Remembering Mayor Chen

Over the past few weeks, I have seen a few comments about former President Chen that made me want to relive a little history.  Some people wonder how he could have ever been elected president, some wonder whether Taipei City changed during his term as mayor, some think that Su Zhenchang’s current campaign is roughly comparable to Chen’s 1998 campaign, and so on.  Besides, it doesn’t take much to set me off on a nostalgic rambling.

I was living in central Taiwan during the 1994 campaign.  I was able to make it up to Taipei for a few campaign events to catch some of the flavor.  I moved to Taipei in the summer of 1995 and lived there for the rest of the 1990s.  I didn’t live in Taipei prior to Chen’s administration, but every foreigner spends a bit of time in Taipei, so I had some familiarity with it.  As a result, I was in position to view the way the city changed during Chen’s term.

Instead of writing today about what Taipei was like then, I have gone back into the depths of my hard drive to find something I wrote in December 1997.  This is an excerpt of a longer piece, so it doesn’t start or finish very smoothly.  Except for correcting grammatical errors, I have not changed anything in the original essay.  All of my current comments are relegated to the footnotes.

From the time Chen and Hsieh[1] were in the Taipei City Council together, there were comparisons of the two.  As the two progressed in their careers at roughly the same pace, and entered the legislature together, increasingly these comparisons transformed into competition.  This intensified after the 1992 elections, when the two were seen as the leading candidates for the DPP‘s 1994 Taipei City mayoral nomination.  The two were often compared with the rivalry between the two leading strategists of the Three Kingdoms Period (around 220-260 AD), Chou Yu and Chuko Liang.  And as in that rivalry, where Chou Yu was a brilliant strategist who just happened to be going up against the only person more brilliant than him, Hsieh was clearly losing out in public opinion to Chen.  In Chinese, the newspapers often referred to 長扁之爭。  But as poll after poll showed Chen to be the top choice, Hsieh occasionally showed irritancy and hints that he didn’t believe and wouldn’t accept that result.  In the 1993 county magistrate elections, Chen campaigned heavily all over Taiwan and was warmly received everywhere (although nothing like what would happen four years later).  For a while, Chen considered running for governor of Taiwan Province instead of Taipei mayor.  Hsieh, needless to say, encouraged this.  However, Chen took a realistic look at the situation and made the right choice.  He had a reasonable choice of winning in Taipei City, but not much chance in Taiwan Province.  In Taipei City, the New Party would split the KMT‘s vote; in Taiwan Province this would not be the case.  Chen decided to stay in the Taipei City race, much to Hsieh’s disappointment.

The party primary finally took place in mid-1994.  To no one‘s surprise, Chen won by a good margin.  The question was how Hsieh would take the news.  At the time, there was still speculation that he might run anyway, or at the very least, force the primary into the second stage, a series of debates and then voting open to the public.  Party insiders feared that this would be a highly divisive process (as indeed it was when it finally occurred in the next year’s presidential primary).  However, Hsieh averted this by announcing that 長扁之爭 would now become 長扁之盟 (minus the poetry, this roughly means that the competition between Hsieh and Chen would be replaced by an alliance between the two.)  Officially, Hsieh would also serve as Chen‘s campaign chief.

In truth, Hsieh worked hard for Chen’s election, but the campaign was run by two political youths, Luo Wen-chia and Ma Yung-cheng.  Both under 30 at the time, these two had gained Chen‘s trust during their tenure as legislative assistants, and he delegated enormous amounts of power to them.  Together, they were tagged with the nickname 羅罵軍 or “The Roman Army” (the Chinese transliteration is luo-ma, exactly the same two characters as the surnames of Chen’s leading generals.)  They ran a brilliant campaign, and after they won, were both brought into the Taipei City government.

