The Tragedy of President Chen

Project Syndicate  |  Nov 1, 2006

By Sin-ming Shaw

Taiwan’s Public Prosecutor has indicted the wife of President Chen Shui-bien for embezzling public funds. Chen, as a sitting president, cannot be indicted even though the prosecutor says that he has evidence to prove his guilt. But Chen’s legacy was already in tatters.

Chen can remain in office until his term ends in 2008, or he could resign now in order to let his vice president and pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rebuild to win the next election. Whatever his decision, Taiwan’s first DPP president will go down in history as a pathetic failure, because he used his office to divide the island’s citizens, as if his domestic political opponents were Taiwan’s mortal enemies.

The root of Chen’s moral demise is something the classical Greeks identified: hubris. Chen’s popularity among his party followers, whose fervency often bordered on fundamentalism, changed him from a person with deep democratic instincts into a textbook case of a man who regards power and its prerogatives as being his by right.

Chen once had political courage. Jailed years ago for his anti-Kuomintang (KMT) activities, he stood up at great odds to the Chinese Communist Party, which sought in vain to subjugate him in cross-Strait relations and in global politics.
The world has largely deserted Taiwan and its 23 million people – the only democracy among 1.2 billion Chinese. Only 24 countries, mostly tiny island states, maintain diplomatic relations, while all but one of the world’s major powers and all important international institutions, including the United Nations, dance to the mainland’s tune on the issue.

But Chen’s behavior did not help. Indeed, he even angered the United States, Taiwan’s only military protector, by his frequent confrontational tactics, such as pushing Taiwan towards independence, which runs counter to America’s longstanding “One-China” policy.

After winning the presidency, Chen could have risen above theatrics by focusing on two Taiwanese strengths: its economy and its unbroken humanist Chinese cultural tradition.

Instead, Chen balked at further integration into the global economy, refusing to open all of Taiwan’s economic sectors to foreign participation, which would have strengthened Taiwan’s competitiveness and efficiency. For years, forward looking Taiwanese industrialists, including many hi-tech entrepreneurs, urged Chen to de-bureaucratize and de-politicize Taiwan’s increasingly isolated economy. Failing to persuade him, they decamped to mainland China.

Unwisely, Chen went out of his way to shut out mainland Chinese capital and to retain barriers to other foreign investors in order to protect the domestic businesses of his political allies.

Indeed, indicators of economic freedom and competitiveness compiled by the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the World Economic Forum, and others show that Taiwan’s relative ranking has stagnated or even declined on Chen’s watch. This stands in sharp contrast to the communist mainland, which has reinvented itself to become one of world’s more open, competitive, and dynamic economies.
As a result, big international corporations and Wall Street banks now flock to China, bypassing Taiwan. They do so not because Taiwan is small – witness Hong Kong and Switzerland – but because it retains too many restrictions against foreign institutions.

Taiwan’s missed opportunity reflects its government’s sheer incompetence, arrogance, and ignorance. Chen squandered six valuable years as his administration engaged mainly in polemics with its opposition parties while he pandered to the extreme wing of the DPP and mobilized his government to “de-Sinicize” Taiwan culture.

Indeed, Chen even argued that the Taiwanese were never Chinese. He ordered the Education Ministry to revise school textbooks to promote the idea that the Taiwanese people were fundamentally different, practically a different race from the Chinese. Clearly, Chen’s hatred of dictatorship, whether Communist or KMT, consumed him, limiting his ability to think clearly.

In fact, Taiwan’s moral superiority over mainland China lies not only in its democratic institutions, but also in its unbroken adherence to the ancient culture that the Chinese communists nearly succeeded in annihilating after coming to power in 1949. Ironically, it is China’s rulers who are now scrambling to resurrect Confucius as a moral anchor in a culture dominated by the pursuit of money.
Chen should have celebrated Taiwan’s “Chineseness” proudly and loudly, thereby distinguishing the island from the barbaric legacy of the Chinese Communist Party. Instead, Chen’s futile effort to “de-Sinicize” Taiwan created a wastefully divisive contentious society, pitting “mainlanders” and “locals” against each other.

