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Chen Chien-jen vows to be more than just figurehead vice president

2016/01/16 20:55:02

Chen Chien-jen (right) and Tsai Ing-wen.

By CNA staff writer Elizabeth Hsu

Vice President-elect Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) got his introduction to politics through his father, late Kaohsiung County Magistrate Chen Hsin-an (陳新安, 1911-1988), learning in part that politics does not have to be a zero-sum game.

It was a point driven home, Chen says, when his father died.

Chen Hsin-an was a member of the Kuomintang's (KMT's) "white faction" (白派). His best friend was Yu Teng-fa (余登發, 1904-1989), founder of the "black faction" (黑派) of independent political activists.

At Chen Hsin-an's funeral in 1988, Yu read a eulogy he wrote by himself, which Chen Chien-jen still remembers clearly.

"He wept as he was reading. I could not help bursting into tears while listening," Chen Chien-jen recalled.

Offspring of 'black' and 'white' politics

"From my father, I learned that politics does not mean people have to fight against each other to the death. Once people get stranded in such a confrontation, they will constantly find fault with each other.

"Eventually, they won't be able to work together in finding ways for Taiwanese people to walk out of their predicament," Chen said in a post on his Facebook page.

An epidemiologist and devout Catholic, the 64-year-old Chen is not a member of and has no plans to join the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the party on whose presidential ticket Chen is running.

Knowing competition exists in politics, however, the scholar and church-goer believes competition does not necessarily mean confrontation.

"In life, we sometimes are categorized based on different colors, different ethnic groups. Even so, we should not forget we all live in the same Taiwanese society.

"There are no differences among us in our feelings of love for Taiwan or in our desire to live and work in peace," he wrote on his Facebook page.

"Division and confrontation won't bring hope, but conciliation and consolidation will."

Before being invited by DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) last year to be her running mate, Chen was a vice president of Academia Sinica, Taiwan's top academic research institution, and a distinguished research fellow in its Genomics Research Center.

To participate in the election, he resigned from the two prominent posts.

Chen holds a Sc.D. in epidemiology and human genetics from Johns Hopkins University in the United States.

His early research focused on hepatitis B, and he was one of the first people in Taiwan to promote across-the-board vaccinations against the disease, which is widespread in Taiwan.

He is also an expert on arsenic poisoning, and took part in a team that researched blackfoot disease, which peaked in southwestern Taiwan between 1956 and 1960, and found links between the disease's high mortality rate and drinking water from deep wells that contained arsenic.

His best-known role came during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in Taiwan in 2003, when he headed the Cabinet-level Department of Health (now called the Ministry of Health and Welfare).

He was later praised for helping get Taiwan through the epidemic, and Tsai said Chen showed his leadership during the campaign against SARS and proved to be an effective communicator and coordinator.

Tsai's confidence in him

"Some said having Chen Chien-jen will be a plus for the campaign but I truly believe that Chen is a person who will be a plus for the country," Tsai said in announcing Chen as her running mate last November.

After stepping down as head of the Department of Health in January 2005, he led the National Science Council (the predecessor of the Ministry of Science and Technology) from 2006 to 2008.

But Chen never envisioned becoming a vice presidential candidate, he said in a televised debate for the three vice presidential candidates on Dec. 26, 2015.

When Tsai first came to him and asked him to run with her, he hesitated, telling Tsai that he had several drawbacks, including not being a DPP member, not being skilled in campaigning and and having a wife who is a Mainlander, Chen said.

He also reminded Tsai that he was suspected of plagiarism in a paper he co-authored in 2007.

Tsai did not agree that those would hold Chen back.

She went to former Academia Sinica President Lee Yuah-tseh (李遠哲) to persuade him to back her recruiting effort after Lee had opposed the move because he believed Chen could make greater contributions to Taiwan if he stayed at Academia Sinica, according to Chen.

The so-called plagiarism was also not an issue, having later been clarified as a citation error that the principal author made in the manuscript.

The error was discovered by an evaluating committee of the international medical journal, Cancer, and amended by the author prior to the paper's publication.