The 1994 Taipei City mayoral campaign is important not just because it brought about a change in political power and gave the DPP its first real chance to control resources, it also defined the New Party and brought about a realignment in the voting patterns of the capital city that persisted through the 1995 LY and 1996 NA elections.  While the 1996 presidential elections didn‘t follow this pattern, that should be no surprise — that election didn’t follow previous patterns anywhere.  The tone of the campaign was set early, in Taiwan‘s first TV debate.  In this debate, coming nearly two months before the election, the three candidates set out the positions from which their campaigns would be run.  Chen spoke of corruption in the city government, quality of life, and what he would do to improve the way the city was run.  Huang Ta-chou, the KMT incumbent, spoke of his incompetence.  Well, that wasn’t the content of what he said, but that is what came across very clearly.  Huang was incompetent.  He couldn’t express a thought, he couldn‘t defend himself when the other two accused him of incompetence or corruption, he couldn’t even use all the time allotted him.  It was the worst performance I have ever seen a politician turn in.[2] He took a thrashing from the other two candidates and gave the voters no reason to believe all the attacks weren‘t true.  The English newspaper was being kind to him the next day when it described the debate as what “must have been an incredibly difficult and embarrassing experience for Huang.”  The NP candidate, Chao Shao-kang, made the most enduring contribution to the debate.  He defined his campaign as a campaign to save the ROC.  His strategy was to turn the election into a referendum on independence and to define himself as the most pro-unification candidate.  Up to this point, the NP hadn’t defined itself to be so stringently anti-independence, but after this, the NP came to be seen as an increasingly extremist party.  It also got tagged with the label “mainlanders‘ party”.  Chao’s call to save the ROC effectively mobilized the mainlanders to support him and the NP.  Unfortunately, mainlanders make up less than 15% of the population in Taiwan, and maybe twice that in Taipei City.  Chao won the battle.  The NP beat the KMT and established a firm foothold in Taiwan politics.  Up to that point, it wasn‘t clear that the NP would be a viable party; after the 1994 campaign, it was clear that it would.  However, Chao may have lost the war.  By identifying his party so clearly with mainlanders, he may have alienated too many Taiwanese to ever win more than 15% of the total vote.  And as it becomes clear that the NP faces a very clear ceiling, its members play zero-sum infighting games and voters desert the party for candidates who might have better prospects.

It was an electric campaign.  DPP forces were highly mobilized behind Chen, and his rallies were all packed and noisy.  NP voters are notable for their participation.  They go to events, and they chant and cheer, though in a much more orderly fashion than DPP supporters.  The KMT had very little in this regard, but, hey, what‘s new?  As for the polls, Chen Shui-pien showed a consistent lead until a couple of weeks before the election when Shih Ming-teh[3] made his stupid comment about pulling troops out of Chinmen and Matsu.  Suddenly Chen’s numbers took a dive.  However, the polls showed Huang, not Chao, as taking over the lead.[4] The outcome of the voting was different.  Chen won easily with 43%.  Chao came in second with 30%.  And Huang Ta-chou, Lee Teng-hui‘s handpicked candidate, could only manage 25%.

Chen took office in an atmosphere I have seldom seen.  It was a genuine honeymoon.  Whatever Chen did, he could do no wrong.  Something like my impression of Camelot.  The first thing Chen did went right to the heart of public doubts about the DPP‘s ability to govern.  Chen used a lot of career public servants, academics, and KMT members.  Something like two thirds of the people he appointed were KMT members.  It was, in effect, an admission that all the critics were right, but that Chen intended to govern anyway.  However, none of these outsiders were actually given much political power.  Nearly all political power and responsibility for major decisions was restricted to a group of about five or so people.  This group roughly included Chen himself, the vice mayor Chen Shih-meng (borrowed from the NTU Dept of Economics), the two campaign generals Luo and Ma, head of the Department of Civil Affairs Chen Che-nan and head of the Department of Social Affairs Chen Chu.

In office, Chen has definitely governed, as opposed to merely occupying the position.  I rarely have any clue what local governments do (and if I have no clue, imagine what the average citizen who cares very little about politics knows); however, I can run off a list of things that Chen has done.  They can even be subdivided into various categories.

