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A First for Taiwan: A Catholic Vice President

Mitsuru Tamura / Yomiuri / The Yomiuri Shimbun

Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen declares a victory in the presidential election. in Taipei, Taiwan on Jan. 16, 2016. 59-year-old Tsai will be the first female president of Taiwan. ( The Yomiuri Shimbun )

John Burger - published on 01/19/16 - updated on 06/07/17

Chen Chien-jen joins first woman president for island nation

Taiwan made history last week when voters elected a woman as president for the first time in the island nation’s history.

But Tsai Ing-wen’s election as president in a landslide victory wasn’t the only first. Tsai’s running mate, Chen Chien-jen, became the first Catholic to be elected as vice president.

Taiwan, where the Republic of China relocated after of Mao Zedong’s 1949 Communist Party takeover of Mainland China, is largely Buddhist and Taoist. Only about 4.5 percent of its population of 23.4 million is Christian. There are about 270,000 Catholics.

But local Catholics say Chen’s election on January 16 could help raise the profile of the Church, according to an article at UCA News.

“This will help improve the effectiveness of the government and carry out justice so that authorities can join hands with the Church in helping the marginalized and enhance social welfare,” said James Liao, a Catholic educator in Taichung, who hopes Chen will bring Christian values into the political circle.

Known as a fervent Catholic, Chen is a Knight of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher, and was honored by being inducted into the Order of St. Gregory the Great in 2013 for his contributions to the Church.

Chen is a member of the board of directors of Fu Jen Catholic University.

A former editor at Taiwan’s Central News Agency, Cheryl Lai, spoke at Focus Taiwan of the possibility that Chen’s new position could help Taiwan maintain diplomatic ties with the Holy See and Catholic allies in Latin America.

But Chen’s election is also being viewed in light of Taiwan’s growing biotechnology industry. Chen, 64, holds a doctorate in epidemiology and human genetics from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Though he is a scientist and does not belong to President-elect Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party, Chen is not new to government. During a 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), he headed the Cabinet-level Department of Health. He was lauded for helping get Taiwan through the crisis, and Tsai cited this accomplishment during the presidential campaign.

Focus Taiwan said that Chen’s 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. 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.

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.

Focus Taiwan continued:

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. [… A central news agency] reporter also praised the scholar-turned-politician for having the ability to chart and implement strategies to help develop Taiwan’s biomedical industry. […] 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 Facebook post on 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. But now, I have the chance to do more for them … I want them to be full of hope for the future.”

Chen wrote on Facebook that he consulted Taipei Archbishop John Hung Shan-chuan before making his decision to accept Tsai’s invitation to be her running mate. Archbishop 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,” Chen said.

In the televised debate, he said he also wants to focus on housing issues. 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.

The new president and vice president take up their posts May 20.

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