From Cross-Strait Provocateur to Memelord?: Chen Shui-bian’s Recent Memes

by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Chen Shui-bian/Facebook

CHEN SHUI-BIAN HAS proven a controversial political figure in his lifetime. From his start as a human rights lawyer to becoming Taiwan’s first democratically elected non-KMT president, Chen was later embroiled in controversy over corruption charges. This led to his imprisonment on graft charges–which supporters have disputed, seeing this as a form of political retaliation from the KMT once it returned to power. Yet Chen was also perceived by many international observers as a cross-strait provocateur, seeing as Chen leaned into Taiwanese independence advocacy to shore up his approval ratings as time went on during his presidency.

Since 2015, Chen has been released on medical parole. Although Chen is forbidden from making political statements, as he is technically still serving his term, he went around this by opening a Facebook page in the name of his deceased dog, Yongge, to make political commentary. Chen as of late has also become a radio show, though he claims to steer clear of political commentary. Chen’s Instagram account is also under the name of Yongge and some images posted on it show him and his beloved dog.

Recent memes posted by Chen in chronological order from left to right. Photo credit: Chen Shui-bian/Instagram/Facebook

Chen has gone from a perceived cross-strait provocateur to memelord though, as of late, with a series of viral images posted by Chen on Instagram and Facebook. The first image shows Chen standing on a swordfish while holding a microphone. On the left is another image of Chen seated, while above both Chens read the words “Taiwan Values.”

The second image shows the same seated Chen image, though this time this is paired with an image of Chen reaching into ocean water. Behind both Chens is a large whale, alongside which there is an awkwardly inserted frog and sea otter. Above them are the words, “Seeing the World.”

The third image also features the seated Chen image, though this time there is an industrial background. The Chen doppelganger featured this time is running, while the image also shows two figurines and a caricature of Don Quixote. The text reads “Taiwan Warrior.” Since then, Chen has released a few more images, such as of himself sitting awkwardly on a giraffe, or underneath a cloud-shaped umbrella.

Chen’s earliest image in his now iconic style (left) and a depiction of him and his dog Yongge (right). Photo credit: Chen Shui-bian/Instagram/Facebook

Eventually, it emerged that Chen had actually produced an image with the same aesthetic in January, but this went largely unnoticed at the time. This image shows a different seated image of Chen wearing a cap, along with a tiger and a Formosan black bear.

These images from Chen are apparently self-made. As such, they can be classified among the “senior images” infamously sent by elderly individuals to younger people. Oftentimes, they are the result of elderly individuals taking graphic design classes in community colleges or other educational institutions. But, ironically, the graphics have won Chen praise for authenticity, since unlike other politicians he apparently runs his social media presence himself. At this point, there have even been parody images of Chen’s distinctive aesthetic.

Image of Terry Gou and…himself. The left image was posted first, but the image was later blurred, as in the version on the right. Photo credit: Terry Gou/Facebook

This is not the only time that schlocky images from Taiwanese politicians have been poked fun at. More often, these are images from the KMT, which experiences significant issues with graphic design despite being one of Taiwan’s two major political parties, having historically had significant resources to command. This perhaps reflects the party’s lack of young people.

Yet even politicians such as FoxConn founder Terry Gou, one of Taiwan’s richest people, have shown questionable graphic design choices in the past. Gou often posts blurry pictures on Facebook that seem to be taken from his phone. Seeing as his Facebook cover photo showed another photo of Gou in the background, Gou’s response was simply to blur the image. To this extent, one notes a significant decline in the quality of graphic design for Ma Ying-jeou’s Facebook account once he left office. Will we see similarly with Tsai once she leaves office?

Image of Ma Ying-jeou released for the Mid-Autumn Festival (left) and an image of Eric Chu released for Valentine’s Day (right). Photo credit: Ma Ying-jeou/Eric Chu/Facebook

On the other hand, one notes that sometimes politicians have sought to draw on a deliberately schlocky aesthetic. This can be seen with the DPP’s campaign for lowering the voting age, which used a deliberately retro styling, featuring photos of politicians when they were young. Pan-blue parties with a traditionalist slant such as the MKT have similarly sought to use retro aesthetics to gesture toward their stances.

Either way, it is to be seen whether Chen rehabilitates his image among young people with his new viral fame. Young people, even when they slant pan-Green, often have a less positive view of his presidency with a degree of skepticism directed at him due to the corruption charges.