Chen’s record suggests he will hang on to his failed presidency. He will use his legal training to fight on technicalities. But to the rest of the world, Chen has been revealed as a petty liar over a pitiful amount of money. He and his wife lied about their involvement. Their close aides have confessed that they forged documents and perjured themselves to protect their political boss. What a pathetic ending for a man who could have become one of the most important leaders in modern Chinese history.

Sin-ming Shaw is a visiting scholar at the East Asian Studies Department, Princeton University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2006.

Timeless tango

Bangkok Post  |  Oct 13, 2006

By Sin-ming Shaw

Argentina's national dance is enjoying a worldwide surge of popularity both as a dramatic, musical spectacle and as a sensual game for two players

Juan and Delores Fabbri, the owner and artistic director of Esquina Carlos Gardel, a swanky tango club in Buenos Aires. Dana Frigoli and Pablo Villaraza, dancers and founders of DNI Studio, famous for creative "nuevo" tango.

What better time in Thailand than now to think about something apolitical, something romantic, pleasing, fun and yet at the same time melancholic? What better than the Argentine tango?

To a growing community of aficionados around the world, tango is Argentine tango, not the ballroom kind danced to a regimented step count and distinguished by its snapping head movements and stiff, formal posture. In the Argentine tango, dancers hold each other in a tender embrace. When the couple dance well, it is elegance at its most sensuous.

Argentina is an immigrant country with deep Spanish roots, but there are also Italians, English, Germans and a growing community of Japanese and Chinese, mainly from Taiwan. With few native in habitants remaining, Argentina today is the most European of all the South American countries.

And, yes, there are even Thais. Two, to be exact, in all of Mendoza, the third largest city and the wine producing capital of the country. I met them both working at the Hyatt Mendoza, where they are sought after as masseurs by international travellers who know what a good massage should feel like. There are certainly Thai restaurants in the capital, Buenos Aires, though strangely, Argentines do not take to spicy food as Europeans do.

Argentina may not be for everyone, especially those used to a no-nonsense business culture where efficiency is often prized above other human values. The supercharged businessmen in Hong Kong or New York would find the country maddeningly laid back. On the other hand, Thais would probably love it.

To appreciate Argentina you must love food, wine, laughter and above all you must want to be seduced by tango. The late, great tango maestro Carlos Gavito described tango as "two people caressing music with their bodies".

Tango is back in vogue around the world after decades of hiatus, and Buenos Aires is the tango capital of the world. There is even a gay tango club. Salon tango is the most traditional style and remains to most dancers the gold standard. Stage tango is for performance in a show, hence the name.

Then there is the nuevo, or new tango, which many younger dancers around the world have taken to like ducks to water. The style is more playful and less exact than salon tango where the "walk" requires years to perfect.

The young dancers don't care for the term nuevo as they consider it pejorative; in their mind this is just the same as traditional as salon tango. They claim a less restrictive form was how tango was originally danced before stricter discipline was imposed in later years by dancers with ballet training. Yet I find the label nuevo tango apt and complimentary. Why not?

Tango teachers in Buenos Aires are plentiful and their fees are more than reasonable - unlike in Hong Kong where unscrupulous carpetbaggers often prey on the vanity of the bored rich, charging exorbitant tuition and treating the students as mindless ATMs. In one celebrated case a wealthy banker agreed to pay US$15 million to her dance teacher for 6 years. She sued successfully to have half of her contractual payment returned because the teacher had called her "a lazy cow".

In Buenos Aires the top maestros charge US$100 an hour, although they will often charge $5 to $10 a person for two hours in group lessons in a public dance studio open to all comers. As one master explained: "We want to keep the art of tango alive by teaching to those who cannot afford private lessons."

Where does the novice even begin to search for a good teacher? The tango publication El Tangauta, is a good place to start. The government also has a helpful site in English at In Buenos Aires you can take lessons from world-famous maestro Osvaldo Zotto ( whose brother Miguel Zotto, travelled throughout Asia to perform to sell-out shows.