The first is traffic.  During the Huang administration, we often heard of “The Dark Ages of Taipei Traffic”.  No more.  Chen has taken several measures to improve the flow of traffic and has been astonishingly successful.  The first thing concerns the MRT line.  This in itself was enough to defeat Huang.  The MRT had massive costs overruns, massive corruption, massive delays, and massive disputes with the French contractor, Matra.  (A great campaign line referred to the cost of the line after all the budget overruns:  444,400,000,000 NT.  In Taiwanese, four sounds exactly like death, and Chen used this over and over: “death, death, death, death”.)  In addition, there was serious speculation that, after all this trouble, the system wasn‘t safe and might have to be buldozed.  When Chen took office, he appointed a committee to do a thorough review of the line, and they concluded that some supporting columns needed reinforcement.[5] The reinforcement was done and the line was opened one year after Chen took office.  Regardless of the actual needs (which I am in no position to judge), politically it was brilliant.  After all the focus on the problems, no one would have believed that nothing was wrong.  On the other hand, they couldn’t possibly bulldoze it after investing so much money.  This was a compromise which satisfied nearly everyone.  This was just the beginning of straightening up the MRT mess.  The line in question, the Mucha Line, is merely the first in a whole network.  But Chen has resolved many of the other questions as well.  Corruption, which was rampant, has disappeared.  During the Huang administration, two MRT chiefs were indicted for corruption.  The contrast could not be more evident.  This, by the way, is not only the case in the MRT bureau.  The entire Taipei City government has turned over a new leaf.  The MRT is merely the most notable case.  The MRT delays have also been greatly reduced.  A year after opening the Mucha Line, Chen opened the Tanshui Line, and set a goal of opening the next line on the same day in 1998.  The dispute with Matra was also resolved, although in a much less neat fashion.  Chen terminated their contract.  For a while, observers wondered whether Taipei could run its MRT without Matra, but it hasn‘t collapsed yet.  There have been frequent breakdowns (a flat tire, a stopped train), but these breakdowns have all been minor irritants rather than major incidents.  It might be that there is a time lag between Matra’s departure and the collapse of the Mucha Line, but the collapse hasn‘t happened yet.

While the MRT is the highest profile traffic project, in reality it only serves a small portion of Taipei‘s population.[6] The real improvements in traffic have been made elsewhere.  One of the first things Chen did upon taking office was to greatly increase the number of traffic police.  Now, there are policemen at every intersection which could remotely be described as “major” assuring that traffic flows smoothly during rush hour.  Chen also pioneered the “bus only” lanes to ensure that public transportation would not be bogged down along with the rest of the cars and trucks.  This program is very effective.  The busses can get to their destinations faster than private cars or even taxis, so more people take busses, which in turn reduces the total number of cars on the road, thus alleviating traffic congestion.  He has also undertaken an initiative against parking on the streets of Taipei.  The towtruck armies have been expanded and are much more active.  Chen has even repainted the legal parking spaces to make them smaller and thus less convenient for big cars.  (This particular action could be viewed skeptically, as a common image is the DPP voters ride scooters; KMT and NP voters drive cars.  However, I am not convinced by this argument.  Chen has his fair share of car owning supporters.)  These were not difficult or expensive actions, they required only a little imagination and the will to experiment.  This is also another good contrast between the current and previous city governments.  When faced with this type of problem, the approach of past administrations was to do something big and spend a lot of money.  So they planned a MRT system and lots of new roads.  Truth be told, the planning capability of the Huang administration was excellent,[7] their problem was that they were terrible at execution.  Chen‘s approach has been the opposite.  While he continues Huang’s large scale construction, he has not launched any of his own grandiose projects.  Rather he has focused on using what he has more effectively.  The result has been striking.  Not only is it cheaper, the effect is much more immediate.  He gets the political credit.[8]

