Why did Chen Chih-chung drop out of Kaohsiung 9?

Last week, former president Chen Shui-bian’s 陳水扁 son, Chen Chih-chung 陳致中, dropped out of the DPP’s contest for the nomination in Kaohsiung 9. This took me (and most people I talked to) by surprise. What’s more, Chen Chih-chung justified his action with a very strange explanation: He didn’t want people to think the struggle between Frank Hsieh 謝長廷 and his father was still raging. Great, but no one seemed to think that this struggle was tearing apart the DPP in the first place.

After reading a few media reports and reflecting on the history, I think there is an interesting story behind all this. The short answer is that this is, in fact, a raging factional conflict. However, it isn’t the one Chen Chih-chung tried to make us think about. Rather, this is all about the conflict between Hsieh and Kaohsiung mayor and New Tide faction bigwig Chen Chu 陳菊. The A-bian faction is involved, but it isn’t the main player. The long answer starts years and years ago, and even though this is a story about Kaohsiung it starts in Taipei.

Chen Shui-bian and Frank Hsieh were arguably the two brightest stars to emerge from the cohort of defense lawyers at the 1980 trials for the Kaohsiung Incident. They both went into electoral politics in 1981, winning seats to the Taipei City council. In 1985, Hsieh easily won re-election. Chen went back home to Tainan, trying to become the Tainan County magistrate. He lost that race, and days after the election his wife, Wu Shu-chen 吳淑珍, was run over in a mysterious (that is, not mysterious at all) traffic accident and permanently paralyzed. Legislative elections were held in 1986, and both Hsieh and Chen decided to contest them. Chen was convicted of libel and spent several months in jail, so he could not personally run. Instead, he put his wife forward as a candidate. There were three main opposition candidates in the Taipei City race, Hsieh, Wu, and senior opposition leader Kang Ning-hsiang 康寧祥. Everyone expected that Hsieh would win a huge victory. Indeed, many were worried that Hsieh would win too many votes and cause both Wu and Kang to lose. On election eve, Hsieh famously told the crowd to cast their first vote for Kang, the second for Wu, and only the third vote should go to him. Apparently they took this advice to heart, because both Kang and Wu won, while Hsieh unexpectedly lost. In 1989, Hsieh ran again while Chen replaced his wife as the candidate. By this time, the two were developing a friendly rivalry, vying for leadership in the DPP. Hsieh still had the upper hand at this point, clearly outpolling Chen, though both easily won. Once both entered the legislature, however, Chen began to overtake Hsieh. Chen was a master at getting favorable media coverage, and he was an extremely effective legislator. In 1992 Chen outpolled Hsieh, and he was widely considered the DPP’s most outstanding legislator. By this point, the rivalry between the two was in full gear. Moreover, since the regime had agreed to open up the Taipei mayor to elections, the two were now fighting over something concrete. By early 1994, it was apparent that Chen would win the nomination, but it was not clear how Hsieh would deal with the loss. Many people wondered if Hsieh would quit the DPP and run an independent campaign rather than yielding to Chen. In the event, Hsieh decided to stay in the DPP and support Chen’s candidacy. When Chen won and became a superstar mayor, Hsieh seemed to be out in the political wilderness.

Hsieh had grown up in Taipei City and his whole career had been based in Taipei City, but with Chen in the mayor’s chair Hsieh decided to look elsewhere. He cast his gaze southward, to Kaohsiung City, where the mayor’s seat was held by future Premier and Vice-President Wu Den-yi 吳敦義. Before challenging Wu, however, Hsieh had to first secure the DPP nomination. His prime competition came from Chen Che-nan 陳哲男, a member of Chen Shui-bian’s inner circle. Chen Che-nan had been a Kaohsiung legislator when Chen Shui-bian appointed him as head of the Civil Affairs Department in Taipei City. After several years of experience in governing, Chen Che-nan was ready to return home to put his training to work. Hsieh would have won a popularity contest, but it might have been draining and acrimonious. Chen Shui-bian stepped in to prevent this by convincing Chen Che-nan to withdraw. Mayor Chen didn’t rely merely on his personal charisma or appeal to party loyalty, he cemented the withdrawal by promoting Chen Che-nan to secretary general of the Taipei city government. After the path to the nomination was cleared, Hsieh shocked everyone by beating Wu despite a double digit poll lead for the incumbent.

