In Memoriam Lee Teng-hui, 1923 – 2020

Written by Gerrit van der Wees.

Image credit: 08.27 總統出席「人民直選總統暨臺灣民主發展二十周年」研討會」by 總統府/ Flickr, license by CC BY 2.0 

On July 30 2020, Taiwan’s “Father of Democracy,” former President Lee Teng-hui passed away in Taipei at the ripe old age of 97. He served as the country’s President from 1988 until 2000 and guided its transformation from a repressive authoritarian dictatorship that had been imposed on the island by the Chinese Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek after World War II, to the vibrant democracy that is Taiwan today.

Early life under Japanese rule

Born in Sanzhi, a village on the outskirts North of Taipei, on January 15 1923, he grew up during the Japanese colonial period, studied agronomy at Kyoto Imperial University and was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army at the end of the war, but never saw action. However, an older brother died in the Philippines.

After the war, he returned to Taiwan and completed his undergraduate studies at National Taiwan University. He was also a first-hand observer of the atrocities committed by the Chinese Nationalists in 1947 in the “February 28” Incident, when up to 28,000 Taiwanese were killed by Chiang Kai-shek’s troops after protests by the local populace against the corruption of the incoming Kuomintang regime. The resulting “White Terror” martial law regime would last until the mid-1980s.

Working within the system

Lee married his wife, Tseng Wen-hui, in 1949, started work as an agricultural economist and continued his academic career with two stints in the USA: a Master’s from Iowa State University in 1953, and a PhD from Cornell in 1968. In between, he taught and worked in Taiwan, focusing on agrarian reform, which caught the attention of Chiang Ching-kuo. In 1971, at the recommendation of CCK, Lee became minister without portfolio and initiated a number of programs raising farm incomes and health standards.

In 1978, when Chiang Ching-kuo had succeeded his father as President, Chiang appointed Lee as mayor of Taipei, where he led a major renovation and modernisation of the road and sewer systems. In 1981, he continued his rise in the KMT’s political system when he was appointed Governor of Taiwan Province. This appointment, in turn, led to Chiang’s 1984 decision to select Lee as his Vice-President, which would have significant repercussions for Taiwan down the road.

For many in the Kuomintang political system, Lee’s appointment as Vice President was primarily meant as a token gesture towards the native Taiwanese, while real power was closely held by the mainlanders who had come over with Chiang Kai-shek. Nevertheless, after Chiang Ching-kuo died in January 1988, Lee was the designated President. KMT old-timers tried hard to derail his presidency, but with the help of more moderate voices within the KMT, Lee succeeded and became President.

Transition to democracy

Lee gradually started to implement modernisations and changing the political system, making it more democratic and up to modern standards. A major decision was the 1991 series of changes to the Constitution retiring the many old members of the National Assembly and Legislative Yuan, who had been in their positions since 1947. The December 1991 National Assembly elections and the December 1992 Legislative Yuan elections were the first time ever that the people of Taiwan elected all seats.

Lee continued his progress towards democracy by announcing the end of the “Mobilisation Period for the Suppression of the Communist Rebellion” on April 30 1991, and subsequently ending the associated draconian Article 100 of the Criminal Code and other repressive legislation, which were used to arrest and silence dissidents.

Two more significant steps were made in 1991 and 1992: the Kuomintang Government decided that its laws would only apply to the “free area” of the Republic of China, i.e. Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu and surrounding islands, thereby essentially giving up its claim to rule all of China.

It was also decided that in 1996 Taiwan would hold its first direct, democratic presidential election, a major departure from the highly manipulated system used from the late 1940s until that time, whereby the equally unrepresentative National Assembly nominated the President.

Thus, 1991-92 was a major turning point in Taiwan’s history, when President Lee was able to firmly steer Taiwan in the direction of democracy. In 1992, he was still (re)appointed by the National Assembly for his second term, but the country was electrified at the prospect of direct elections in 1996.

Democratic consolidation

Also electrified, but in a different way, were the rulers in Beijing: for them, democratic elections at their doorstep were an unwelcome phenomenon, which would give people in China some undesirable ideas, so they started to prepare to increase tension. Their chance came in 1995 when the Clinton Administration — after much pressure from Congress — reluctantly decided to allow Lee to come to the United States to give a speech at his alma mater, Cornell University.