A second major “good government” type of initiative has been to revamp the city government.  Before Chen took office, the common image of the city government was of a hulking, immobile bureaucracy.  Chen served notice almost immediately.  He took office at the end of December 1994.  Chen informed officials that the old custom of long New Years holidays was history.  Their job was to serve the people, and his city government would be open and functioning as soon as the holiday was over.  The first day after the Chinese New Year vacation ended (Jan-Feb 1995), Chen held an inspection of all government offices at 9:00am sharp.  He toured the city government with a TV camera crew in tow and bawled out unit after unit when he found that a large proportion of city officials were still on vacation.  This worked.  Chen hurt a lot of feelings, but the general opinion is that the Taipei City government has transformed from one of the least efficient government bodies in Taiwan to one of the most efficient.  (This may just be image.  I‘m not an expert on the actual workings of government.  However, for our purposes, image is what’s important.  Most citizens won‘t dispute the idea that Chen runs a much tighter ship than Huang or his predecessors ever did.)[9]

A third initiative involved what I would refer to as the morality campaigns.  This involves two separate campaigns striking directly at the heart of organized crime.  One was against video gambling; the other against the sex industry.  On both counts, Chen has been impossibly successful.  I used to believe that these were phenomena which could not easily be eradicated, and I still do to a certain degree.  But they have both been largely eradicated in Taipei City.  One day, Chen announced that he was closing down all unlicensed video gambling arcades (which means all of them).  I laughed.  In past experience, that meant the arcades would take a one week vacation and then continue normal operations, if they even deigned to do that much.  But not this time.  This time they really did close down, and they haven‘t reopened for the most part.  The crackdown on the sex industry was even more remarkable.  Chen has driven perhaps 95% of these businesses out of the city, or at least the ones that operated with huge neon fronts and barkers in the door front twisting the arms of every male passerby to come in and try out the wares.  These businesses have folded.  I am particularly impressed by the number of “for rent” signs on brothel storefronts.  They aren’t just waiting for this campaign to blow over before reopening.  They are closed for good.  (Of course, what has really happened is that many have moved across the river to Taipei County.  Should Su Chen-chang try to emulate Chen, he would probably face far stiffer resistance, as capitulation there would mean surrender of the entire greater Taipei marketplace.  Su, in addition, has far fewer resources with which to fight the organized crime industry.)  These two morality campaigns have to have earned Chen the respect of large amounts of middle class voters, especially female voters.

Chen has also been true to his opposition roots in many symbolic actions against the KMT.  One friend of mine described Chen as being like the first Irish mayor of Boston.  The KMT spends millions of dollars on a new party headquarters[10] facing the presidential palace to remind citizens that it is the premier (and perhaps only legitimate) political party, and then they run into Chen.  Chen finds numerous fire and building code violations and refuses to issue a license to open the building.  The KMT wanted to open it two or three years ago.  Today, the steel gate is still pulled down tight and is beginning to rust and there are no signs that it will open soon.  The road in front of the presidential palace used to be called “Jieshou Rd” which meant literally “long life to Chiang Kai-shek”.  Chen renamed the road Kaidagelan Boulevard, after the tribe of aborigines that lived in the Taipei Basin before Han settlers arrived.  This completely changed the tone of the road from symbolizing links with China to symbolizing Taiwan‘s own history.  Independence factions laughed with glee while old veterans tried not to vomit in disgust.  The same type of petty partisan politics was in evidence when Chen refused to renew a lease to provincial government owned Taiwan TV for a transmitter.  Chen instead chose to lease it to the upstart and DPP friendly Formosa TV.  Another example occurred when Chen ordered the demolition of Chiang Wei-kuo’s residence in Shihlin on the grounds that it was an illegal structure.  Chiang Wei-kuo was the adopted brother of Chiang Ching-kuo, a fact that probably contributed somewhat to the singling out of this particular building among Taipei‘s thousands of illegal structures.  It should be noted that Chen has been careful to keep these initiatives to the symbolic level where nobody but the hardliners on both sides give them much weight.  Chen consolidates his support among the independence faction (and so can afford to ignore them on more important issues), and was never going to get the unification votes anyway.  Chen changed the name of the road in front of the presidential palace, but this is a short road with about three or four actual addresses, most of which are government buildings.  He never even entertained the thought of changing more offensive road names which run through residential districts.  That kind of action would inconvenience thousands of voters.