Another world-class dancer is Mora Godoy ( who, like all female tango dancers, was trained in classical ballet. Her partner is the darkly handsome Junior Cervila who made his debut in the classic movie Tango featuring some of the best-known living tango dancers today.

For beginners and the young, the popular and famous DNI dance studio founded only 18 months ago by two young dynamic dancers well known in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Dana Frigoli and Pablo Villaraza. Under their coaching, the studio has turned out four finalists in the annual World Tango Championship Competition, the equivalent of the Wimbledon in tennis.

Dana and Pablo have created a style that combines the rigour of classical tango with individual creativity allowing the students to improvise according his or her physical uniqueness and, more importantly for beginners, a method that is user-friendly.

"Not everyone is built the same, and therefore it is wrong to insist that each must dance the way the classic tango is usually taught," Dana said.

The studio (http://www.estudiodnitango. is a home to many from all over the world. At the reception area, students and teachers waiting for their class to begin often just invite each other to dance impromptu.

Buenos Aires never sleeps, and many restaurants stay open till well past midnight. There are at least 40 milongas or tango dance halls, forming part of the city's nightlife and attracting dancers of all ages to tango till dawn.

Good dancing shoes are a must. For ladies the best place is Comme Il Faut in exclusive Recoleta, 1239 Arenales. All shoes are hand-made and the shop is invariably packed with stylish women who wear them as street shoes.

No one should leave Buenos Aires without going to watch a professional show and the best is at Esquina Carlos Gardel ( The owner and founder, Juan Fabbri, is the Godfather of tango. To be asked to perform there is an honour even for already famous maestros.

When Juan and his beautiful wife, Dolores, the artistic director of their show, go to a rare midnight milonga to dance, it is a scene out of the movie, Godfather. When they make their entrance, a throng gathers around them. Tango maestros hug them to pay their respect: everyone knows Juan is the kingpin of all the tango impresarios in Argentina.

Argentina may be far from Asia, but one can easily find magic in its culture, its wine and its flamboyantly stylish and seductive national dance.

The terrorists' big mistake

South China Morning Post  |  Aug 3, 2005

By Sin-ming Shaw

Six in 10 Americans say they believe a third world war is likely in their lifetime, according to a recent Associated Press poll. "I feel like we're in a world war right now," Susan Aser, an estate agent from New York state, was quoted as saying.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, September 11 and last month's bombings in London and Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, all seem to reinforce Ms Aser's feelings. This enemy, deviating from a millennium-old pattern, has no front line, no uniform, no nationality and no borders. He is practically invisible. We do, however, know the enemy is driven by religious precepts and a hatred of the west and its Muslim allies.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the majority of Iraqi people who want to have a better life are targets of their suicide bombs. Other countries, Muslim or not, expect the worst. Above all else, these radical Islamic terrorists hate the United States and Britain, the two ultimate symbols of the west.

It may be true that the Iraqi invasion had something to do with the continuing terror. But September 11 happened before the invasion. It may also be true that the long Israeli-Palestinian conflicts have something to do with the motivation of these terrorists.

If true, it is puzzling why they don't go and fight the Israelis instead. Taking on the Americans and the British entails risks that the terrorists do not seem to have properly evaluated.

They may well believe the clich?that the west is so materialistic, so decadent, so against what the Prophet Mohammed taught that these two countries are ready to topple with only a few bombs. The notion of the decadent west ready to keel over and die is not new. The Chinese Marxists certainly believed so for many years.

Judging by what they do in the mainland these days, however, the communists have paid the west the ultimate compliment by copying it wholesale.

But the Islamic radicals seem to cling to the belief that they can bring the west to its knees. By taking on the US and the UK, the terrorists have picked the wrong adversaries. The British, especially, have a tenacity that historically has been underestimated by their foes. Americans can be a little short of patience; but not Britons, who have a long history of conflicts within their own borders and around the world, and have come out on top.

They lived through two world wars and the Irish Republican Army attacks, almost with nonchalance.

A few generations ago, the British ran the world's largest and most successful global empire. They left behind a legacy of public governance, common law, lasting prosperity, a global language and sufficient goodwill that is still appreciated by its former colonies and commonwealth countries. Among them is Malaysia, the most well-run and prosperous Muslim country on the planet.

British public management was paid its ultimate compliment early this year when leaders in Beijing unceremoniously fired the super-patriotic but incompetent Tung Chee-hwa, and hired the ultimate British-trained civil servant, Donald Tsang Yum-kuen, a knight of the British Empire, to succeed Mr Tung as Hong Kong's chief executive.

The terrorists would be well advised to do at least two things: visit a psychiatrist to understand - and then to better manage - their anger. Second, they should reconsider their choice of the British as their enemy.

Their record of beating terrorists, big and small, is not something any half-intelligent fighter wants to bet against.

Sin-ming Shaw is a former visiting fellow at Oriel College, Oxford University

Proud to call myself a Londoner

South China Morning Post  |  Jul 20, 2005

By Sin-ming Shaw

Last Thursday, London and Europe observed two minutes of silence to commemorate and honour those killed in the London bombings. I was among those who observed the silence, at noon, with barely controlled emotions because I am, now, a Londoner on at least two levels.

First, I live here. Any random attack on its inhabitants could be an attack on me. I could easily have been among the victims on the Tube, as I had plans to do some work in the library at the School of Oriental and African Studies, at the University of London. The nearest Underground station is Russell Square, where scores died.

Second, during the memorial silence, one of the signs displayed read: "One World, One City." London is a prime example of that sentiment.

Not even New York, my former home, matches the cosmopolitan culture that has evolved in London. I believe this city is a far more multicultural, cosmopolitan, tolerant, vivacious, creative metropolis. I lived in New York for exactly those reasons - and they have now drawn me to London.

There is another reason that I am a Londoner. The late US president John F. Kennedy famously declared: "Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a Berliner), on the Berlin Wall in 1963. On the day after September 11, Le Monde, the premier French newspaper, declared on its front page: "We are all Americans."

These sentiments of solidarity were less about politics than about sharing certain basic values - human freedom and the individual's right to life, liberty and happiness. London captures these sentiments like no other city I know. I am therefore proud to call myself a Londoner.

The old global dividing lines pitched rich countries against poor ones, Christians versus Muslims, Jews against Arabs, and so on. But now, all that is obsolete.

There is only one relevant demarcation line in today's increasingly globalised world: it cuts across nationalities, cultures, races and religions, dividing people into the "smart" and the "dumb".

In China, for instance, the "smart" ignore the official, nationalistic jingoism and go straight from the best universities to the best companies. In India, the smart ignore their caste and scramble for a place at the India Institute of Technology.

The "dumb" believe that selected excerpts from the Koran, Bible, Communist Manifesto or Mao Zedong Thought are sufficient intellectual and moral guides to live a better life. These simplistic tracts lead to only one end: the dead one.

Many say it is impossible to fight fanatics on the streets of Baghdad or London. But it is not true that such nihilistic terrorism cannot be defeated. The history of the world is full of positive thinking and increasing human freedoms. These freedoms are based on science and humanistic values that promote the individual's right to life, liberty and happiness.

Nihilism, class hatred, imperialism, dictatorships of any hue - political or religious - have never lasted. And they will not last. In the end, the majority in the Islamic world will be the ultimate disciplinarians of these wayward, "dumb" fanatics who seek only destruction, not knowing they are parodying a famous Mao Zedong sound bite: "Without destruction, no construction."

By "construction", Mao meant a country modelled after his megalomaniacal image. It failed. What would "construction" mean to the bombers? A religious society presided over by medieval Islamic leaders who think the Koran is the only book to read? Or led by Osama bin Laden? Whatever they thought would come after "destruction", it is clear nothing constructive will follow.

They, like all nihilists before them, will fail.

Sin-ming Shaw, a visiting scholar at Columbia University, currently resides in London