Written by Denis Li, translated by Corey Lee Bell.
Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan’s first democratically elected president, played a key role in the country’s journey from authoritarianism to democracy. In 12 years as president, he made six amendments to the constitution, earning him an indelible place in the history of Taiwan.
The News Lens has compiled 10 of Lee’s quotes from lectures and interviews, which reflect his perspective on Taiwanese politics and cross-strait relations, as well as the expectations he harbored for himself as a political figure.
1. Listening to the people’s will
“Whatever I have done as president of my nation, I have done with the people in my heart. I have thought long and hard about what my people want, and it is clear that most of all, they desire democracy and development.”
In 1995, Lee gave a speech at his alma mater Cornell University, titled “Always in my heart” (民之所欲，長在我心). Lee pointed out that since his inauguration as president in 1988, his most important goal was to understand the yearnings of the people, and hoped that Taiwan’s government policy will be guided by their wishes.
He cited a phrase from The Book of Documents (one of the Five Classics in ancient Chinese literature): “Whatever the people desire, the realm must follow.”
2. The Kuomintang must become the party of Taiwanese people
In April 1994, Lee was interviewed by Japanese author Ryōtarō Shiba. When Shiba talked about “the plight of a place,” referring to the Bosnian War, Lee said that he felt the anguish for not being able to help Bosnians. “There was also a time when I felt the immense sadness that, as Taiwanese, I couldn’t put forth any efforts for Taiwan,” Lee said.
During the interview, Lee said that the Kuomintang (KMT) was a regime that came from abroad, and it needed to become the KMT of the Taiwanese people. He said:
“Till today, power in Taiwan has been assumed by foreign regimes. This is even the case with the Kuomintang — it was nothing more than a political party that came over to rule the Taiwanese. Henceforth it must become the Kuomintang (literally, “party of the nation’s people”) of the Taiwanese people.”
This quote highlighted his then-self-identity as a Taiwanese and a localist, reflecting his engagement in an unfolding battle with the mainland Chinese faction who originally held power in the party.
3. Actions speak louder than words
“Leaders shouldn’t incite the masses, they should educate them. They shouldn’t use the masses. Politicians shouldn’t just give lip service — you need to watch their actions.”
Lee said this during an interview with the Central News Agency conducted on September 16, 2007. Lee noted that he had been a politician for more than half of his life, and that he had many requirements and expectations on the matter as to how a politician should conduct oneself.
He also said, “Elections are for electing the right person, not for arguing. [Only if that principle is followed] can the nation be secure, and can democratic society make progress.”
4. New-age Taiwanese
“Taiwan should develop the concept of ‘new-age Taiwanese.’ Whether one is a new resident [who arrived from China] 40 years ago, a migrant [whose ancestors came to Taiwan] 200 years ago, or one of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, all are ‘new age Taiwanese’ as long as they identify with Taiwan,” Lee said at a 2006 banquet celebrating the fifth anniversary of the founding of Taiwan Solidarity Union.
Attending in his capacity as a spiritual leader of the party, Lee mentioned that “Taiwanization” only came about because of a history of confrontation between locals and foreign forces.
However, such a way of categorizing people creates a susceptibility to division and antagonism, and meant that the KMT could not accommodate members that had a Taiwanese identity. In view of this, he felt that there was a need to form the inclusive concept of “new Taiwanese.”
5. The outdated concept of self-importance
“The concept ‘Self just means me’ is a traditional Chinese way of thinking that has continued to this day. Being an emperor is always about ‘me, me, me,’ they never place the people or nation within this concept of ‘self.’”
Lee often said, “the self doesn’t just mean me” (我不是我的我). During a 2013 speech at National Taiwan Normal University, Lee, upon looking back over the history of China’s dynastic period, pointed out the horrors that came from lacking democratic aspirations.
He thought that leaders in a democracy cannot afford to be high handed. A democratic leader should pursue the ideal that “The self includes those who are not me” — only then can one lead the people to a brighter future.