The last major series of initiative involves popular activities.  At various times, the city government has held large scale activities to commemorate various occasions.  These activities have been mostly the responsibility of the Information Office, and its former head Luo Wen-chia.  The first of these activities was a large scale dance for students the night after the joint college entrance exam.  They closed off a major road and went the whole nine yards, with light shows, pop stars, of course, lots of teenagers.  (This is also the event where Chen dressed up as a mixture of Micheal Jackson and Superman, a picture which the KMT loves to circulate.)  There was a lot of controversy over whether the city government should be doing this type of thing, but I think overall it was a positive action.  If nothing else, it was a way for students to blow off steam.  Other large scale events included a Lantern Festival extravaganza, a Retrocession Day blast, and numerous other smaller activities on most holidays.  It was at one of these smaller activities that the tug-of-war incident took place.  (How did your political career end?  In a bizarre tug-of-war accident. [11] )  The incident cost Luo Wen-chia his job,[12] but the activity was representative of a larger strategy.  Unlike other local governments, this local government was active, always doing things for its people.

If it sounds like I am impressed by the Chen administration, that‘s because I AM impressed.  He has done an incredible job.  He ran on a promise of good government and has delivered far beyond what anyone expected.  It might be argued that Chen’s “accomplishments” are really a reflection of his media savvy.  He is in the capital and the media spotlight and he is an expert at spinning the news to his advantage.  This is true.  The tug-of-war incident is a case in point.  He turned that disaster into a positive by good crisis management practices.  However, this is not the whole story.  It‘s easy for him to spin the news because there is meat present.  He is not inventing stories about good government.  The efficient government exists; Chen merely finds ways to persuade the media to report it.  During the Huang administration, corruption was rampant, so the media reported that.  There is plenty of media hostile to Chen, and they would love a juicy corruption story, but they haven’t found one yet.  To write Chen off as a media creation would be naive.

To provide a balanced picture of Chen‘s short tenure (only three years at this point), I should also point out some of his setbacks.  The most constant source of conflict has been with the city council.  The city council is split between the three parties: the KMT has the most, the DPP has exactly one third, and the NP has the least number of seats.  However, no party has a majority, or to put it another way, an alliance of any two parties will produce a majority.  Unfortunately for Chen, the KMT and NP have formed a fairly solid alliance based on opposition to Chen and have badgered him mercilessly throughout his tenure.  At one point they even slashed the gasoline budget for Chen’s car.  This backfired when Chen started taking taxis to work, accompanied by camera crews (of course), thus exposing the tactic as petty and mean.  (This is, by the way, exactly the type of tactic DPP politicians, including Chen, had engaged in over and over in the past.  The KMT/NP coalition probably thought they would just give Chen a taste of his own medicine.  What they didn‘t consider was the fact that the DPP generally aimed its actions against unelected, unpopular, and unaccountable government figures who there was often no other way to attack, while this action was aimed at a popularly elected and media savvy opponent.)  A more crucial setback occurred when a DPP councilor broke ranks with Chen.  This particular councilor, Lin Rui-tu, is an expert on the MRT system.  He wanted to demolish the whole thing.  When Chen showed pragmatism by choosing to reinforce the structure, Lin bolted.[13] This is critical because without Lin, the DPP caucus no longer has the one-third necessary to uphold a mayoral veto.  Chen cannot impose his will on the council.  Fortunately for Chen, the council doesn’t have much power.  Like the Provincial Assembly, it passes the budget and interrogates ministers, and not much else.  However, these interpolation sessions are rarely civil, and violence has broken out.  Predictably, this has hurt the council‘s prestige more than the mayor’s.  The campaign against the mayor has been led by the speaker of the Taipei City Council, Chen Chien-chih.  Mayor Chen is lucky to have an antagonist of Speaker Chen‘s quality; most politicians have to face competent opponents.  For the most part, the mayor has been able to ignore the city council.  However, his party’s minority status there has probably necessitated his focus on small scale projects aimed at improving efficiency.  Any large scale projects would probably be doomed in attempts to get funding bills through the city council.

