Calls for Chen’s release irrelevant to Taiwan’s politics and society

For Global Times

There has been a never-ending stream of calls in recent months by US congresspeople, members of the EU parliament and their likes for the medical parole of former Taiwanese leader Chen Shui-bian, who is serving an 18-and-a-half year jail term for corruption.

The argumentative acrobatics on how exactly Chen deserves to be punished and how sick he actually is has been conducted elsewhere, but what deserves attention is that the usual bottom line of the foreign dignitaries’ pleas is faulty. They say Chen’s release would heal a rift that goes through Taiwan, while in fact, his return home would hardly leave a mark on the island’s political landscape or society.

If the Kuomintang (KMT) government under Ma Ying-jeou would give in and interfere with the judiciary to have Chen freed, Chen would keep on doing what he does in jail, namely writing books, issuing press releases and every now and then giving his blessings to some new and insignificant pro-independence grass-roots movement.

Chen’s release would not make Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)-leaning voters so thankful that they cast their ballots for the KMT in coming elections, and neither would KMT-leaning ones be so upset with the Ma administration’s decision to let the former corrupt leader off the hook that they would support the DPP or abstain from voting all together.

And if Chen were to serve another few years of his term in his cell, it would not make a difference, either. We do not know how many of the 6,093,578 votes the DPP got in the last election were because members of the public felt Chen was being treated unfairly, but that to all appearances no academic or journalist has bothered figuring out that number can safely be taken as an indicator that Chen’s fate was never anywhere near to having become a factor.

Given Chen’s irrelevance to Taiwan’s day-to-day politics, it is naïve to think that Chen’s release would lead to Taiwan’s notoriously bitterly feuding “blue” and “green” camps getting along with each other any better.

Chen’s release would leave no tangible impact on Taiwanese politics and would affect the island’s society even less. The phraseology Chen’s foreign supporters frequently resort to when arguing for his release such as “national reconciliation” or “healing the nation” are usually employed in the context of places such as Rwanda or the Balkans, where in recent history one part of the population has massacred another.

But in the case of Taiwan, there is no such rift. “Blue” Mandarin-speaking Northerners do not assault “green” Minnan-speaking Southerners or vice versa, and, save perhaps in the run-up to elections,

Taiwanese do not give much thought on whether their classmate or friend is “blue” or “green,” or whether someone’s grandparents were born on the mainland or on the island, or whether they should or should not date someone from the other side of the imaginary divide.

The distinguished foreign commentators who give their two cents on the Chen story say they do so because they are friends of Taiwan and care deeply for the island. They give Taiwanese government officials an earful during dinner banquets, reach out to journalists to create momentum, and some diligently pen open letters to Ma.

Conspicuous by absence in their arguments, however, is that perhaps all Taiwanese jail inmates should get better medical care, more sunlight, better food, and so on.

This silence on the shortcomings of Taiwan’s prison system is a real pity since some reform in this field would leave its mark on the lives of the 56,000 people who are currently doing jail time in Taiwan and their families.

If Taiwan’s influential friends from faraway Washington and Brussels would put in a good word for all of Taiwan’s prisoners, as opposed to only Chen, it could pave the way to many times more reconciliation and healing on the island.


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