Former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian was born on October 12th, 1950 into a poor farming family in Tainan County in southern Taiwan. His identification card states February 18th, 1951 as his birthday because at the time, due to a relatively high infant mortality rate, it was common practice to wait a few months before registering the birth of a child.
Academically bright from a young age, Chen attended one of the top senior high schools on the island and in 1969 won a scholarship for best-ranked National Taiwan University.
After specializing in commercial law, he graduated with highest honors in 1974 as Taiwan’s youngest lawyer. From 1976 to 1989, Chen was a partner in Formosa International Marine and Commercial Law, linked to container giant Evergreen Marine Corporation.
His first encounter with politics came after the Formosa Magazine incident, when on December 10th, 1979 security forces cracked down on the nascent democracy movement in the southern port of Kaohsiung.
He unsuccessfully defended those eight leading the protests against the strict rule by the Nationalist KMT under President Chiang Ching-kuo (1910-1988) and thereafter was associated with the opposition.
As an independent, Chen won a seat on the Taipei City Council in 1981, but a year later was sentenced to twelve months in prison on charges of libeling KMT official Elmer Fung (born 1948), then secretary to the president.
While appealing the sentence, Chen run for county magistrate in his native Tainan in November 1985. Three days after losing the election, his wife since 1950, Wu Shu-chen (born 1953), was left paralyzed from the waist down after being run over by a farm vehicle.
Following his lost appeal in May 1986, Chen served eight months in the Taipei Detention Center in Tucheng near Taipei along with two other defendants. While in prison, his spouse was elected to parliament.
He subsequently joined the independentist Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), founded illegally in September 1986 under martial law. From 1989 to 1994, Chen himself also served in Taiwan’s legislature and became the executive director of the DPP caucus.
As a convener of the National Defense Committee supported by some KMT colleagues, Chen played a decisive role in moderating many of the DPP’s radical and unrealistic positions on Taiwan’s statehood.
As the conservative vote was split between two candidates, in December Chen surprisingly got elected mayor of Taipei 1994, fining polluters as well as driving illegal gambling and prostitution out of the city.
Defeated in his bid for reelection in 1998 by the KMT’s rising star Ma Ying-jeou (born 1950), Chen won the presidential elections in March 2000 due to the disunity in the pro-China camp, suddenly ending the KMT’s 55-year rule of Taiwan.
I witnessed how some official buildings in the capital had to be protected for days with barbed wire from angry, extremely disappointed supporters of the losing side.
A DPP government and a KMT-controlled legislature led to a political crisis and a dramatic economic recession, including a decline in GDP and an intervention by the central bank.
He pushed for localization, purging the constitutional name “Republic of China” (ROC) from official documents. With mixed success, state-owned and private enterprises bearing the name “China” were renamed.
In the international arena, he faced serious setbacks: Macedonia, Nauru, Liberia, Dominica, Grenada, Senegal, Chad, Costa Rica and Malawi all recognized China. Although Nauru as well as Saint Lucia reestablished ties and Kiribati switched sides, the number of allies dwindled to 23.
On the other side, in April 2005 Chen became the first ROC president to visit Europe to attend the funeral of Pope John Paul II in the Vatican, as the Holy See continues to maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
Italy granted passage without hindrance and Chen was received at Rome’s airport in his capacity as a foreign head of state, to be seated during the ceremony in the front row beside the First Lady and the President of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Chen was narrowly reelected with a margin of less than 30,000 votes in March 2004, one day after he and his running mate, Vice President Annette Lu, were shot and slightly wounded while campaigning.
The exact background if this mysterious incident never came to light and his opponents openly accused him of staging it to win sympathy votes. The suspected shooter, a disgruntled jobless man, was found dead ten days later and the case was officially closed in 2005.
Facing a growing number of corruption scandals in his second term, Chen rejected repeated calls for his resignation, even after in September 2006 tens of thousands of people demonstrated in the streets of Taipei against him. Anyhow, he transferred many powers to three consecutive premiers.
Constitutionally barred from running for a third term and stripped of his legal immunity after stepping down in May 2008, Chen soon became the focus of a graft investigation.
After admitting that during his two election campaigns he had misstated financial expenses, to avert further damage from the DPP, Chen and Wu left the party in August.
Though in November of that year, Chen was jailed, but not immediately indicted. In September 2009, however, he was convicted on several counts of embezzlement, bribery and money laundering to life in prison and a fine of 6.13 million US dollars.
Later his sentence was reduced to 17-and-a-half years, which he began serving at a jail in Taoyuan County on December 3rd, 2010. Eventually, in August 2011 two years and eight months were added in another case.
On December 13th, 2010, the Taiwan High Court ruled that the former First Lady would also have to serve 17-and-a-half years in prison, and be fined 5.05 million US dollars.
Nevertheless, on February 19th, 2011 Wu’s incarceration was postponed indefinitely after Taichung Prison declined to admit her because of her poor health.
The wheelchair-bound Wu suffers from low blood pressure, a nervous system disorder and heart disease. In any case, she can’t change her residence without permission and is prohibited from leaving the country.
On January 5th, 2015 Chen left prison on medical parole. Although it was scheduled to last only three months, he was granted numerous extensions.
Since then, Chen has been de facto released, but during his undergoing treatment for sleep apnea, suspected Parkinson’s disease and osteoporosis is not allowed to speak in public.
Chen reaffirms his innocence and considers the whole procedure a vendetta by the KMT to please Peking. His supporters have claimed that his trial and sentencing were politically motivated retribution for his years in power.
He was also very popular with Westerners living in Taiwan, as most of them have little sympathies for the KMT. When I visited an American friend in Tokyo who had moved there from Taipei, he asked me for an A-bian hat, in allusion to Chen’s nickname.
I had the chance to shake hands with Chen in October 2003 at the National Day celebration at the Taipei Guest House. Little did I know that one day he would be making history as Taiwan’s first former leader to be jailed…