Taiwan’s VP hopes to return to academia when term ends

Vice President Chen Chien-jen.

TAIPEI (CNA) — Vice President Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) plans to return to academic medical research after he steps down in May, describing his four years in the Vice President’s Office as a “beautiful detour in life.”

“May 20 is the day I look forward to most. I hope to return to academia, the field I love most, really soon,” Chen said during an exclusive interview with CNA on Tuesday.

Other than academic pursuits, Chen said he would also like to climb Jade Mountain, the highest peak in Taiwan at 3,952 meters above sea level, to see the greatness of nature and appreciate the Creator with a humble heart.

“The past four years are a period I will always cherish in my life. It allowed me to learn more about Taiwan and to love this land even more,” Chen said.

Chen, who was picked as the running mate of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in the 2016 presidential election, will step down on May 20 — inauguration day for Tsai and her running mate in the January 2020 presidential election, former Premier Lai Ching-te (賴清德).

Chen was Tsai’s campaign chief in her re-election bid.

“I told President Tsai that I wanted to return to academia and that allowed her to choose the best running mate,” Chen said, as he considered his “interim role” in the government fulfilled and thanked God for guiding him to make the right decision.

After Tsai won by a landslide victory in January, Chen thought his last months in office would be relatively laid back, but the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak changed everything.

“God’s calling always comes as a surprise. With the Wuhan virus outbreak, President Tsai again gave me new assignments,” said Chen, an epidemiologist and former health minister who led the island in its fight against the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003.

As someone who has experienced fighting an infectious disease, Chen has participated in Taiwan’s battle against the COVID-19 virus and exchanged opinions in meetings or on phone calls with the government team, many of whom are former students or close friends.

He also shared at least 10 posts from his Facebook page detailing the latest developments, important information and thoughts on the outbreak.

“I know God will keep me busy until May 19. I hope Taiwan’s outbreak can be tamed before that day arrives, so that I can tell myself I fought a beautiful war,” Chen said.

Chen is widely considered to be humble, polite and hands-on. During his stint as vice president, he pushed for important changes such as pension reform and marriage equality.

Born in southern Taiwan in 1951, Chen holds a doctoral degree in human genetics and epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University in the United States. He dedicated himself to research on blackfoot disease, hepatitis B, arsenic poisoning and liver cancer risks before entering politics.

After his stint as health minister from 2003-2005, Chen served as chief of the National Science Council (now Ministry of Science and Technology) and vice president of Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s premier research institution.

He has been invested as a Knight of the Equestrian of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem and a Knight of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great by the Vatican.

Although Taiwan’s forward planning in its battle against the coronavirus outbreak has earned praise from the international community, Chen, as a devout Catholic, said he has no plans for himself and will instead submit himself to God’s plan.