Lee Teng-hui, one of Asia’s democracy icons, died last week at the age of 97. As president of Taiwan, he steered the island faithfully and unswervingly toward democracy, promoting Taiwanese identity and, later in life, independence. In stark contrast to that singular focus and mission, his life was an extraordinary meander, a journey that spanned the political spectrum and during which he delighted in provoking all who challenged him.
Lee was born in 1923 to a well-off family in a farming community in northern Taiwan, several decades into the Japanese rule of the island. His father worked for the colonial rulers as part of the police. Lee earned a scholarship to study agronomy at Kyoto Imperial University. While there, he enlisted in the Japanese Imperial Army, rising to the rank of second lieutenant, although he never saw action during World War II.
Detailed to Taiwan during the conflict, he was ordered back to Japan before the war’s close. He remained in Japan after surrender and finished his degree in 1946. Lee returned to Taiwan to study agricultural science at National Taiwan University. In one of the meanders that marked his life, Lee joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1946, feeling that it could help him promote Taiwanese identity, although he soon left the party, disillusioned.
All the while, Lee focused on agricultural economics, getting a masters degree from Iowa State University and then joining the Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction, a U.S.-sponsored program to promote modernization of Taiwan’s agricultural sector. He also taught at two universities in Taiwan before returning to the United States to get a Ph.D. in agricultural economics at Cornell University.
He caught the attention of officials in the ruling Kuomintang, among them Chiang Ching-kuo, son of President Chiang Kai-shek, who served as deputy prime minister. After joining the party, Lee was appointed minister without portfolio, and he continued efforts to better the lives of farmers and improve the agricultural sector.
Successful in that endeavor, Lee was appointed mayor of Taipei in 1978 and followed that job with a term as governor of Taiwan Province. Having succeeded his father as president, Chiang Ching-kuo picked Lee to be his vice president in 1984, a bold break with KMT tradition in which party seniors all came from the mainland, even though native Taiwanese made up 85 percent of the population.
Lee became president upon Chiang’s death in 1988 and continued the liberalization process that his predecessor initiated, further dismantling the autocracy that the KMT had imposed on the island after the party’s inglorious retreat from the mainland in 1949. Central to his agenda was empowering native Taiwanese and ending mainland domination of Taiwan politics. A shrewd tactician, Lee outmaneuvered the nationalist old guard who put up staunch resistance to his nativist agenda.
Forging and consolidating a Taiwanese identity was the core of Lee’s program. First, he endorsed electoral reform — direct election of the president and vice president and culling legislative seats that represented districts on the mainland — and then he ended emergency laws in place since 1949, a move that effectively erased the KMT’s declared goal of reunifying with the mainland. Under Lee the KMT continued to dominate Taiwan politics, but the majority of its politicians became native Taiwanese, replacing mainland carpetbaggers.
Promotion of Taiwan identity and the island’s democracy outraged the communist government in Beijing. The mainland was convinced that Lee sought independence for Taiwan, and those suspicions exploded in 1995, when Lee was allowed to attend a reunion at his alma mater, Cornell University, an unprecedented visit for a high-ranking Taiwan official.
Even though Lee did not meet senior U.S. officials — the visa had been forced on the Clinton administration by Republicans in Congress — Beijing responded with fury, holding military exercises that included the firing of missiles that appeared to “bracket” Taiwan. The U.S. sent aircraft carrier battle groups through the Taiwan Strait in a show of support for Taipei, an incident that has earned a place of prominence in China’s list of international humiliations.
More significantly, the Taiwanese people were not intimidated. In March 1996, weeks after a second round of missile tests, Lee won a landslide victory — claiming more than two and a half times as many votes as the second-place candidate — in Taiwan’s first direct vote for the president.
Later that year, Lee compounded Beijing’s fury by suggesting that relations between Taiwan and China should be likened to those of two states. He doubled down on that formulation in 1999 saying that Taipei and Beijing should have “special state to state relations.” For that statement, Xinhua called him a “deformed test-tube baby cultivated in the political laboratory of hostile anti-China forces.”
Committed to liberalizing Taiwan’s politics, Lee did not run for re-election in 2000. Yet ever the renegade, he is credited with propelling Chen Shui-bian, a candidate from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, into the presidency by endorsing Lien Chan as KMT candidate, knowing that it would split his own party. Lee was expelled from the KMT soon after that ballot and for the rest of his life Lee became an ever more vocal supporter of Taiwan independence.
Upon his death, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, who considered Lee a friend and mentor, spoke for many, when she called Lee “a cornerstone of Taiwan’s transition to democracy,” who “paved the way for the freedoms we enjoy today.”
Those efforts are Lee’s first legacy. But it is important to recognize that his commitment to democracy transcends his work in Taiwan. It is a model for all of China. Lee demonstrated that democracy can be part of Chinese society and that Confucianism and individual freedoms are not incompatible. That is a direct challenge to the government in China and partially explains its fury toward him.
The second legacy, and the reason for the remainder of Beijing’s enmity, is his commitment to Taiwanese identity. Lee insisted that the people of Taiwan should be the masters of their own future, free from the dictates of any outside force, whether the KMT or the CCP. His education policies nurtured and celebrated the emergence of the “new Taiwanese.” As a result, according to one recent survey, two-thirds (67 percent) of people on the island now regard themselves as Taiwanese; less than 3 percent call themselves Chinese.
Lee’s third legacy is Taiwan’s close ties with Japan. He maintained a positive view of Japan throughout his life, and reportedly spoke better Japanese than Mandarin. He worked to consolidate relations between Tokyo and Taipei, a particularly challenging assignment given the history of colonial rule and the need to keep those ties out of sight of Beijing. He relaxed a ban on Japanese pop culture in Taiwan and even visited Yasukuni Shine, where his own brother is commemorated. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe noted Lee’s passing by applauding how he “contributed to enhancing Japan and Taiwan’s bilateral relations” and his efforts to promote freedom and democracy in Taiwan.
Taiwan, Asia and the rest of the world readily acknowledge the extraordinary work of Lee Teng hui. Perhaps one day, mainland China will be able to do so as well.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.