SCMP Sunday, May 21, 2000


Public warms to 'Superman'


In the government reception rooms in Taiwan, four portraits invariably adorn the walls. One is of Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Republic of China in 1911.

Another is of Kuomintang founder Chiang Kai-shek, and the third his son and successor Chiang Ching-kuo. The fourth is outgoing president Lee Teng-hui.

Each in his different way is a serious, paternal figure, silently exuding feelings of authority, strength and resolution in the face of what might have seemed insuperable odds. That these four will be joined by the face of Chen Shui-bian can at times seem incredible.

Here is a man who, when he was Mayor of Taipei, appeared in public dressed in an elaborate costume that combined elements of Michael Jackson, Superman, and a notorious Taiwanese confidence trickster. On other occasions he dressed up for an adoring public as Peter Pan, Vincent Van Gogh, and a Christmas tree angel.

He has also been photographed lying on his back in the Legislative Yuan (parliament) with legs and arms in the air, jokingly casting four votes to demonstrate the absurdity of his party's position compared with the "ballot troops" of the ruling Kuomintang. Also during his Taipei mayorship, Mr Chen sanctioned public parties in front of the Presidential Palace and the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, previously sacrosanct squares in the central government area of the city.

Other politicians round the world may be flamboyant and populist, but arguably no politician has quite Mr Chen's history of extravagant theatrics.

Some of his predecessors had their moments of comedy. The departing president Lee, bent on overseeing earthquake relief last September, was caught on television being berated by a middle-aged lady, whose temporary shelter the wind of his helicopter blades had blown down.

In a Taiwanese context, where the KMT has up to now tended to be formal, close to the military (and 14 years ago was running a one-party state) Mr Chen's youthful playfulness and rejection of pomp of any kind is even more extraordinary. An official handbook produced by his party said the aim of this comic style was to remove "the mask of authoritarian politics".

The Taiwanese political system is highly Americanised, and not least the Presidential Inauguration Ceremony. This was an event that members of the public were able to attend, in contrast to past Double 10th (Taiwan's National Day) parades, where only members of specified organisations had invitations.

But these days Taiwan is an extraordinary place. People arrive at the opera wearing baseball caps, and journalists attend government briefings in shorts, white socks, and sandals. Most notable are its younger generation. Despite the two years of compulsory military service for men, the young display a sense of personal freedom, plus an unusual combination of Confucianism and hi-tech savvy that marks them as uniquely at ease with their social situation.

So when a student of horticulture from Ilan said: "All the young people like Ah Bian. He's got guts," he was not thinking of the new president's stance vis-a-vis China. What he had in mind was someone in high public office who could appear in front of his fans dressed up as a pop idol.

"Of course I voted for Ah Bian," a young academic in the island's premier university told me recently. "He's of the modern age. He may not be ideal in every way, but at least he's one of us." Despite his actual age, Mr Chen is this new generation coming to power.

On the other hand, it's characteristic of the local way of seeing things that the Taiwanese take it for granted that Mr Chen will not continue in his former style now he is president. Similarly, people who didn't vote for him in March are now rallying behind him.

And polls published since his election are giving him an 80 per cent approval rating. How far Mr Chen's unique personal style is consistent with the wielding of national power is another matter. But his informal manner worked when he was Mayor of Taipei. There's no reason to believe it shouldn't work now, despite the far greater obligations.