As mayor, Hsieh embarked on several new projects. The most famous of these included cleaning up Kaohsiung’s rivers, improving the city’s water quality, and building the MRT lines. He easily won re-election in 2002 and was promoted to Premier in February 2005. Chen Che-nan’s son, Chen Chi-mai 陳其邁 was appointed as Acting Mayor of Kaohsiung City and seemed primed to win a full term in 2006. (If you are counting, we are now up to five people named Chen. Isn’t anyone named Lee or Chang anymore?) Up to this point, the story is one of Chen and Hsieh sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating, and always as rivals. The New Tide faction hasn’t really entered into this particular story yet.

In August 2005, Thai laborers working on the MRT project rioted. This would eventually turn Kaohsiung politics upside down. The workers were protesting working conditions and low pay. Investigations showed that the workers were being severely underpaid. They were only being paid for some of the overtime hours they worked, and they were only actually being paid NT20000 a month when the government had budgeted NT29500. The story got dirtier and dirtier the deeper investigators probed. As former mayor, Premier Hsieh bore some responsibility for the corruption. However, he managed to avoid any legal charges and, for the most part, he also avoided taking political responsibility. A second person who might have born responsibility was the head of the Council of Labor Affairs, Chen Chu. Labor Affairs, after all, was the office in charge of managing foreign workers, and it should have overseen working conditions to ensure that the Thai workers were treated appropriately and paid on time. Chen Chu managed to avoid any connections with the corrupt aspects of the case, but she did resign her office. The responsibility for the corruption fell most squarely on Chen Shui-bian’s close advisor, Chen Che-nan. Chen Che-nan had been deeply involved with arranging several of the contracts. The smoking gun came when the TV news showed a video of him with one of the company executives at a casino at a resort in South Korea. Chen Che-nan was eventually convicted and went to jail, while his son, Chen Chi-mai, had to resign as Acting Mayor.

Let’s stop the Kaohsiung story here for a minute to jump up to national politics. During President Chen’s first term, he forged an alliance with the New Tide faction. Indeed, since most members of his own Justice faction were very junior, the New Tide faction was able to put many senior members in several key positions in the government. Chen Chu was one of the most prominent. While Labor Affairs is not a particularly powerful ministry, Chen Chu turned it into something of a training agency for New Tide politicians and the Labor Affairs bureaucracy was widely considered to be a major center of New Tide power. After President Chen’s re-election, New Tide started to distance itself from him. Several New Tide members resigned posts in the executive branch, and in the legislature New Tide ceased pushing Chen’s agenda. Chen Chu’s resignation from Labor Affairs was a key step in this process. President Chen did not insist that she stay in the cabinet, and many saw this as a clear sign that the Justice-New Tide coalition was decisively shattered. During 2005 and 2006, more and more stories of corruption in the Chen administration emerged, and New Tide moved into open warfare with the administration. Two New Tide legislators resigned their seats in 2006, calling for reflection and self-renewal. This did not sit well with the rest of the party. The Red Shirt protests and the attempts to impeach Chen led the rest of the party to close ranks in defense of his presidency. Increasingly, all the other factions saw New Tide as traitors and enemies. Eventually, Frank Hsieh would win the 2008 DPP presidential nomination by portraying Su Tseng-chang as an ally of New Tide and running against New Tide.

Returning to Kaohsiung, the next fight was over the 2006 mayoral nomination. Chen Chi-mai’s candidacy was fatally damaged by the MRT scandal. He was replaced as Acting Mayor by Yeh Chu-lan 葉菊蘭, a Hsieh ally. Hsieh had perhaps resigned himself to losing control of the city to the Justice faction as the cost of becoming Premier. Now, with Yeh in charge, he had a chance to retain the city within his own faction. Unfortunately for him, Yeh was only the second most popular candidate. Chen Chu was the leading candidate. A United Daily News poll published March 18 showed Chen Chu supported by 23%, Yeh Chu-lan 12, Chen Chi-mai 11%, and legislators Kuan Pi-ling 管碧玲, Tang Chin-chuan 湯金全, and Lin Chin-hsing 林進興 had 6%, 5% and 5%, respectively. (On the KMT side, Huang Chun-ying 黃俊英 had 12%, Huang Chao-shun 黃昭順 and Chen Hsueh-sheng 陳學聖 each had 9%, Chiu Yi 邱毅 had 7%, and Huang Chi-chuan 黃啟川 had 6%.) Knowing that she could not win a polling primary, Yeh refused to register for the DPP primary. Hsieh tried to maneuver to get the party to simply draft Yeh or to change the decision process to some other criteria, but Chen Chu refused to budge. She insisted that the process should proceed according to the established party rules. However, she did agree to restart the process to give Yeh another chance to register. When Yeh still refused to register, Kuan Pi-ling (Hsieh’s other stalking horse) dropped out and conceded the nomination to Chen Chu. To recap, Chen Chu managed to swoop in and take over the Kaohsiung City government, which both the Chen and Hsieh factions thought they had prior claims to. This occurred in a very acrimonious atmosphere, with Chen Chu’s New Tide faction locked in vicious party infighting with the other factions. All sides were deeply scarred by this experience.