6. I am not the “Godfather of Taiwan independence”
“I am not the “Godfather of Taiwan independence,” and have never advocated for it. In Taiwan exists no debate of unification or independence, only one between the leftists and rightists.”
In a 2007 interview with Next Magazine, Lee refuted the title of “Godfather of Taiwan independence” that some Taiwanese had bestowed on him. He repeated his claim that “Taiwan doesn’t need independence” because Taiwan is already an autonomous, independent nation.
Lee had never stated “we need to abandon Taiwanese independence” or words to that effect. He implied there is no need to waste time and energy debating whether Taiwan should unify with China or declare independence. Instead, the need is for processes leading to the normalization of Taiwan’s status as a nation such as ‘rectifying the name’ of the nation and drawing up a new constitution.
7. Don’t ask me who I endorse, ask “Who am I?”
Although Lee began his political journey alongside Chiang Ching-kuo and led the KMT for 12 years, he later split with the party, who rescinded his membership. In 2001, after he had left office, he became the spiritual leader of the green-leaning Taiwanese Solidarity Union. He also publicly supported candidates of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and stumped for Taiwan’s current President Tsai Ing-wen.
In response to the criticism of his flip-flopping between political camps, Lee said he valued the overall benefit and future for the Taiwanese.
“I’ve said this before: Don’t ask me who I endorse. Ask ‘Who am I?’ I pushed for the democratization of Taiwan because I hoped that the Taiwanese would be the leader of this land and the master of their own destiny,” Lee said during an interview in 2008.
8. A polarized two-party system may lead to “ultimate unification”
“As long as there is a two party system with one supporting unification and the other independence, Taiwan will be in danger of eventual unification.”
In a 2007 speech given at a forum hosted by Taiwan Advocates (later known as the Lee Teng-hui Foundation), Lee criticized the KMT and DPP for “combining to monopolize” Taiwanese politics, resulting in “a two-party system with one supporting unification and the other independence.”
In every election, politicians could manipulate voters by taking up the issue of “unification or independence.” But in so doing, they neglected the issue of the livelihood of the people and deepened fissures around the issue of national identity. This disorder grants China the opportunity to unify Taiwan through unconventional warfare.
Lee felt that Taiwan needed a “left-leaning centrist” party. He noted that becoming a normal nation requires more than affirming Taiwan’s autonomy on the international stage. If Taiwan’s economic well being worsens, if the underprivileged is neglected by the government, if social justice is nothing more than an election slogan — if that comes to be the case, he asked, “Can such a Taiwan be considered a normal country?”
Hence Taiwan must have a left-leaning centrist, social democratic party that looks after the underprivileged — this is essential to creating a “normal” and happy Taiwan.
9. To not believe in communism before you are 30 is to be without a dream, to believe in communism after you are 30 is to be divorced from reality.
Lee confirmed in an interview with Taiwan’s Academia Historica that he joined the Chinese Communist Party in October 1947 and was a member for one year. Lee first entered the “Association of Comrades of the New Democracy,” whose study groups featured discussions on Mao Zedong and touched on Taiwanese independence. Because of this, Lee was interrogated by the Taiwan Garrison Command in 1969.
Lee explained, “After Japan lost the [Second World] War, Taiwanese at that time felt that they were Chinese, and felt that China should change — communism was something that might be able to improve China.”
He also stated, “participating in the Communist Party was mainly to resist or reform an authoritarian government.”
In old age, Lee mocked his younger self as “naive.”
10. Is the Communist Party that powerful?
In a speech given in the United States in 1995, Lee mentioned the term “Republic of China in Taiwan.” In order to stop Lee from being Taiwan’s first democratically elected president in 1996, China conducted missile tests and military exercises near Taiwan, bringing about the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis.
After the election, Lee stated that China was merely putting on a show, “firing blanks” to try to frighten the Taiwanese people.
He then made his fearless and somewhat cheeky proclamation in Taiwanese: “Is the Communist Party that powerful? No matter how powerful it is, it can’t beat your dad (me).”
Denis Li is a reporter at the News Lens.