In Memoriam: Lee Teng-hui and the Democracy that he built

Written by J. Michael Cole.

Image credit: Former Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui(L) 李登輝 by Jameson Wu/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

On July 30, former president Lee Teng-hui, whom many regard as the father of Taiwan’s democracy, passed away at the age of 97. Lee leaves behind a nation that is markedly different from what it was when he entered politics decades ago. No figure—none—has had as major an impact on Taiwan than Lee, whose decisions in the crucial period between the late 1980s and early 1990s determined the future course of the nation and propelled into the “third wave” of democratisation.

Much like history itself, destiny is the child of circumstance, chance, and the choices that we make. Lee made his destiny, but no doubt chance had a role to play in how his life unfolded. If a single variable had been changed at the outset, or at any point along the trajectory of his life, history could have been different, and Taiwan’s fate could have been unrecognisable to those of us who, today, look at it from the benefit of hindsight.

At the age of 21, having graduated from Taipei High School the previous year, Lee volunteered to join the Japanese Imperial Army in 1944 and was assigned to an artillery unit in Kaohsiung as the cataclysmic War in the Pacific was crawling toward its inevitable conclusion. Had the U.S. military, island hopping toward the centre of gravity in Tokyo, decided to launch an amphibious landing on Taiwan rather than skip it altogether (though parts of it were subjected to aerial bombing), it is quite possible that Lee would have suffered the same fate as his brother, Teng-chin, who was killed in the bloody Battle of Manila in 1945. As the war entered its final year, Lee was dispatched to Chiba Prefecture, outside Tokyo, to undergo training. There, he lived through intensive Allied bombing. One bomb, one chance fragment, even, is all it would have taken to alter the course of Taiwan’s history forever. Nevertheless, Lee survived the war, and four years after Japan’s defeat, he graduated from National Taiwan University. He then obtained an M.A. in agricultural economics from the Iowa State University in 1953, and a PhD from Cornell University, in the same subject, in 1968.

After returning to Taiwan, fate once again hung in the balance when Lee was detained for several days by the dreaded Garrison Command. During his incarceration, he was interrogated for possible “communist activities.” At the time, Taiwan had already experienced more than two decades of “White Terror,” the period of martial law imposed by the Kuomintang (KMT), which had taken control of the island at the conclusion of the World War II. Anticommunism provided Chiang Kai-shek’s regime with a convenient facade to detain, disappear, and eradicate its critics, many of whom held no communistic beliefs whatsoever.

Lee survived interrogation and regained his freedom, although there is little doubt that he remained under surveillance afterwards. A very different fate, however, awaited many others who went through the same process. As one interrogator is said to have told Lee, “killing you at this moment is as easy as crushing an ant to death.” And it was. Undoubtedly, Lee’s brush with the arbitrariness and absolute power of autocratic rule shaped the politician that he would later become—and politics is where he was headed.

Two years after his detention, Lee became a member of the KMT, the very party that, had it chosen to, could have ended his existence. By 1972, he was a Cabinet member without portfolio, in charge of agriculture. Over the years, Lee earned the trust of Chiang’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, who, three years after the Generalissimo’s passing in 1975, assumed the presidency. That same year, Lee became mayor of Taipei and, three years later, chairman of the Taiwan Provincial Government. Continuing his meteoric rise, in 1984 Lee was picked by Chiang, who by then was seeking to bring more ethnic Taiwanese like Lee into government (no doubt as part of an attempt to co-opt them), to serve as his vice president.

Following Washington’s decision to establish official diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China in 1979 and fearing abandonment by the U.S., Chiang took the first steps toward liberalising Taiwan. This critical development facilitated a future transition to a more open political system. However, Chiang did not bring democracy to Taiwan—Lee did, and only after Chiang had followed his father into the grave in 1988.

Lee’s ascendance within the “mainlander”-dominated KMT was a testament to his innate ability to strike the right alliances and to convince party elders to make decisions that were firmly opposed by more conservative elements within the KMT. He bid his time and played the long game. He outwitted them all, and continued to do so once he became president, using persuasion and cooptation to ensure that powerful stakeholders within the party-state apparatus, such as the military, or influential figures, such as Hau Pei-tsun, did not turn against him. During that period, Lee also began to indigenise the KMT, efforts which, years later, would split the party. In 1990, Lee consolidated his power when the National Assembly—not the public, not yet—approved his six-year term to the presidency.

