Taipei mayoral hopeful Sean Lien distances self from president Ma Ying-jeou over student protests

Taipei mayoral hopeful Sean Lien calls on island's leader to learn from protest students

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 April, 2014, 10:15am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 April, 2014, 4:01am

The government of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou should heed lessons from the student movement against a services trade pact with Beijing, says the eldest son of Lien Chan, honorary chairman of the Kuomintang.

"The student movement will eventually come to an end," said Sean Lien Sheng-wen, a front runner in November's mayoral election in Taipei. "But the social factors behind the movement, the uncertainty and anxiety young people feel about their future, will persist."

He called on the Ma administration to allocate more resources to help the younger generation.

Lien is a generation older than the student protesters but believes he is in touch with their concerns. That may explain why he has won support among the students and other young people as well as factions outside the KMT mainstream, many of whom are backing his mayoral bid.

Since he announced his candidacy on February 24, opinion polls have shown the 44-year-old running neck and neck with his main political rival, Ko Wen-je, a popular doctor at National Taiwan University Hospital.

Although many Taiwanese think of Lien as the pampered scion of a wealthy and powerful political clan, he has managed to move out of the shadow of his father. His outspokenness on policy and his political manoeuvring under Ma has struck a chord with a public disenchanted with the once-popular leader, whose accomplishments in office have fallen far short of expectations.

In an interview in November 2012, Lien ridiculed Ma for failing to kick-start the island's stagnant economy.

Lien also criticised Ma for his attempts to oust legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng, an intra-party rival, portraying the move as a throwback to court intrigues of imperial times. "It is the year 102 of the Republic of China," Lien said. "After the Ming dynasty, no one was above the law, not even the president".

Intense media scrutiny has only aided Lien's rapid rise in politics.

"There are no surprises with Lien," said Liao Da-chi, a political science professor at National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung. "The media spotlight is on him all the time.

"But the same media spotlight puts negative news about Lien in stark relief, including his privileged upbringing and the negative associations that has for some working folk."

Shortly after Lien announced his mayoral bid, unconfirmed reports of an extravagant lifestyle began appearing in the island's freewheeling press - tales of NT$200,000 (HK$52,000) bottles of wine being consumed at exclusive nightclubs and a haircut costing more than NT$3,000.

Questions also arose about his father's connections to the mainland.

Lien was reported to have assets worth about NT$110 million, while his father is said to be worth more than NT$2 billion.

Lien has tried to shift the focus away from his family. "I can't choose my parents," he said in response to a question about his background at a news conference announcing his entry in the mayor's race.

"But I can choose what kind of person I should be and what kind of things I should do, including devoting my life to working for the best future for the public."

He became attracted to public service after two brushes with death, he said.

Lien had a tumour removed from a kidney in December 2009, and in November of the following year, he was shot in the face at close range. The bullet, fired by a lone gunman during a campaign rally in Yonghe in New Taipei City on the eve of a council election, killed a bystander after hitting Lien's left cheek and exiting near his right temple.

Lin Cheng-wei, the gunman, insisted the 1.95 metre-tall Lien was not his intended target.

Lien suspects the shooting was politically motivated, saying he heard the assailant shout his name before firing.

Some Democratic Progressive Party politicians suggested the shooting was staged to generate sympathy for Lien, pointing to better-than-expected results for the KMT in city elections.

Lien said he had received more than 300 death threats since being discharged from hospital, and was at a loss to explain the rage directed at him.

He moved to his parent's residence, which has a tighter security detail, but this opened him to further criticism.

Close friends paint a picture of an easy-going man, happy to help others. "He doesn't deny that he has benefitted from his family," said a KMT official who has known Lien for more than a decade. "But he wants to prove he is capable in his own right."

In 2008, Lien accepted a post with the Taipei Smart Card Corporation. He previously worked for a foreign-owned financial firm. He resigned from Taipei Smart Card in December 2009 citing health reasons.

Lien said his work in finance had given him a global perspective that would help shape his administration's policy - if he wins in November.