The speech went well, but the PRC — and some in the Clinton administration — termed it “provocative,” and China lobbed a number of missiles into the seas surrounding Taiwan. The meagre response of the Clinton administration was that this was “unhelpful,” so China gradually ratcheted up the pressure, and just before the March 1996 presidential elections lobbed another series of missiles in Taiwan’s direction. This finally woke up the Clinton administration, which sent two aircraft carrier battle groups into the waters near Taiwan. This immediately cooled the tensions.

Taiwan was able to conduct its presidential elections, and Lee Teng-hui won with 54% against 21.3% for his closest opponent, his good friend professor Peng-ming-min of the budding DPP party. In the subsequent four years, Lee was able to consolidate the country’s democracy with a number of additional measures, thus further streamlining the political system.

Lee also pushed the concept of the “New Taiwanese” identity, forging a common ground for all inhabitants, whatever their original background. This has led to a major shift in identity: while in the early 1990s a majority still identified themselves as “Chinese,” most recent opinion polls show an overwhelming majority – up to 83% — identifying themselves as “Taiwanese,” while the percentage identifying themselves as “Chinese” has dropped to between 2.4 and 5.3%, depending on the survey.

Near the end of his term, in an interview with Deutsche Welle on 9 July 1999, President Lee also made a major move in clarifying Taiwan’s relations with China, terming them “special state-to-state” relations. While the fact that Taiwan and China are two distinct nations has been obvious to most observers for some time, it evoked xenophobic and hysteric reactions from China, which threatened Taiwan with military attack, and lambasted Mr Lee for everything evil under the sun.

Transfer of political power

The year 2000 turned out to be another momentous step in Taiwan’s political history: in the country’s second free and open presidential election, the DPP’s candidate Chen Shui-bian managed to eke out a narrow victory. This was because the Kuomintang camp divided itself between its official candidate Lien Chan and stalwart James Soong. The latter had split off from the KMT after he felt side-lined by Lee Teng-hui when Lee pushed for the abolishment of “Taiwan Province,” an anachronistic intermediate-level governmental structure of which Soong was governor.

Thus, in 2000, under Lee Teng-hui’s guidance, Taiwan made its first democratic transition between parties, and suddenly the opposition under President Chen Shui-bian was in power. The old guard of the KMT blamed Lee for their loss, although it had been primarily the lacklustre performance of Lien Chan that had done in the KMT. Lee was expelled from the KMT, but set up his own party, the Taiwan Solidarity Union, which worked closely with the DPP, but withered after a few election cycles.

Elder Statesman

After 2000, Lee thus became the Elder Statesmen, a role he relished and played with great enthusiasm. He visited Japan several times, strengthening contacts with Japanese friends. In October 2005, he also visited Washington DC for the first time after stepping down as President.

One of the funniest moments came during the Congressional reception, when one of the Congressmen, noting that outside pro-KMT demonstrators were labelling former President Lee a “troublemaker,” said: “President Lee, I want you to know that you are now in the Capital of the United States, where we celebrate those who make trouble for tyrants. We have a monument for some of the greatest troublemakers of history, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington: they were troublemakers for the tyrants of their day.”


In conclusion: Lee was a truly towering figure, who was the right man at the right time, helping steer Taiwan in the direction of democracy. He is also an inspiring figure to a younger generation in Taiwan, such as current President Tsai Ing-wen, who can build on the achievements of President Lee, but who are still facing a daunting task of addressing many of the remnants of the KMT’s repressive system, and who are trying to make Taiwan a more perfect democracy.

Thank you, President Lee! We will remember your legacy by continuing to work hard for democracy in Taiwan, and a full and equal place for Taiwan in the international family of nations.

Lee Teng-hui known for his pragmatic diplomacy and widely remembered for his historic contribution to Taiwan’s democratisation, passed away on 30 July 2020. This article is part of special contribution to the passing of Lee Teng-hui

Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016, he served as chief editor of Taiwan Communiqué. He currently teaches the history of Taiwan at George Mason University and Current Issues in East Asia at George Washington University.


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