How should Chinese read the Chen Shui-bian graft case?

By David Bandurski — Much coverage of the Chen Shui-ban graft case in China’s official state media has sought to drive home sobering lessons about the faults and foibles of democracy, and particularly of Taiwanese democracy. But in the commentary section of today’s Southern Metropolis Daily, CMP researcher Joseph Cheng argues that there are more important lessons to be drawn from Taiwan’s experiences.

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[ABOVE: “Red Shirts,” a photo by Nomadize licensed at flickr under Creative Commons.]

Even in Southern Metropolis Daily‘s rather expurgated version the editorial is strong. We offer our translation without further ado:

How Should We Read the Chen Shui-bian Graft Case?
By Cheng Jinfu (程金福)

On August 31, Southern Metropolis Daily ran an interview with former New Party chairman Xie Qida (谢启大) in its Commentary Weekly section discussing the impact of the Chen Shui-bian graft scandal on Taiwan. Reading the piece, I found it beneficial, but there are three points I think we must not overlook concerning the case as it has evolved to its present situation.

The first thing we should see is democracy at work. Joseph Schumpeter once argued that the basic nature of democracy is to give citizens the ability to replace one government with another. If only the government can be changed, if only the voters can choose between (at least two) different political platforms, then the threat of tyranny can be prevented. Looking back on Chen Shui-bian’s eight years in office, the dangers of tyranny are astonishing: the “procuratorate” was paralyzed, becoming little more than an empty shell; corruption investigators kept cases under wraps and refused to investigate; Wu Kun-shih (吴淑珍) [the father of Chen’s wife, Wu Shu-chen] used the president’s power to make business deals; and as the graft case cropped up, even with hordes of red-clad protesters [calling for Chen’s resignation], the Chen family still firmly held their ground. Just try to imagine. If the Ma government had not replaced the Chen government, and if the DPP had remained in power despite Chen’s exit, would the corruption of Chen Shui-bian’s family have been aired out and justice served, even with documentary evidence provided by Swiss authorities?

Secondly, we see the power of the judicial system. Taiwan’s judicial system is independent in Taiwan’s political structure. But in the “Chen era,” when, as Xie Qida (谢启大) has put it, there “was a problem with the head assigned by the chief executive” (“由行政长官指派的那个头有问题”), the independent judiciary was rendered incapable in practice of having the effect it should have, and the actions of former Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau Chief Yeh Mao-sheng (叶茂盛) in keeping a lid on the case is a clear illustration of this.

Fortunately, democracy is not only an effective mechanism of staving off the dangers of tyranny, but it also has effective mechanisms allowing it to correct its own errors. The people may have been hoodwinked into electing Chen Shui-bian, but they can also come to their senses and make changes. Xie Qida said: “Taiwan’s judiciary has a history going back 60 years, and there are some pretty good people there. So long as they are around there is still hope.” We can see this process at work in the investigation into Chen and his family that has unfolded since August 14.

Thirdly, we see the efforts of the media. When news of Chen Shui-bian’s alleged money laundering activities was brought to light, Taiwan’s media went to great lengths to keep up with the case. Political commentary programs of all kinds invited a range of people to offer background, comments and information — political figures, media people, well-known commentators, legal experts and professors, people involved in the investigation, and even people with relevant experience from business and financial circles. Of course we could see in the media at times glimpses of pettiness and nastiness and ploys to get the upper hand commercially, and it is not difficult to see how the media can in pursuing the truth slide across the line into slander. But in my view, so long as media do not lose sight of the politics itself in this process, so long as they do not veer from the principle of truth-seeking and fact-seeking, so long as they do not relinquish their responsibility to the public interest, all of this excess noise and temper is a price the public should be willing to accept. There is no such thing in this world as a free lunch, and there is no such thing as a perfect media.

Ethnic divisions within Taiwan . . . confrontation between the “green” and the “blue”; all of these issues are about Taiwan’s progress toward “localizing” democracy (民主迈进的”本土”问题). These are also tests facing democracy as a result of historical experience, present frictions, cultural adaptation, etc. But from these I also see a more positive side to democracy, and positive inspiration for our own building of democracy and efforts to fight corruption. Taiwanese democracy has experienced birth pains with Chen Shui-bian. But what is fortunate is that Chen Shui-bian has exposed the worst acts of falsehood and corruption a political figure can muster, and this ultimately serves the judicial pursuit justice, and it serves to encourage and educate the media. Only in this way can the people of Taiwan through time and practice become mature citizens. And this once again reminds us that if our moral expectations of political leaders do not rest on the checks and balances of a democratic system, this is a dangerous thing indeed.

FURTHER READING:
Wipe off that blood and stand up again,” Taipei Times, August 26, 2008
Chen Shui-bian denies 31m$ bride accusation,” China Daily, September 4, 2008
Taiwan graft probe spans four continents,” Reuters, August 30, 2008

[Posted by David Bandurski, September 5, 2008, 4:35pm]

4 Comments to “How should Chinese read the Chen Shui-bian graft case?”

  1. admin says:

    Lau Chek:

    Thank you, first of all, for your comments.

    As much as we all secretly wish to have the last word, the debate does not close simply because we announce: “End of discussion.”

    Your logic, Lau, is quite frankly puzzling. Clearly “racial” and “group sentiment” can only yield selection of a populist candidate by the “general public” in a democratic system. In an autocratic system, what the general public feels about a particular leader is totally immaterial.

    Joseph Cheng’s point here is not about how the public may be “fooled” by this or that demagogue — but how such decisions are or are not, can or cannot, be changed or corrected. And that has everything to do with the “political system being followed.”

    Best,
    David

  2. Lau chek says:

    The lesson on Chen Sui Bian is that general public can easily be fooled to support a political party using racial, group sentiment. In taiwan’s case, it is those arrived earlier being piqued against the late arrival, a common technique by demagogue all over the world. This has nothing to do with what political system being followed. End of discussion.

  3. […] of the Chen Shuibian graft case has been posed as an indictment of democracy. But Bandurski has translated an interesting commentary from Cheng Jinfu that argues there are other lessons to draw from […]

  4. Eric Gui says:

    Media supervision has exerted great influence on the exposion of Chen Shuibian’s graft. Since TVBS, lonely but courageously, launched a foursome scoop into the corruption of Chen, and later DPP itself in 2005, more and more media have joined in. A quantitative study of media organizations and their news coverage engaged in the scoop before and after Chen’s steping down may rerevel how the party in power can influence the investigative report. Is that true?

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