Chen said he consulted his archbishop, John Hung Shan-chuan (洪山川), before making his decision to accept Tsai's offer. Hung told him that he considered the political opportunity a "calling from God," Chen recalled.

"I want to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth, and light myself like a small candle to illuminate Taiwan," the devout Catholic described himself on his FB page.

Journalists' kind words about him

Chen's religious devotion was considered as icing on the cake to the DPP and a possible advantage to the country because it may be able to help Taiwan maintain its diplomatic ties with the Vatican and other Catholic allies in Latin America, contends Cheryl Lai (賴秀如), former editor-in-chief of CNA.

Reporters on the medical beat have seen Chen as someone who has a sense of humor and is easy to get along with.

They have been grateful for his help after presentations at medical symposiums left them perplexed, veteran CNA reporter Chen Ching-fang (陳清芳) said when asked about her opinion of the vice presidential candidate, whom she has known for more than 10 years.

Chen was always able to help reporters file stories that the average reader could understand, Chen Ching-fang said.

"Intelligent, good at coordination and humorous is the side of his personality reporters see. But if that makes you think he is a 'yes man,' you are wrong. I have seen him replace a subordinate in the blink of an eye," she said.

Though Chen Chien-jen comes from a family affiliated to a local political faction in Kaohsiung, he publicly defended Tsai when she was facing accusations of having a conflict of interest in a government investment in biotechnology company TaiMed Biologics Inc. (宇昌生技).

Chen Ching-fang said he has never alienated any particular group in Taiwan despite his clear political leanings.

"Without doubt Chen is green, but he has never shown a distaste for Mainlanders (people who immigrated from China, following the relocation of the KMT-led Republic of China government to Taiwan in 1949)," Chen Ching-fang said.

Over the past decade, Taiwan has been crippled by political struggles between the DPP-headed "pan-green" camp that supports independence and the KMT-led "pan-blue" alliance that is more China-friendly.

The CNA reporter also praised the scholar-turned-politician for having the ability to chart and implement strategies to help develop Taiwan's biomedical industry.

"Even though politics is like a jungle, Chen Chien-jen is not a small rabbit that gets lost easily. He can be as good as Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) if he is asked to handle the biotechnology and pharmaceutical sectors' development."

Legislative Speaker Wang is the founder of the Institute for Biotechnology and Medicine Industry, a non-profit organization committed to what Wang calls "upgrading biotechnology and medicine for the sake of the nation's health."

Chen Chien-jen has said that while Taiwan lacks natural resources, it has the ability to create and innovate and should continue its efforts to develop high-tech industries to boost economic growth and secure national security.

The "Asia-Pacific biotechnology and medicine research and development center" program he and Tsai put forth has been conceived to form a biomedical cluster along the high-speed railway from Taipei, Hsinchu and Taichung to Tainan, Chen said on a FB post Jan. 5.

Taiwan has the potential to be one of the world's leading countries in the biomedical sector, much like Switzerland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Belgium, he argued.

In a televised presentation of the three vice presidential candidates' policy positions on Dec. 26, 2015, Chen said "being a scientist, all I can do is assist young people in resolving academic problems.

Pledges to help the young

"But now, I have the chance to do more for them...I want them to be full of hope for the future."

To achieve that, he laid out four tasks he said a Tsai government will concentrate on. First, it hopes to upgrade Taiwan's industrial base to resolve high youth unemployment, Chen said.

Second, it intends to integrate resources and administrative capabilities to create a friendly environment for young people to start businesses.

Third, it wants to reduce the gap between academic degrees and today's workplace, and have schools train young people with the skills they need in the job market.

The last task is to alleviate the housing and family care burdens young people are facing.

"We will put forward 200,000 units of social housing for rent to end young people's nightmare in life. We cannot allow residential units to be used as investment vehicles by people who don't need them," Chen said.

He said a vice president should not be "a person without a voice," pledging that he will make every effort to serve the people as directed by the president.

"In my entire life, I have been hoping that there are good statesmen in Taiwan, instead of politicians," Chen said, defining a statesman as a person who thinks of people's needs and can resolve people's problems with sound policies and firm action.

"I vow to break the blue-green spell to rediscover the human side of politics," he said.