Fast forward to today, nine years later. Chen Chu has been a very energetic and popular mayor, but now she is in her final term and the various sides are beginning to prepare for the fight to control the city after 2018. As she did at Labor Affairs, Chen Chu has used the city government to train a new generation of politicians, building up a powerful faction of people loyal to her. These are not exclusively New Tide members, but many are. As the end of her term nears, she will undoubtedly try to promote one of her protégés as her successor. However, the Hsieh faction is also plotting to take back the city, and they have the early front-runner in legislator Kuan Pi-ling. There is even a chance that Chen Chi-mai, who has re-emerged from obscurity as an ally of Tsai Ing-wen 蔡英文, might be able to regain the mayor’s chair. At this point, it is all very early. The 2016 legislative elections are seen as a key opportunity to bolster each faction’s strength before the 2018 battle.

Hsieh fired the first shot, by mooting the possibility of contesting the Kaohsiung 3 seat. The Hsieh faction already has two legislators in Kaohsiung (Kuan and Chao Tien-lin 趙天麟), and the Chen Chu faction did not want to see it win a third. They immediately responded by recruiting former deputy mayor Liu Shih-fang 劉世芳 to contest the nomination in Kaohsiung 3 and simultaneously by shaming Hsieh for choosing to contest such an “easy” seat. Hsieh promptly withdrew.

This finally brings us to Kaohsiung 9. Until the last day of registration for the DPP nominations, this looked like a race between Chen Chih-chung and a city councilor from the Hsieh faction surnamed (what else?) Chen. At the last minute, Lai Jui-lung 賴瑞隆, who had worked in the city government as head of the Marine Bureau, also registered. The race was then suddenly catapulted into the national limelight when remarks by a New Tide faction leader, Hsu Chia-ching 徐佳青, surfaced accusing President Chen of taking millions of dollars from construction companies and asking what Chen Chih-chung had ever done that he should deserve a legislative seat. Then, after a couple of days of complaining about being wronged and seeming to be on the offensive, the Chen family suddenly surrendered, with Chen Chih-chung withdrawing from the race even though he claimed to be leading by 10 points, promising not to continue the Hsieh-Chen (Shiu-bian) conflict, and suggesting that Chen Hsin-yu 陳信瑜 should also withdraw.

