Lee Teng-hui, who led Taiwan from dictatorship to democracy in the 1990s, reshaping the island’s relationship with China along the way, has died. He was 97.
Lee died Thursday evening at Taipei Veterans General Hospital after suffering septic shock and multiple organ failure, the hospital said in a statement. He had been hospitalized since February after choking on a drink and subsequently suffering heart failure and aspiration pneumonia.
As Taiwan’s first native-born president, Lee instituted direct elections for parliament and the head of state, focusing government on domestic issues and away from the one-China legacy that had dominated Taiwanese politics since the Chinese civil war four decades earlier. In doing so, he set Taiwan on a path of solidifying its separate status from the mainland and earned the wrath of the Chinese Communist Party, which branded him “the sinner of 10,000 years” and a “rat.”
Lee, known in Taiwan as “the father of reform,” was appointed president after the sudden death of Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, in 1988. In 1996 he became Taiwan’s first leader to be democratically elected. Despite being a member of the Kuomintang, a party which seeks Taiwan’s eventual unification with China, throughout his 12 years in office, Lee became an increasingly vocal advocate for Taiwan to be accepted as a state separate from the mainland later in his career.
Lee came to power as Taiwan was just emerging from almost 40 years of often brutal dictatorship. Chiang and his son governed Taiwan after fleeing to the island in 1949 having lost the Chinese Civil War to Mao Zedong’s triumphant communists. The Chiangs brought with them their entire state apparatus from China, under which Taiwanese were viewed as Chinese and any assertion of a separate identity was harshly suppressed.
Under Lee, Taiwan abandoned the longstanding Kuomintang claim to govern mainland China, acknowledging that both Taiwan and China are under separate rule. Lee laid out his views on a new national identity for Taiwanese in his 1999 book, “The Road to Democracy.”
“The idea of the ‘new Taiwanese’ … transcends the differences between those whose ancestors were indigenous inhabitants of the island, early immigrants from continental China, or more recent migrants to Taiwan during and after the Communist takeover of the mainland,” he wrote. “The new Taiwanese must establish a clear self-identity in order to be masters of their own destiny.”
This push toward formal independence irked China, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan. In the run-up to the 1996 presidential election, China fired missiles and held military exercises close to Taiwan. The U.S. sent two aircraft carriers in a show of support for Lee. In July 1999, Lee overturned Taipei’s decades-long insistence that it was the rightful ruler of China by declaring relations across the strait should be on a “state-to-state” basis, a move that China considered close to a declaration of independence.
“He led the country at a time when the democracy movement was on the rise,” President Tsai Ing-wen said in a Facebook post Thursday. “Caught between authoritarian push-back and democratic ideals, he shepherded Taiwan through a quiet revolution and made Taiwan a Taiwan for the Taiwanese people.”
Lee was born in the farming community of Sanzhi on the northern tip of Taiwan on Jan. 15, 1923, while the island was under Japanese control. The son of a police detective, Lee won a scholarship at the age of 18 to study at Kyoto Imperial University.
After Japan ceded control of Taiwan to the Republic of China following its defeat in the World War II, Lee returned to Taiwan in 1946, a year before Nationalist soldiers massacred thousands of Taiwanese protesting against their new government’s corruption and economic mismanagement. Under Lee’s leadership, the government published a report on the massacre in 1992, providing the first official public acknowledgment of the incident.
He studied agricultural science at National Taiwan University, and in 1951 received a scholarship to enroll in a master’s degree in agricultural economics at Iowa State University. After graduating, he then taught at Taiwan National University before returning to the U.S. to complete his doctorate in agricultural economics at Cornell University in 1968.
Lee joined the Kuomintang in the early 1970s. At the time, the party controlled both the presidency and the main legislative body. Members of the legislature still represented areas across China as a form of “shadow government” to rival the Communist one in Beijing in an arrangement that effectively disenfranchised native Taiwanese.
The following year, he was tasked with developing the island’s agriculture industry as a minister without portfolio, at the time the youngest person ever to hold such a post. In 1978, Lee was appointed mayor of Taipei before becoming vice president in 1984.
Before he died in 1988, President Chiang Ching-kuo groomed Lee with an eye to making him his appointed successor. In 1984 Chiang arranged for Lee to go on a trip through east Taiwan with James Lilley, the then director of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. embassy in the absence of formal ties, to build understanding between the two men.
“In public, he toed the party line, but in private he voiced strong opinions and was a Taiwan patriot,” Lilley wrote of Lee in his autobiography. “More so than his mainland Chinese colleagues in the Taiwan government, Lee identified with his people, and he believed in them.”
After assuming the presidency four years later, Lee threw himself into dismantling the institutions set up for governing China rather than Taiwan. He persuaded the representatives of the legislature to resign and seek direct election from Taiwanese constituents. He then pushed through direct polls for the presidency, garnering 54 percent of the vote in the first democratic election in 1996.
While Lee remained suspicious of China’s desire to take control of Taiwan, he accelerated the tentative opening up of direct ties with the island’s giant neighbor after years of hostility. Between 1990 and 1991, Lee’s administration set up three organizations — the Mainland Affairs Council, the National Unification Council and the Straits Exchange Foundation — to handle cross-strait issues with China, laying the foundations for billions in Taiwanese investments in the mainland over the following decades.
After Lee stood down in 2000, factional fighting in the Kuomintang handed the presidency to Chen Shui-bian of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, ending 50 years of KMT rule.
Lee was expelled from the party in 2000 after party members blamed him for the loss because he chose Lien Chan over James Soong as the presidential candidate. This angered Soong, who ran as an independent candidate, thus splitting the KMT votes and allowing Chen win.
Lee also caused a stir in 2007 when he visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo where his older brother is enshrined. His brother served in the Japanese navy and died while on duty in the Philippines in 1945.
Lee is survived by his wife, Tseng Wen-hui, and their two daughters. They also had a son who died of cancer in 1982.