One of Chen‘s efforts to improve relations with the city council resulted in a setback for both the council and himself.  The issue was a very generous pension plan for councilors based on tenure in the council.  The proposal was rammed through by the speaker (who has the longest tenure in the council and would thus get the most money) via some very questionable legislative tactics.  It should be noted that it was generally supported by senior councilors (regardless of party) and opposed by more junior members.  This was not a partisan plan, though it was highly associated by the media with the KMT speaker.  The media immediately dubbed the plan the “self fattening bill” and gave it intense coverage.  The council backed down quickly, repealing the bill just days after it passed.  Then the blame game started.  The council tried to blame the mayor, who they said had initiated this bill.  (This always struck me as a stupid argument: We never wanted this pork; he forced us to put our snouts in the trough.)  The mayor‘s version was different, of course.  He claimed that a group of senior councilors demanded this bill.  He told them that he didn’t think they could digest it, but if they thought they would be able to swallow, they were welcome to take a bite.  Regardless, it was a media disaster for both the mayor and the city council.

Another setback occurred over the condemnation of some residences for the building of a park.  There is a prequel to this story that must be related.  During the Huang administration, the city government decided to build a huge park in the Da-an district.  They condemned the land and told the people to move out.  The people protested.  Politicians, especially DPP politicians, made a huge issue out of it.  They claimed to represent the people against an oppressive government, etc etc.  The result was (yet another) loss of political capital for the Huang administration.  When the bulldozers went in, the cameras were solidly focused on all the lives they were disrupting, and not a few people refused to leave.  (A footnote: this is now the best park in Taipei City.  As usual, the Huang administration did a great job of planning and a lousy job of execution.)  The park became a symbol of bad government, and both the Chen and Chao campaign headquarters were located across the street from it.

Time passes.  Chen takes office.  Another park[14] is to be built.  In this case, not only are there numerous residents in mostly illegal structures, they are almost all mainlanders.  This area was built up when the KMT was desperately trying to find housing space for all its new arrivals in the early 1950‘s.  So they built shanties.  The result was that Chen faced a potential political mess in addition to the potential social mess.  Any forcible evictions would almost certainly be interpreted as petty bullying of old soldiers.  For the most part, the Taipei City government convinced the residents to move out.  However, there was a small number who didn’t want to move, or didn‘t think the terms of compensation were fair.  The media focused on these.  Eventually, Shih Ming-teh turned up to “mediate”.  (The choice of Shih Ming-teh, arch enemy of the KMT and noted rabble rouser to represent old army veterans was, to say the least, strange.[15])  He ended up denouncing the city government.  (Relations between Chen and Shih were never good, but until then they at least kept their differences under the table.)  Chen’s reaction was swift and effective.  He used the DPP party machinery to silence Shih.  This all made for fertile media fodder.  Overall, this condemnation went much more smoothly than the earlier one, but there was plenty of coverage of Chen playing the role of bully.  I don‘t know if the public interpreted this case as an example of determination to build a better city, or as authoritarian tendencies on Chen’s part.  However, it was a major media event, and will probably be revived in the 1998 campaign. [16]

Overall, this is a very strong record.  If you asked me to say what Lien Chan or Song Chu-yu have done in office, I wouldn‘t be able to come up with anything nearly as comprehensive, and certainly not as favorable.  Chen has been under intense scrutiny for the past three years and has performed beyond expectations.

