"Taiwan stands up!" With those ringing words, Chen Shui-bian inaugurated his term as President of Taiwan on May 20 and ended 53 years of one-party rule by the Kuomintang (KMT). Chen's words echoed Mao Zedong's famous pronouncement at Tiananmen Square half a century earlier: "The Chinese people have stood up."
But while Mao was a revolutionary who ushered in an era of chaos, Chen is a former top-notch trial lawyer who approaches his new job with the careful deliberation of an attorney preparing for the most important case of his career. Certainly, taking over Taiwan's presidency at a delicate period in relations with the mainland is one of the most important tests any politician has ever faced. Because Beijing views Chen, 49, as a dangerous pro-independence radical, his biggest and most immediate challenge has been relations with China. Chen's inaugural speech masterfully struck a balance between mollifying Beijing and asserting Taiwan's own interests. As he goes along, walking that fine line will demand all the diplomacy he can muster.
But Taiwan's voters didn't elect Chen for his stance on China as much as for his promise to clean up corruption. Known as "black gold," Taiwan's tangled web of corruption involves gangsters, politicians, and local businesses and grew sinuous and strong under KMT rule. The straight-shooting Chen, a guiding member of the Democratic Progressive Party, proved his mettle fighting black gold as mayor of Taipei: He increased government efficiency, cracked down on graft, and shut down the vice dens.
No one shows better than Chen how raw, spirited talent can rise to the top in Taiwan. Born to a tenant-farming family, he was so sickly as a newborn that his parents didn't even register his birth until several months later, when it was clear that he had a good chance at survival. They had to borrow money to pay for his school, but the investment paid off. A star student, he consistently graduated at the top of his class. He ranked first among all the students admitted to the most prestigious university program in the country, the law department at National Taiwan University. During his junior year, he took the bar exam and scored the highest grade in the country--becoming Taiwan's youngest lawyer.
In 1979, Chen defended a group of opposition figures after a violent demonstration in Kaohsiung. Among those in the dock under the martial law regime was Annette Lu, now Chen's vice-president. The trial galvanized Chen's political instincts. In 1981, he won a seat on Taipei's City Council, marking him as an up-and-comer in the opposition.
Chen painfully learned what a dubious distinction that was. In November, 1985, an assassination attempt on his wife left her permanently paralyzed. The following June, Chen began serving an eight-month sentence for politically motivated libel charges. But jail didn't dull his instincts, and he rose up the political ladder. Defeated in 1998 when he ran for mayoral reelection, he redoubled his efforts, which paid off with his March victory. Chen has a tough agenda. But he knows the issues and has proven himself one of Taiwan's best and brightest.