In retrospect, it seems as though the hidden story might go like this. Chen Chu’s primary aim was to prevent the Hsieh faction from winning the nomination. If Chen Chih-chung could beat Chen Hsin-yu, that would be fine. However, it seems plausible that Chen Hsin-yu was actually leading. We don’t have any public media polls, but the key players all have private polls and they certainly knew how the race was shaping up. In order to block Chen Hsin-yu, Chen Chu sponsored her own candidate. She then had to persuade Chen Chih-chung to withdraw and endorse Lai. This was complicated by Hsu Chia-ching’s incendiary comments. Both Hsu and Chen Chu belong to the New Tide faction, so it is natural to assume that Hsu’s comments were made with the aim of advancing Chen Chu’s goals. In fact, the end result was that Chen Chih-chung withdrew and endorsed Chen Chu’s candidate. However, I don’t think that Hsu’s comments were a part of any master plan, and they probably impeded rather than aided Chen Chu. During President Chen’s second term, cracks began to appear in the previously rock-solid New Tide faction. Northern and southern wings of the faction began to emerge, with the northern wing more stridently opposed to President Chen and the southern wing being more pragmatic and more sympathetic to Chen. Hsu is from the northern wing, and her distaste for Chen Chih-chung is probably a lingering aftermath of a decade ago. I think her attacks were sincere rather than strategic, since (a) she had no expectations they would be made public and (b) they ruined her otherwise promising career. I don’t think her primary goal was to stop Hsieh or help Chen Chu. I think she was simply disgusted by Chen Shui-bian and Chen Chih-chung. Chen Chu, who represents the southern wing of New Tide, was trying to make an alliance with Chen Chih-chung, and these attacks potentially complicated that effort. However, she eventually persuaded Chen Chih-chung to withdraw. The rivalry with Hsieh was a smokescreen. Several media reports suggested that this appeal originated from Chen Chu’s camp, not Chen Chih-chung’s. In fact, there was considerable pressure on Chen Hsin-yu to withdraw, as many DPP supporters bought into the idea that the principal contestants should all withdraw in the interests of party unity and healing the scars opened up by Hsu Chia-ching’s accusations. I suspect that the real reason Chen Chih-chung withdrew is that he was trailing in the polls. If he had actually run and lost decisively, it might have been a devastating blow to his family. Clear evidence of weak public support combined with new accusations of corruption might be enough for the Ma government to revoke Chen Shui-bian’s medical parole. Chen Chih-chung was intent on framing his withdrawal to appear as if he was acting for the greater good. As he told it, he withdrew, even though he was leading and even though his family had been slandered, for the greater good of the party and to heal factional rifts. He even apologized to the previous DPP incumbent, Kuo Wen-cheng 郭玟成, for splitting the green camp vote in 2012. Even thought he has endorsed Lai, the Hsieh faction was probably also somewhat happy to see him withdraw. Assuming that Chen Hsin-yu was clearly in first place and Chen Chih-chung was clearly leading Lai, Chen Chih-chung’s withdrawal effectively left the seat wide open for Chen Hsin-yu. It is very hard to transfer support from one candidate to another, so Chen Chu’s gambit will almost certainly fail. Like Chen Chu in 2006 and most other leading candidates in countless other races, Chen Hsin-yu has insisted that the party has a standard nomination mechanism, and, rather than asking specific people to withdraw, they should simply respect the institutional rules. If Chen Shui-bian can’t win power, he at least needs goodwill. Pulling out made Chen Chu happy since he endorsed her candidate. It made Hsieh happy since it clears a path for his candidate. It made the New Tide faction happy since he stopped the counteroffensive against them and he stopped trying to put his son in the legislature. It made Tsai happy since the media won’t be able to talk about Chen Shui-bian every day for the next ten months. It made DPP supporters happy since it resolved a potentially nasty party conflict. Withdrawal was a smart option.

8 Responses to “Why did Chen Chih-chung drop out of Kaohsiung 9?”

  1. lihan Says:

    What a good story that connects historical pieces together. Thank you. Very insightful.

  2. ジェームス (@jmstwn) Says:

    Great story. Was making Chen Chi-mai acting mayor and giving him the inside track to the 06 nomination the reason CSB make Frank Hsieh premier?
    With all the factional fighting going on in Kaohsiung and Tainan, I can see why neither Chen Chu nor William Lai is jumping at the chance to leave early and become the VP nominee. But given how CC developed people in the Council of Labor Affairs, I can easily imagine her becoming Tsai’s premier at the end of her mayoral term.

    • frozengarlic Says:

      I doubt the president would make a decision on the premier based on a better chance of securing the Kaohsiung city government. The central government is much more important, so you simply choose the best person for that job. Likewise, Hsieh wouldn’t have quibbled about losing Kaohsiung when he was getting control of the Executive Yuan.

  3. Frank Says:

    Great post. Now Hsieh has resigned from his LY election campaign convener position. Did he eventually loose the battle with CC ?

  4. Greg Says:

    Of course factional power struggle happens everywhere but compared to the system, US, that I’m more familiar with, this whole analysis reads less like electoral politics and more like a John le Carre novel. Is this a situation that’s common throughout Asia?

    • frozengarlic Says:

      Every election has a soap opera boiling under the surface. I’m sure my post barely scratches the surface. American politics have plenty of intrigue as well, though we don’t often hear the hidden stories. Try reading Robert Caro’s stories about Lyndon Johnson’s senate races.

  5. ジェームス (@jmstwn) Says:

    Lai wins!

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