Chu was born in Bade City, Taoyuan County, Taiwan, son of a local Taoyuan County politician who served in the local legislature and also in the National Assembly. Chu's mother is from Daxi Township. Chu is married to Kao Wan-ching (高婉倩); his father-in-law, Kao Yu-jen, is former speaker of the Taiwan Provincial Assembly, chairman of Twinhead International Corp and founder of FiberLogic Communications.
Chu studied at the National Taiwan University, earning a bachelor's degree in management in 1983. After completing compulsory military service in the Republic of China Armed Forces, Chu then went abroad to study at New York University in the United States where he completed a master's degree in finance in 1987 and a PhD in accounting in 1991.
After graduation, Chu taught as an assistant professor at City University of New York before returning to teach in Taiwan in 1992. He initially taught as an associate professor in accounting at National Taiwan University and was promoted to a tenured professor in 1997.
He ran in the Republic of China legislative election held on 5 December 1998, was elected as a Kuomintang legislator, and took office on 1 February 1999. During his office term, he focused on financial and economic issues of Taiwan.
In 2000, he was appointed as the Chairman of Budgetary Committee and Finance Committee of the Legislative Yuan. He served the position for one year until 2001.
Chu won the 2001 Taoyuan County Magistrate election held on 1 December 2001 as a member of then-opposition Kuomintang, defeating Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Perng Shaw-jiin.
Chu ran for re-election in the 2005 Republic of China local election on 3 December 2005 and defeated DPP challenger Cheng Pao-ching, CEO of Taiwan Salt Company. He then took office for his second term as magistrate on 20 December 2005.
In March 2009, Magistrate Chu, with other three local government officials, was named by the Intelligent Community Forum as the recipient of its annual Founders Awards for his effort in digital and technology development. The forum studies the impact of technology on communities.
According to the Liberty Times, while Chu was serving as magistrate, his grandmother's home in Daxi was designated a historic architectural site; in 2014, after Chu registered to run for chairmanship of the KMT, just prior to the transfer of power to the DPP, the Taoyuan County Government Cultural Affairs Bureau signed contracts of NT$30.17 million (US$1 mil) of public spending to renovate the site.
Chu did not complete his second term. He resigned his post as Taoyuan County Magistrate when he was named vice premier in 2009. He was succeeded by Deputy Magistrate Huang Min-kon (黃敏恭) as acting magistrate on 10 September 2009.
During his second term as Magistrate of Taoyuan County, Chu concurrently served as the Vice Chairman of Kuomintang from November 2008 until October 2009.
Addressing the audience as KMT Vice Chairman during the first Straits Forum in May 2009 held in Xiamen, Fujian, Chu stressed the importance of mindset change in boosting economic development across the strait, choose common development and jointly create a mutual benefit situation for both sides.
Chu was tapped by President Ma Ying-jeou to be the Vice Premier to Wu Den-yih on 7 September 2009, in a reshuffling of the Executive Yuan due to the slow disaster response to Typhoon Morakot. Chu's position as Magistrate of Taoyuan County was succeeded by Deputy Magistrate Huang Min-kon. At the age of 48, Chu was the youngest Vice Premier in ROC history.
On 13 May 2010, Chu submitted his resignation to Premier Wu to run for mayor of the newly created New Taipei City, the successor of Taipei County. Financial Supervisory Commission chairperson Sean Chen was tapped to succeed Chu as deputy premier.
In May 2010 before the New Taipei City Mayor election, Chu outlined his vision for the city. Noting the gap between New Taipei and Taipei, Chu promised to transform New Taipei if he was elected, where completing the mass rapid transit network in New Taipei will be his top priority. Chu defeated DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen on 27 November 2010, to become the first mayor of New Taipei on 25 December 2010. He named Hou You-yi, Hsu Chih-chien, and Lee Shu-chuan deputy mayors of the city. Hou and Chen Shen-hsien shared the deputy mayoral post soon after Lee was named Secretary-General of the Executive Yuan on 25 February 2014 and Hsu had stepped down on 30 June 2014 due to health concerns.
The content of some of Chu's conversations with Stephen Young of the American Institute in Taiwan was included in US diplomatic cables that were released by WikiLeaks in 2011. Chu claims that those cables do not accurately reflect the content of his conversations with Young.
The Guang Da Xing No. 28 was fishing in disputed water in the South China Sea on 9 May 2013 when the Philippine Coast Guard opened fire on the Taiwanese fishing boat. Chu condemned the shooting and said that he would suspend all of the exchanges between New Taipei City and the Philippines until the Philippine government apologized for the incident, compensated the victim's family and persecuted the perpetrators.
On 29 November 2014, Chu won the New Taipei City mayoralty election, defeating his opponent Yu Shyi-kun of the Democratic Progressive Party. He had been expected to win a landslide victory, but he won by slightly more than 1% of the vote total. His second mayoral term started on 25 December 2014.
On 17 January 2015, Chu ran unopposed in the KMT chairmanship election. He was the only candidate to have registered and paid the NT$2 million registration fee. He succeeded Ma Ying-jeou, who had resigned on 3 December 2014 to take responsibility for KMT losses in the ROC local election on 29 November 2014.
Prior to the election, Chu said he had not yet decided on meeting with Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping after being elected as KMT chairman. Furthermore, he said that “Cross-strait relations must stick to the current peaceful, open and mutually beneficial path, no matter which party is in power...but the economic benefits brought about by cross-strait development must not only go to a few vested groups...(and) We will pay special attention to an equitable distribution of wealth."
On 4 May 2015, Chu met with General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping in Beijing.
Chu also acknowledged that the KMT has accumulated much of its wealth illegally, and that these assets should be returned to the nation. In 2000 Chu claimed that these assets total US$3.15 billion; they include 146 plots of land, many in prime locations, as well as 157 houses and buildings. the majority of which were seized from Japanese and Taiwanese in 1945 and subsequently treated as belonging to the party, not the nation. After Chu announced his candidacy for KMT Chairmanship, however, he claimed not to know what assets are held or what their value might be.
Though Chu had repeatedly refused to run in the 2016 presidential election, he was chosen to be the preferred candidate over the incumbent Hung Hsiu-chu in a KMT congress held at Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall on 17 October 2015. KMT members in attendance overwhelmingly voted 812 of 891 to replace Hung over Chu. In a post-election speech, Chu apologized to Hung for her dismissal, but continued by saying the KMT has reached a crucial point where it needs to adjust its pace and start anew. He also apologized to New Taipei residents for breaking his promise to serve the city mayor until his term ends. The party's decision to replace Hung had been made prior to the meeting, and Chu had apologized to Hung multiple times for the way the party had treated her.
On 19 October 2015, Chu announced his intention to temporarily leave mayoral duties to Deputy Mayor Hou You-yi starting the next day. Chu planned to take three months of leave, to focus on his presidential campaign. The monthly salary of NT$190,500 Chu would have collected during this time was to be donated to the New Taipei City treasury.
Chu suffered enormous defeat in the 2016 presidential election, losing 18 of 23 counties.
He resigned the KMT chairmanship, and returned to the New Taipei City mayorship on 18 January 2016.
According to a Control Yuan report issued in 2014, the four members of Chu's immediate family have combined savings of $23.5 million New Taiwan dollars. Chu also has securities and 11 plots of land in Taipei, Taoyuan City and Tainan; furthermore, he has three homes in Taipei's Shilin District and Neihu District that are worth more than $100 million New Taiwan dollars. This same report reveals that from 2012 to 2014, while serving as New Taipei City mayor, his assets grew by NT$7.5 million ($251,200 United States dollars).