Less than a year after the bloody crackdown at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Lee chose an altogether different path when, on his inauguration on March 21, the student-led, pro-democracy Wild Lily Movement occupied Memorial Hall Plaza in Taipei. Rather than send in tanks to crush the protesters, Lee invited the student leaders for negotiations at the Presidential Office. And rather than tighten controls on society, Lee launched a series of constitutional reforms to democratise Taiwan and ended the “temporary provisions against the communist rebellion,” an old artefact of the Civil War under which, two decades earlier, had he not persuaded his interrogators, he could very well have been sentenced to death. He also approved direct presidential elections, the first of which was held in 1996. Those occurred under the threat of the Chinese military, whose bid to strike fear in the hearts of Taiwanese voters backfired and ended up giving Lee, who by then had become Beijing’s nemesis, a major victory at the polls.

It is straightforward to imagine how different Taiwan’s history could have been had Lee not become president. We can only speculate how another leader, perhaps Hau, would have handled the “troublemakers” in the Wild Lily Movement, or how much longer it would have taken before Taiwanese were able to choose their leaders in direct, free and fair elections. Any other leader in the traditional mould of the KMT would conceivably have shown great hesitance to trust the people. Perhaps, rather than being the most vibrant democracy in Asia, Taiwan would have become another Singapore, whose former leader, the overrated Lee Kuan Yew, decided for his people that a “soft authoritarian” system of governance was preferable. Whatever the wisdom of those decisions, Taiwanese enjoy far more freedoms today than their counterparts in Singapore, and Taiwan’s civil society is both the envy and a source of inspiration for activists and intellectuals in the city-state and elsewhere in the region.

Lee was—and is—the incontestable refutation of the belief that history is merely an impersonal force, that people have little, if any, ability to alter the course of history. Chance partly guided Lee to the pinnacle of power in Taiwan, while his decisions reverberate with us to this day. Besides demonstrating that Taiwan can defy Beijing by making a place for itself on the international stage, Lee’s greatest gift to the people of Taiwan was democracy—his belief in its virtues, and his decision to allow it to flourish by building it with others. For not a single man or woman, however noble and powerful, can lay claim to the development of democracy. Nothing better showcases this legacy than the thousands of visitors who lined up on Saturday morning at Taipei Guest House, which for the next two weeks will host a public memorial for the former president. One by one, people from all walks of life, government officials, members of the public, young and old, entered the hall in the old Japanese colonial-era building on Ketagalan Boulevard to pay their respects to Lee. In deference to Lee’s religious beliefs (he was a Christian), visitors did not hold incense sticks while they bowed before his shrine; some brought flowers, others came empty-handed. All—elderly couples, a construction worker, a young man with a guitar, a father and his young son, an actor who recently played him in a TV series—all came to express their gratitude for his service to the nation. It was spontaneous. The thousands who will visit the memorial over the next two weeks will do so because they want to; no longer are citizen-subjects forced by the authorities to line up by the roadside, to remain immobile, and to demonstrate their emotional devastation at the passing of their leader by crying their hearts out; no longer are TV programs during the period of mourning turned to black and white or, as was the case with cartoons, taken off the air.

That same Saturday morning, a tall young woman walked into the hall at Taipei Guest House wearing a black T-shirt with the imprint “Fuck the Government 自己國家自己救),” a favourite among members of Taiwan’s activist groups in recent years. It is mostly thanks to Lee, and to those who followed him, that a person could appear at a memorial for a departed head of state wearing a shirt bearing such a slogan. Nobody stopped the young woman outside the venue—nobody forced her to leave—and nothing bad happened to her after she left. We could perhaps argue that her attire was unsuitable for the occasion. Nevertheless, it was her decision, and the state grants her the freedom to do so. One can only imagine what would happen to a visitor with a similar T-shirt showing up at a memorial for a deceased former head of state in China, Singapore, North Korea, the Philippines, Hungary, Poland, Russia … Or, for that matter, to the people who set off celebratory fireworks outside Taipei Veterans General Hospital when Lee drew his last breath, or to the politician from a marginal pro-unification party who, upon learning of Lee’s passing, joyfully exclaimed, “At long last!”

Due to Taiwan’s isolation, Lee has not received the international recognition that is his due. He belongs in the pantheon with Václav Havel and Nelson Mandela. There is now talk of renaming Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport—formerly named after the dictator Chiang Kai-shek— after him. I cannot think of a more suitable name for the main port of entry to a country that, to this day, continues Lee’s legacy through its defiant, and proud, and inspiring embrace of the democratic ideal.

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.

J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham, the Global Taiwan Institute and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. His latest book, Cross-Strait Relations Since 2016: The End of the Illusion, was published by Routledge in March. He tweets @JMichaelCole1

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