Tapei Mayor Chen Shui-bian is becoming one of the fastest rising stars in Taiwan's political firmament by bringing something new to the island: town hall-style democracy.
By fielding questions from residents on radio and TV phone-ins and setting up "citizens' meeting points" where anyone can talk to him, Taipei's first freely elected mayor "is changing the entire face of Taiwan politics," says independent filmmaker Wu Yifeng.
Taiwan was ruled with an iron fist for decades by Chiang Kai Shek and his Nationalist (Kuomintang) Party. Chiang fled here after his 1949 defeat by Communist troops on the Chinese mainland.
Although Taiwan was then called "Free China," Chiang's execution or imprisonment of dissidents made his ruling style indistinguishable from that of the Communists or the generations of emperors that preceded them.
Since the lifting of martial law here in 1987, democracy has gradually been introduced to the island. Yet some Nationalist Party officials, who still dominate the executive branch and the broadcast media, are perceived as being aloof, calling the shots from their ivory towers.
In contrast, "Chen Shui-bian is a man of the people, and he represents a new era for Taiwan," says Deng Linan, a taxi driver.
"Chen's charisma and down-to-earth style have fueled a 'people-power revolution' here, and even the president and premier are being forced to adopt some of his tactics," says Mr. Wu.
Chen rose to power on a wave of discontent with the ruling Nationalists, and his 1994 campaign was engineered by an unlikely group of pop artists and former student-protest leaders.
"Chen Shui-bian and other young leaders like him are bringing a new kind of dynamic democracy to Taiwan that is unmatched in any other area of Asia," which is dominated by autocratic rulers, says Tu Weiming, a China scholar at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
Scholars and workers here say Chen's growing popularity, and his clampdown on organized crime and official corruption, could propel him to victory in the 2000 presidential race. During an interview at his office in central Taipei, Chen dodged a question on whether he plans to run for president. "Right now, I want to concentrate on being the best mayor in Taiwan. If I reach that goal, I can do anything in the future."
The Nationalists, who officially back eventual reunification with China, are attempting to halt the rise of Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) by branding it a dangerous, pro-independence group that could trigger an armed attack by Beijing. China's Communist leaders regard Taiwan as a rebel province and have said that any declaration of independence by the island would be considered an act of war.
Although the DPP used the independence issue to wrest power from the Nationalists, it has since blurred its stance to reassure voters who were apprehensive about armed conflict with China.
Since his election in 1994, Chen has staked out a middle ground and helped propel his party to become Taiwan's second-strongest political force. He is now pushing for a constitutional amendment that would give the people the right to vote on major decisions through referendum.
"Taiwan's future will not be decided by the Nationalist Party or the DPP, and certainly not by the Chinese Communist Party," says Chen. "Our democracy means the road ahead can only be determined by the people through plebiscites."
Yet Beijing seems to fear that the development of democracy in Taiwan could lead to calls for a final break with the mainland. The Communist Party is also alarmed that Taiwan's growing waves of freedom could wash across to mainland China's shores. Beijing responded to Taiwan's first free presidential poll in March 1996 by firing live missiles just off the island's coast.
Chen, along with figures from every corner of Taiwanese society, says Beijing's armed threats have cut support for reunification with China. But while denouncing China's use of military pressure, he has also held out a number of olive branches to the mainland.
Taiwan's ban on direct trade-and-transport links with the mainland should be lifted, and cross-strait talks that were frozen two years ago should be resumed, he says. But despite his high profile in the capital, it is unclear how strong his support is outside of Taipei.
"China sees Chen Shui-bian as less confrontational than [Taiwan President] Lee Teng-hui," says a Chinese scholar in Hong Kong who has high-level government contacts. "The Chinese government ... sees him as a figure who could move forward with cross-strait talks," he adds.
Within Taipei, Chen's freewheeling style is reflected in the city's rejuvenated society and culture. To dispel the air of authoritarianism that hung over the city during four decades of martial law, Chen has transformed part of Generalissimo Chiang's residence into a public park. Chen, who as a young dissident was jailed briefly by the Nationalists, seems to delight in dismantling the symbols of power of the Chiang clan, say political analysts here.
"There were so many taboos here under martial law that even after it formally ended, many people were still trapped by invisible barriers on what they could think and do," says Chen. He says rallies he is leading outside the austere Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall and youth dances near the presidential building are aimed at "promoting Taiwan's cultural and democratic diversity."