Chen is also riding high at the moment.  The KMT made a huge mistake in trying to attack him before the 1997 elections.  The move backfired and made Chen into a hero.  He has always been a big draw on the stump, but nothing like in this last campaign.  This time, he got crowds numbering in the tens of thousands nearly every night.  And where before, he could pick who he wanted to campaign for; now he is viewed almost as a resource to precious to not be used on everyone.  He had to make appearances for every candidate.  The official DPP campaign group led by the party chaiman didn‘t get nearly as much attention.  The campaign also elevated speculation about a run for the presidency into practically a done deal.  Where before there were lots of pundits saying Chen should wait until 2004, this opinion has just about disappeared.  And within the DPP, no one would dream of opposing a Chen presidential bid.  Recently there has been speculation as to whether Chen would run for party chairman as well.  (Currently, he seems to be leaning against it.)  It is instructive that the only people coming out against this were members of Chen’s own faction.  When Chang Chun-hung, a leader of the Formosa Faction, urged Chen to choose between the chairmanship and the mayorship, he was met by rebellion within his own ranks.  Very quickly, Chang was clarifying his remarks.  If Chen wanted to run for chairman, they would certainly support him, and Chang personally wasn‘t even considering running for chairman at that time (a patent lie).  DPP members see a chance to win power, and they don’t dare do anything which would damage that chance.  If Chen wants the chairmanship, they will give it to him.  Only his own faction can speak out without being accused of hurting the cause.  It‘s almost like Nixon in China.

Can Chen win?  Maybe.  But it‘s too early for that question.  He still has to win re-election in December and govern Taipei City for another two years.[17]


[1] Frank Hsieh (謝長廷 Xie Changting), later Kaohsiung City Mayor, Premier, and presidential candidate.

[2] 13 years later, I still haven’t seen any worse performance than Huang’s.

[3] Shih was DPP party chair at the time.

[4] I’ve tried to go back and verify this, but my quick and dirty search isn’t revealing clear patterns.  For the last month of the election, all three candidates were at about 20% in the polls, usually with Chen a couple points ahead of the other two.  This represented a boost in Huang’s fortunes, but Huang’s numbers seemed to have started rising about a week before Shih’s gaffe.  Prior to that, I can’t get a clear read on the state of the race, but it seems clear that Chen was closer to 30% and Huang lagged behind, often in the single digits.  Chao was anywhere from 10% to 25%.  Well, polling was not very accurate back then.  People didn’t always answer sincerely (martial law was still a clear memory), and the KMT often arranged for fake polls designed to confuse to be published.

[5] These are the steel jackets on the concrete pillars on Fuxing South Road.

[6] Wow.  I can’t believe I thought that.  The MRT has fundamentally transformed the way people live in Taipei.  Of course, the blue and orange lines still hadn’t opened yet.

[7] The Mucha line was not well planned.  The trains are too small, and it doesn’t go through the most populated areas of Mucha.  I have a vague impression that the awkward route was connected to some land speculation schemes.  The other lines were much better planned, as was Civic Blvd and Huangdong Expressway.

[8] Chen also managed the impossible by requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets.  Through the early 1990s, almost no one wore a helmet anywhere in Taiwan.  The government would periodically announce that it was going to start enforcing helmet laws, but no one ever paid attention.  I think no one ever had the political will to hand out lots of tickets.  When Chen announced that he would enforce helmet laws, I expected the same thing to happen.  On February 28, no one wore helmets.  On March 1, everyone did.  It was astounding.  (There was no change across the river in Taipei County.)  This mayor was really different: when he announced a change, people not only expected that things would change, things really did change.

[9] Another aspect of this was the focus on customer service.  Chen tore out the old service windows, which forced people to look over a high counter and allowed the official to close the window.  He replaced them with low tables.  This allowed the citizen to sit down at an equal level with the official.  This was symbolic of the effort to make officials respond to the needs of citizens rather than to expect citizens to jump at the commands of imperious officials.  Regular citizens loved this initiative; public servants hated it.   They groused for years about the loss of prestige and respect.

[10] The building was finally allowed to open, and the KMT enjoyed its palatial headquarters for a few years.  The KMT later sold this building.  It is now the Chang Yung-fa Foundation.

[11] [Note: Unlike the body of this post, this footnote is produced entirely from my memory 13 years later.  Memories are famously unreliable, so this might not be exactly how everything happened.]

