2000 / 6月
Teng Sue-feng /tr. by Robert Taylor
Chen Chu, known in Taiwan's opposi-tion movement as "Big Sister Democracy," suffered many hardships and weathered many storms as a young woman. Always concerned for the disadvantaged, and an advocate of humanitarian values, she is set to create a new situation for labor throughout Taiwan.
The daughter of a Taiwanese farmer, Chen Chu grew up in Ilan County in a family which depended on the soil and the weather for its livelihood, and as a child she was completely oblivious to politics. In 1969, she passed the college entrance exam and gained a place at the World College of Journalism (now Shih Hsin University). Just as her family was worrying about her registration fees and her living expenses at the college in suburban Taipei, an elder gave her an introduction to go and work for non-KMT provincial assembly member Kuo Yu-hsin as a secretary and research assistant, to earn some money to help with her living expenses. But this chance opportunity completely changed the course of Chen Chu's life.
Working in Kuo Yu-hsin's office for ten years, she got to know many people involved in the opposition movement, such as Lei Chen, Wu San-lien, Yu Teng-fa, Huang Hsin-chieh, Kang Ning-hsiang and Chang Chun-hung. Before the Kaohsiung Incident, Chen Chu was known as a "super party worker" who liaised among these three generations of dangwai. As well as often meeting to exchange views on the political situation, the dangwai activists also published magazines criticizing the government policies of the day. In that era when opposition forces were suppressed, this got them into trouble. Seeing many people around her bearing the scars of the fight for democracy and being imprisoned, "from the age of 19 I had the cares and solemnity of a person in middle age," wrote Chen Chu in her autobiography.
Super dangwai worker
In 1978, after Chen took historical materials compiled by Lei Chen overseas to be published, she was held for questioning for 13 days by the Taiwan Garrison Command before being released; the following year, she was arrested again and sentenced to 12 years in prison for involvement in the Kaohsiung Incident.
What strength did she rely on to see her through this low point in her life?
Chen Chu says that she spent almost five years of her incarceration in the same prison as new vice-president Annette Lu. "She studied philosophy, while I assiduously read [the Song dynasty historiographical work] The Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Government." Also, although Chen had never been good with her hands, in prison she learned knitting and embroidery from Annette Lu, and under Lu's instruction actually succeeded in knitting several sleeveless woolen cardigans which she gave as presents to friends on the outside. Later, because Annette Lu was released before her on medical parole, Chen Chu spent a year in her cell alone, without anyone to talk to. But her firm belief that the democracy movement in Taiwan could not be suppressed forever sustained her through this time.
After six years in jail Chen Chu was released, but her suffering in prison had only further deepened her determination to promote human rights. After her release she became office director for the Taiwan Association for the Promotion of Human Rights, and was one of the group of ten who led the founding of the Democratic Progressive Party.
In 1987, she traveled to Europe and America at the invitation of Amnesty International (AI). It was only then that she learned that during her six years' imprisonment, AI's London chapter had been constantly writing to the Pope, parliamentarians in various countries and the KMT government in Taiwan, calling for her release. The group had also written over 10,000 letters to Chen Chu herself, and had sent her medicines, vitamins and so on. Chen said that although she had never received any of these things, she was deeply moved that there should be such a group of people on the other side of the world who would work for so long to save a complete stranger. This love which transcends race and nationality was part of what motivated her to make the pursuit of human rights her life's work.
In late 1991, she successfully stood for election as a National Assembly member for the southern city of Kaohsiung. A few years later, at the invitation of then Taipei City mayor Chen Shui-bian, she became director of the city's Bureau of Social Affairs. Accepting this appointment was another important turning point in Chen Chu's life. "I've been through a lot of hardship in my life, and I've never had any great ambitions for myself. My next goal had been to stand for the Legislative Yuan and serve two terms as a legislator specializing in human rights, and then to get out of politics," says Chen. At first she worried that she was not suited to the job Chen offered, but feeling unable to disappoint the many people who urged her to accept the appointment, she decided to give it her best shot.
In 1998, when Chen Shui-bian failed to gain re-election as Taipei City mayor, Chen Chu left the Taipei City Government and became director of the Bureau of Social Affairs in Kaohsiung City. But less than two years later, at the strenuous invitation of President Chen Shui-bian, she accepted the post of chairwoman of the Executive Yuan's Council of Labor Affairs. Chen Chu's humanitarian beliefs are widely seen as being very much in keeping with Chen Shui-bian's promise to take care of disadvantaged groups such as women, aboriginals and the physically and mentally handicapped.
A first-class emcee
Chen Chu has a bold and straightforward character and unflinching courage, and has often been described as having the spirit of a woman warrior. But members of the public who have often seen her at campaign rallies for DPP candidates at election time have an even deeper impression of her talent for hosting such events.
Chen Chu has a clear, powerful voice which projects well, and speaks authentic Taiwanese. When hosting a campaign event she is by turns enthusiastic or sad, and her expressive body language and humorous segues between speakers usually succeed in creating an inspiring atmosphere which wins supporters' hearts. If DPP candidates can get her on stage with them, it generally gives a boost to their campaign.
When asked the secret of her success, Chen Chu simply says modestly that candidates have to be up to the job themselves, otherwise no matter how well she speaks it will be of no help.
Coming of age through the day-to-day tasks of opposition politics, Chen Chu has always felt that her own grasp of theory is inadequate, and in her tenure as director of Taipei City's Bureau of Social Affairs, she used her evenings to take courses in social development at Shih Hsin University. She says that when other women her age were at university she was in constant fear of persecution, and later during her six years in jail she lost many opportunities for study. In pursuing further studies, she was only fulfilling an unrealized dream of her youth.
When she accepted the post of chairwoman of the Council of Labor Affairs, friends told her that the CLA chairperson had to engage in dialogue with employers, and that it was a highly stressful job in which one could not easily win favor. But, says Chen Chu, "I've rarely tried to ingratiate myself with anyone during my working life-I've only insisted on doing the right thing."