notables by making an impassioned plea that Lee be handed the chairmanship forthwith.
"Each day of delay is a day of disrespect to Mr. Ching-kuo," he declared, and stormed out of the room. Since no one wanted to be identified as being against CCK, the resolution passed unanimously.
Naturally, the appearance of support from an unforeseen corner immediately endeared Soong to Lee. Furthermore, Soong's workaholic habits impressed Lee. The fact that Soong was only one of the very few mainlanders that Lee trusted increased his special status. Soong's finely honed skills at appealing to older men no doubt helped smoothly develop the relationship.
Lee promptly moved to promote Soong to the party's secretary-general post, and then to Provincial Governor, succeeding Lien.
After his initial contribution to Lee's assumption of power, Soong made himself useful to its consolidation in innumerable ways. Cashing in on his -- and his father's -- relationship with CCK, he made the rounds of the "old thieves" -- those delegates to the Legislative Yuan and National Assembly who had been elected in China before 1949 -- to ask them to accept the generous severance packages the KMT had offered and step down. Although he was vilified by some of the old guard, his personal touch again blunted their anger.
Lee acknowledged Soong's debt publicly on many occasions, describing their relationship as "like father and son." While campaigning for Soong during the gubernatorial election, Lee said passionately to the voters that,"without James Soong, there would be no Lee Teng-hui today." In what may have been the occasion on which the "new Taiwanese" phrase was coined, Lee said: "Soong is a new Taiwanese who was fed on the rice and water of Taiwan, and shared a pair of pants with us. He is our brother. Soong is a die-hard loyal follower and brother of mine. If you support Lee Teng-hui, then vote for James Soong."
Freed from CCK's control, Soong began to develop his social networks. He brought Vincent Siew (
Ironically, the close cooperation between Lee and Soong contributed to their split. Soong believed that Lee preferred him to Lien, and thus that it was his right to overtake Lien in the pecking order.
In 1997, Lien's simultaneous holding of the vice presidency and premiership became untenable. Lee sounded out Academia Sinica President Lee Yuan-tseh (
Soong believed that, as governor, the premiership ought to be his, following the pattern that Lien had set. But Lee felt, first, that Soong should be patient and serve out his term -- especially since no one wanted to face the prospect of running a by-election. Soong's resentment was magnified when Siew, whom he considered his subordinate, was chosen.
When the National Development Conference in December 1996 decided to freeze the provincial government, depriving Soong of his power base, Soong immediately smelled a conspiracy, and the fight began in earnest. He announced his resignation on New Year's Eve, which Lee refused to accept.
Using his close media contacts and with the support of most of the provincial officials, Soong tried his best to spin the downsizing of the provincial government as an antidemocratic act, and himself as a frustrated agent of reform.
What kind of national leader will Soong make? It's hard to say. Throughout his long career, he has never identified himself with any particular policy or platform. Instead, he has always focused on the execution and administration of others' policies. He has continued this theme in this campaign: when the other candidates put forward new ideas, he criticizes them, not by putting forward a contrasting position, but by pointing out how he is the only one who "gets things done."
Soong has always been a masterful political gambler, but it remains to be seen if he will survive the greatest punt of all.
Tomorrow, a profile of DPP presidential candidate Chen Shui-bian.
1942: Born in Hunan province, China
1949: Comes to Taiwan, enters school in Taipei
1964: Graduates first in class from National Chengchi University, diplomacy department
1965: Finishes military service
1966: Marries Viola Chen Wen-shui
1967: Receives master's degree in political science from University of California at Berkeley
1971: Receives second master's degree, in library science, from Catholic University
1973: Receives PhD in political science from Georgetown University
1974: Returns to Taiwan to serve as personal secretary to the premier
1977: Appointed Deputy Director General
of the Government Information Office
1979: Appointed Director General of the Government Information Office
1981: Named to KMT central standing
1984: Appointed director, cultural affairs bureau, KMT
1987: Appointed deputy secretary general,
1989: Appointed secretary general, KMT
1993: Appointed Taiwan Provincial Governor
1994: Winner of first popular election for Taiwan Provincial Governor;
1998: Term as governor ends, and provincial government is downsized
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