Taiwan was going through a strange tug-o-war fad at the time.  Several groups held contests all over the island, and the twist was that each contest tried to include more people than the previous ones.   So instead of having ten or twelve people on each side, they were getting hundreds of people on each side.  I think some of them were trying to get into the Guinness Book of World Records.  Now, you can’t just line up three hundred people on each side of a rope and start pulling; that would require a really long rope.  Instead, they used one main rope that had many smaller ropes attached to it.  So you might have a dozen or two people on each smaller rope, angled away from the main rope at 20 degrees.  Imagine 10-30 of these smaller ropes on each side, angling away from the main rope in pairs.  This produced tremendous amounts of tension, and as the contests got bigger and bigger, they didn’t realized just how much force was being produced.  In the ill-fated Taipei City tug-o-war, the main rope snapped.  Of course, everyone fell backward.  However, the real problem was that the ropes were also flung backward at tremendous speeds, and the smaller ropes were thin enough that they were like knives, cutting through anything they encountered.  Unfortunately, this included some of the participants.  Several were injured, and two people were seriously injured.  One of them had his arm completely severed.

The contest was sponsored by the Bureau of Information, headed by Luo Wenjia.  Luo and the rest of the city government  reacted as if this were a major disaster.  Luo instantly apologized and resigned, and Mayor Chen similarly publicly took full responsibility and allowed the criticism to be heaped on him.  There was no effort to talk about bad luck or spin the news as not so bad.  There was also no scapegoat; they didn’t blame some lower-level official.  Instead, the blame went right to the top, with Chen sacrificing his most trusted aide and facing the media himself. They also didn’t try to deflect the news by talking about something else.  Instead, Chen (and Luo)  spent quite a bit of time at the hospital with the injured people.  I remember the man with the severed arm, in particular.  The doctors were able to reattach the limb, and the guy regained use of it within a few days.  But what I remember most clearly was that he was a die-hard DPP supporter, and he kept telling Chen and Luo not to worry and the media what wonderful people they were.  I don’t care how much I liked a politician, if my arm had just been cut off, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be worrying about how he felt.

By about a week after the event, it had become clear that Chen and Luo had handled the accident quite well.  The people involved weren’t screaming for justice, and the media applauded Chen’s crisis management and refusal to duck responsibility.  The latter, in particular, contrasted sharply with what people had come to expect from the KMT government.  In retrospect, this also contrasts sharply with the way Chen mishandled the Bazhang Creek tragedy in the first few months of his presidency.

[12] Luo’s career did not end there, to say the least.

[13] Lin has been one of Chen’s most strident critics ever since.  He is still at it.  Lin was one of the people behind the recent accusations that Chen’s son hired prostitutes.

[14] These are the Number 14 and Number 15 parks, located at the corner of Linsen North Road and Nanjing East Road.

[15] Today, after Shih’s political reincarnation as leader of the Red Shirt Army, this seems less incongruous.  At the time, it seemed like poking a thumb in the old veterans’ eyes.

[16] The KMT’s 1998 campaign against Chen was centered on the idea that he was authoritarian and stubborn.  This theme resonated, probably because it was based in reality.

[17] Funny, but in late 1997 I seem not to have been aware that there might be a timing problem between the two elections.  That is, there were only 16 months between the December 1998 mayoral election and the March 2000 presidential election.  The thought that Chen was going to make a serious run in 2000 must have been so new that no one had yet raised this issue.

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5 Responses to “Remembering Mayor Chen”

  1. David on Formosa Says:

    Very interesting. I have heard similar positive stories about Chen’s term as Taipei Mayor even from people who are nominally on the KMT side of politics.

    Can you give a few more details about the incident that caused Luo Wen-chia to lose his job?

  2. frozengarlic Says:

    I thought someone might ask about that. I have added footnote 11 on that topic.

  3. A-gu Says:

    Great post. I really reflected on it.

    … Those were the days, eh?

  4. Okami Says:

    Ditto the great post remark.

    It makes me wonder why he had such difficulties as president. He seems to have been or had people who were media savvy and knew how to set up something up.

    Amazingly it is still considered radical to take blame and make sure the problem gets resolved in a proper manner. As it is also radical to have public employees that actually know how to do their job versus the crabs-in-a-bucket outlook.

    I lol about the guy getting his arm severed. You’d think an island with such a great engineering reputation would of thought about that.

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