Written by Jerome F. Keating.
Photograph courtesy of the author.
Lee Teng-hui, the first president of Taiwan to be elected by the people, passed away on July 30, 2020. He was a statesman among statesmen and perhaps the greatest statesman Taiwan, aka the Republic of China (ROC), has ever known.
Presidents and leaders are often judged not by the totality of their lives but by how, at a critical and crucial time, they did the right thing.
Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and kept the US united through its Civil War. Whether he could have handled the post war reconstruction is unknown.
Winston Churchill was England’s bulwark through World War II yet the people chose another leader for the post war world.
Lee, as president for 12 years, successfully guided Taiwan from its one-party state martial law era into its present full-fledged democracy and lived to a happy retirement.
However, Lee’s brilliance shines all the more when one looks not only at his presidency but also at the totality of his life, where, negotiating minefields and overcoming handicaps, he participated in constant competing systems but was not part of them..
Born in 1923 in Taiwan, Lee, a second-class Japanese colonial, went to study agricultural economics at Kyoto University in 1943. Those studies were briefly interrupted when he served in a Japanese anti-aircraft artillery unit in Taiwan shooting down US planes. Back in Japan, he finished his degree in 1946.
Completing that degree, he returned to an occupied Taiwan, which would be wracked by the 2-28 Incident and White Terror. His background would not sit well there since the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) occupiers were suspicious of, if not eliminating, anyone with Japanese leanings.
Lee now had to learn Mandarin to fit in with the KMT’s way of doing things. However, land reform was on the agenda and he was able to work for the Sino—American Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction.
That work would lead him to also master English and pursue additional degrees in agricultural economics. He got an MA from Iowa State University (1953) and a Ph.D. from Cornell University (1968).
He then would also join the KMT (1971), following the Zen-like idea that the most dangerous can also be the safest.
Although under suspicion for his background, Lee proved his capability by both serving well as Mayor of Taipei (1978-81) and as Provincial Governor (1981-84) Because of that Chiang Ching-kuo would overlook his background and Marxist studies, and pick him to be his vice president in 1984.
Throughout, Japanese remained Lee’s preferred language; Christianity became his religion jointly supported by a Zen Buddhist spirit and a samurai code of dedication and service.
As President, Lee met with the Wild Lily movement and listened to their demands. In 1992, he eliminated Taiwan’s “iron rice bowl” legislators, forcing them to retire, and allowed new ones to be elected by the people. Many of those affected had held legislative positions since the 1947 elections in China.
Though martial law was lifted a little more than 6 months before Lee took over the presidency, Lee was crucial in dismantling the one-party state apparatus that went with it.
He negotiated his way through the old guard KMT, Madame Chiang’s return, and Hau Pei-tsun’s military clique. In many ways, he drew hatred from that old guard because he destroyed their beautiful one-party state.
He further ensured that Taiwan’s president would be elected by the people and not by the National Assembly, which was finally dissolved at the end of Lee’s presidency. Its remaining duties were taken over by the Legislative Yuan.
While Lee had solid principles that he kept to and moved things along, he could always be counted on to do something unorthodox, and set the stage for the future separation of Taiwan from the ROC.
Lee could not formally declare Taiwan independence since the US was not yet ready to take on untangling the Gordian knot that it had created with the San Francisco Peace Treaty. But he did push the envelope. In 1999, he rocked the boat by suggesting Taiwan’s “state to state” relationship with China to Deutsche Welle magazine.
In 2005, I interviewed Lee in his home. I had my Taiwanese wife as an interpreter and Lee had his own interpreter. Lee’s command of English remained. We barely needed either.
During the interview, Lee mentioned how as Vice President, he met regularly with Chiang Ching-kuo in the mornings to discuss Chiang’s plans and direction. Lee always took notes, which were later turned into a book.
Knowing that Chiang had finally lifted martial law in July, 1987, but that he had been in charge during the past brutality of the White Terror, the Kaohsiung Incident, the high profile murders of the early 1980s etc., I asked Lee this direct question.
“Did Chiang Ching-kuo support Taiwan’s move to democracy because he really believed in democracy, or because he was forced to?”
Taiwanese had tried to assassinate Chiang in 1970 and followers of Chiang Kai-shek had lost their UN seat in 1971. In addition, the US moved its embassy from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, and protests were growing at home.
I was seeking a backstory to Chiang’s motives.
Lee’s answer was: “Both.”
It was an interesting answer and I have pondered it over the years. In a way, Lee was diplomatic; he owed much of his career to Chiang. But he could also see that his own life balanced survival with his passionate love for Taiwan’s democracy.
Few actions have one simple motive. One may dominate, yet multiple others can support it. And Chiang had already begun the process of “Taiwanization” by choosing Lee in 1984.
On a separate whimsical note, Lee has taken some things to his grave. I have always wondered about his relationship with James Soong. He was indebted to Soong who helped Lee get past the old guard KMT, and maintain the presidency. Yet at the same time, he undercut Soong’s future power base for that same position by eliminating the budget for Soong as Provincial Governor.
Still, when Lee celebrated his 90th birthday, Soong was there and at the head table. Lien Chan, Lee’s vice president, was not even present.
Each must play the role that he is given on the stage and Lee played his part extremely well.
Taiwan would not be the democracy that it is today without Lee Teng-hui.
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 a special issue of President Lee’s memorial.
Jerome F. Keating is an educator, trainer, consultant and writer who lives in Taipei, Taiwan. With diverse degrees and certificates from universities such as Michigan, