What Chen Shui-bian’s Arrest Means for China

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Getting an accurate read on what people in China think about the prosecution of Chen Shui-bian is difficult because Taiwan’s former president isn’t too highly thought of here. To the extent people have an opinion they seem to be glad he’s in trouble because, well, Chen’s a troublemaker. The larger question about what it means for Taiwan to put a former leader on trial hasn’t been too closely examined. Now Hu Shuli, editor leading Chinese financial magazine Caijing, has examined the case in her latest column and found signs of a “maturing democratic society”:

…as the drama unfolds, people on both sides of the strait and even international observers will be able to judge whether the trial is fair, if the process stands up to public scrutiny, if the prosecution and judicial functions are well delineated, and if the public’s right to know is honored.

Regardless, the process is special for Chinese around the world. When a former leader is detained in an ordinary jail cell, it’s clear that China’s old feudal saying that “punishment reaches no officials” is no longer valid. No individual and no party can be above the law. This is the essence of rule of law.

The Chen case also reflects how the judiciary exercises power and oversight. While probing the allegations, Taiwan’s prosecutors came under criticism in some quarters for being subject to political interference. Other critics faulted them for “an inadequate response” to the allegations. To the system’s credit, different viewpoints were expressed through appropriate channels. It’s best not to muffle critics. The news media played an important role in helping the public understand the case while providing a forum for opinion. A so-called “trial by press” or “lynch-mob court” can be avoided by letting rule of law guide pluralistic opinions. Self-restraint in the process reflects a maturing democratic society.

Of course Chen’s backers in Taiwan see the case against him as growing evidence of rule by law, of the ruling Kuomintang pushing a criminal prosecution for political reasons. But what Hu is praising here is not merely the fact that Chen can and is being prosecuted, but how the case is debated and criticized in the public sphere. She suggests that this should be used as an example to push for greater transparency in China. My guess is that mainland leaders won’t be jumping at the chance to increase the means by which they can be investigated once out of office.

But this does recall an important point made by Jimmy Lai, publisher of the Apple Daily tabloid in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The closer relationship between China and Taiwan is often viewed from the prism of how the mainland will affect the island. China can help Taiwan’s economy grow, argue backers on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. China will swallow Taiwan, warn critics. But Lai wrote in Time last year that the relationship should also be seen in terms of what Taiwan can offer China:

…as difficult as it may seem, China should look for help from Taiwan. The island has institutions that protect and nurture ideas. It is a place where people don’t have to be afraid of holding unpopular opinions. Most importantly, Taiwan has a fully functioning democracy.

So as China’s state press continues to offer extensive coverage about the downfall of Beijing’s rival, news about Chen’s case will remind people about what Taiwan has going for it as well.