The roots of the current political turmoil in Taiwan lie not in the allegations of corruption against Chen Shui-bian, his family, and his friends. Rather, they lie in the huge changes that the Taiwanese president has sought to introduce during his six years in office.
It's important to remember that Mr. Chen is the first president to come from a party other than the Kuomintang (KMT), which ruled the island with an iron grip for a half-century. Given that, it's unsurprising that his radical reform agenda has faced consistent resistance from an established order unaccustomed to defeat. Known to some Taiwan-watchers as the "refuse-to-lose" crowd, this coalition of former KMT officials--in conjunction with a splinter group called the People's First Party--has stymied much of the president's agenda.
Take defense: While it took the President nearly until his second-term to address the island's defense capabilities, he did introduce a $18 billion defense supplemental budget in 2003 which was strongly supported by the Bush administration. But the package has stalled in the opposition-dominated legislature ever since.
Mr. Chen's attempts to reform Taiwan's outdated political structure have met similar hurdles. Dating back to Chiang Kai-shek's defection from the mainland after World War II, Taiwan's current political system consists of five--often overlapping--branches of government. But attempts to streamline this into a structure better-suited to the present day have run into predictable resistance from the KMT, whose supporters still dominate most branches of government.
In such a climate, it's unsurprising that allegations of misuse of official funds have been seized on with such glee by the refuse-to-lose crowd--especially after last Friday's indictment on corruption charges of President Chen's wife, Wu Shu-chen. Certainly, charges waged against any public figure need to be investigated and due process followed. But it's also worth remembering that the disputed expenditure comes from funds for unofficial international activities deemed to be in Taiwan's national security interests.
With Beijing investing heavily in countries around the world with the specific objective of isolating Taiwan, the island must be creative with its diplomacy. Because of the discreet nature of these activities, the rules governing these funds are vague and ambiguous. In the light of the current controversy, the air of secrecy surrounding some of these funds could be removed by insisting upon budgetary transparency and developing guidelines governing their use.
President Chen has made missteps during his six years in office. Elected on a mandate to accelerate the move toward sovereignty and national identity that began under his predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, he may have mistaken popular public support for Taiwan to maintain its own identity with a desire for formal independence. His coyness on the issue has been a hallmark of his administration, and the opposition-dominated press has been effective at characterizing him as unnecessarily provocative toward Beijing. Even the Bush administration felt it necessary to caution him on this matter.
The fact is, most of Taiwan's citizens don't want to be ruled by Beijing, nor do they want to antagonize it. This creates a dilemma for Mr. Chen. While the Taiwanese enjoy their de facto independence, they are increasingly intimidated by China's growing economic and military might. The President's periodic flirtations with formal independence make people nervous on both sides of the Straits.
The turmoil in Taipei this week has little to do with the current government's effectiveness, or even its alleged corruption. Instead, the demonstrations and calls for Mr. Chen's resignation are significant for what they say about Taiwan's relatively young democracy.
In taking to the streets, some Taiwanese are abandoning respect for due process and the rule of law--values that should lie at the heart of any democracy. The heat and the intensity of the anti-Chen movement leaves a sense of riveted frenzy, where the mob--not process--will rule. The highest democratic aim ought to be to protect the voice of each individual citizen, not to project the roar of the crowd, however righteous.
A strong, democratic Taiwan is not only best for the people of Taiwan, but for the region and for the world. In this crucial period of its growth, Taiwan's democracy deserves the support and encouragement of the international community. But ultimately, it is up to the people of Taiwan to decide whether they want their future to be determined through democratic processes--or by mobs taking to the streets.
Therese Shaheen is an adjunct fellow at AEI.