BANGKOK — Last week, a Taiwanese court sentenced Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan’s president from 2000 until 2008, to life in prison for corruption. Chen had embezzled millions of dollars of public funds. He did not act alone. His wife, children and other relatives all helped to hide the stolen loot in overseas accounts. Taiwan’s former first family turned out to be a den of common thieves.

Chen and his ruling Democratic Progressive Party camouflaged their personal and parochial financial interests behind the patriotic mask of ensuring the survival of a democratic Chinese society in an independent Taiwan. For years, Chen was perceived as a brave David fighting the communist Goliath, and attracted many admirers around the world.

Presenting himself and his party as champions of democracy, Chen sought to create the impression among Taiwan’s voters that their freedom would perish in the hands of the Nationalist Party (KMT) or any party other than his own. But in fact, it was the late President Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, who instituted the unprecedented democratic reforms that paved the way for the eventual electoral triumph of Chen’s formerly banned DPP.

Chen’s personal wealth grew conspicuously shortly after he assumed office, but no one could produce hard evidence of his corruption back then. His political supporters initially brushed aside the rumors of his self-enrichment as opposition KMT propaganda.

But, one by one, most of the DPP’s founding fathers all left the party, accusing Chen of corruption and autocratic behavior even within his own party.

In fact, Chen was always more concerned with consolidating his own power than with defending Taiwan. His most controversial political moves were aimed at his domestic opponents, not the Chinese government on the mainland. He led a vicious campaign to portray all Taiwanese with mainland Chinese roots, even if born and bred in Taiwan, as untrustworthy carpetbaggers or “not native people” — as if they were aliens from a different culture.

This official effort to portray native “Taiwanese” as a separate ethnic group, with scant relation to Chinese culture, was extended to language, as Chen favored using the Fujian dialect in lieu of the Mandarin spoken by 1.3 billion Chinese and taught all over the world. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education sought to expunge all references to China in school textbooks.

So insistent was Chen’s campaign that it reminded some people of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, a time when Chinese were divided into “us” and “them.” Indeed, under Chen’s policy, Taiwan nearly became a rigidly divided society, where “local” and “not native” Chinese lived as potential enemies.

Taiwan’s sole aboriginal parliamentarian once provided the logical rebuttal to Chen and the DPP, delivering a speech to a packed Congress entirely in his native tongue, which nobody else in the chamber could understand. The message was obvious: his was the only group with a legitimate claim to being native Taiwanese.

In the end, Chen’s effort was as futile as it was foolish. The Chinese culture embodied in the daily lives of 23 million Taiwanese of whatever political beliefs was not so easily eliminated by decree. Moreover, the attempt to do so angered the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese, who finally understood the stupidity of Chen’s policy, particularly how it led to economic stagnation at a time when China was booming.

Indeed, Taiwanese capital and knowhow built much of China’s high tech industries, and well over a half-million Taiwanese live and work near Shanghai in a virtual replica of Hsin Chu, Taiwan’s Silicon Valley. But in Chen’s Taiwan, domestic squabbles took precedence over economic development. Chen invariably blamed the KMT for blocking sensible economic plans, but even some of his moneyed supporters knew better.

When it was finally proved that power had turned Chen into a common criminal, the KMT was voted back into power. But, while Chen’s legacy of lies and corruption has ended, the reborn KMT under President Ma Ying-jeou has much to do to convince a cynical public that Chen’s ways, reminiscent of KMT’s own darker past, have not become embedded in the system.

Chen’s jail sentence should also serve to remind the DPP that it must become a party for all Taiwanese, “local” or not, if it is to have any chance at a revival. Taiwan’s people know that they cannot prosper as a democracy if ethnic divisiveness is allowed to hold sway.

Sin-ming Shaw is a former visiting scholar of history at Oxford and Harvard. © 2009 Project Syndicate

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