Lee Teng-hui, former president of Taiwan, born on 15 January 1923 in the northern village of Sanzhi, died on July 30th, 2020 from septic shock and multiple organ failure in Taipei’s Veterans Hospital, after being hospitalized since February.
His father worked for the police force established after Taiwan had become a Japanese colony in 1895. Having attended an elite high school in Taipei, Lee studied agronomy at the Kyoto Imperial University on a scholarship.
During World War II, he served as a second lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army. First in command of an anti-aircraft gun in Taiwan, he then participated in the clean-up after the total destruction of Tokyo by US bombers in March 1945.
Following Japan’s unconditional surrender in August 1945 and the end of colonial rule, the Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek who took over Formosa treated their supposed Taiwanese new compatriots with open contempt for their long exposure to Japanese culture.
Lee initially stayed in undestroyed Kyoto and graduated in 1946. After his definitive return to Taiwan, while completing his undergraduate work at National Taiwan University, he secretly joined the Communist Party of China and avidly read Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
He joined the anti-government protests on February 28th, 1947, which were violently suppressed and for decades an absolute taboo topic. Lee soon renounced Marxism because he understood the theory well and knew that it was doomed to fail, though waited to join the Kuomintang (KMT) until 1971.
Instead, Lee in February 1949 married Tseng Wen-fui (born 1926), the daughter of a prosperous landholder, and became a devoted Presbyterian who made a life-long habit of giving mostly apolitical sermons around the island in Minnanese, the Southern Chinese language spoken in Taiwan besides Mandarin.
Lee received further education in the United States: a master’s degree in from Iowa State University in 1953 and a Ph.D. from Cornell University in New York in 1968. In between, he taught at various Taiwanese institutions of higher learning, gaining recognition as a scholar.
His dissertation, Intersectoral Capital Flows in the Economic Development of Taiwan, 1895–1960, published as a book under the same name, was honored as the year’s best doctoral thesis by the American Association of Agricultural Economics.
At the time he attracted the attention of Chiang Ching-kuo, the older son of Chiang Kai-shek and then Deputy Prime Minister under his father. Once in the KMT, Lee was first appointed minister without portfolio on the younger Chiang’s recommendation. His impressive political career started in 1972 as Minister of Agriculture, promoting programs that raised both health standards and farm incomes.
As mayor of Taipei from 1978 to 1981, Lee modernized the capital’s road and sewer systems. From 1981 to 1984 he hold the now defunct position of Governor of Taiwan Province, achieving a balanced growth between urban and rural areas, up to this day a hallmark of Taiwan.
In 1984, President Chiang Ching-kuo chose him as the first native Taiwanese Vice President over a “Mainlander”, from the dominant group that had escaped with the Generalissimo to Taiwan in 1949. After the death of his predecessor in January 1988, he took over as head of state.
Lee was the first relevant figure to publicly deplore 1947’s tragic events. He ended decades of state-of-emergency measures that had resulted from the menace that Mao Tse-tung represented during the Cold War, allowed citizens to send mail to relatives in the People’s Republic of China and visit them, lifted a ban street demonstrations and eased press restrictions. The term “Communist bandits” would no longer be used in the media.
Still, the Red Mandarins never accepted his offer to begin a dialogue based on the particular concept “One China, two equal governments,” as he insisted that Taiwan would only join a democratic, capitalist China that didn’t consider his home land just a renegade Chinese province with no choice but to “reunite”.
Following a trip by Lee to New York in June 1995, allegedly to visit Cornell, China accused the United States to raise Taiwan’s diplomatic status in what posed a political quandary for Washington: to improve relations with Peking while dissuading Mao’s heirs from taking military action against Taipei.
Lee introduced direct presidential elections. Ahead of these first polls, China conducted months of intimidating missile tests in the waters surrounding Taiwan to reduce his chances of being reelected. This strategy obviously didn’t work, as on March 23rd, 1996 he won with 54% of the votes against three other candidates.
Lee again infuriated the Chinese Communists by suggesting during an interview with German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle in July 1999 that relations between Taiwan and China should be conducted on a “special state-to-state” basis.
That statement lead to The People’s Liberation Army Daily denouncing him as “the No. 1 scum in the nation” and the official Chinese Xinhua News Agency calling him a “deformed test-tube baby cultivated in the political laboratory of hostile anti-China forces.”
In consequence, , 21 years later, the Global Times wrote that “Lee’s death is definitely not sad news to most on the Chinese mainland,” calling him the “Godfather of Taiwan secessionism”. He probably would have liked that honorary title.
Lee on his part had no illusions regarding the People’s Republic, stating that China’s goal to swallow up Taiwan’s sovereignty, exterminate Taiwanese democracy and achieve ultimate unification had never changed.
In 2000, a divided KMT finally lost power to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) under Chen Shui-bian. Months of quarreling were followed by his expulsion in September 2001 for supporting the newly founded Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU). In April 2018 Lee came out of retirement to help create the Formosa Alliance, a political coalition that reformed as a political party in July 2019 and calls for Taiwan’s formal independence.
His twelve years in power came to hunt him in another way, too. Lee was indicted in June 2011 on charges of embezzling almost 8 million US dollars in public funds to set up a private think tank, but was ultimately acquitted in November 2013.
In 2007 he caused some controversy by visiting the Yasukuni Shinto Shrine in Tokyo to honor his older brother Lee Teng-chin, who as a volunteer for the Imperial Japanese Navy was killed in action during the battle of Manila in early 1945.
Lee was heavily criticized in 2015, when he correctly stated that during World War II Taiwan’s motherland had been Japan and not China. Critics called him a traitor that should give back his passport and no longer enjoy a special pension.
He also expressed serious doubts about the Nanking Massacre in 1937/38, and said that the issue of so-called Taiwanese “comfort women” employed in Japanese army brothels had been long settled, raising even more eyebrows.
While his predecessor Chiang Ching-kuo paved the way for democracy, Lee implemented it. Despite all the contradictions of his personality, he led Taiwan’s transformation from authoritarian rule to a much more open society.
Unfortunately, China’s threatening attitude against a de facto independent country remains the same. This fact doesn’t tarnish Lee’s legacy at all, as it wasn’t in his hands to change that hegemonic mindset.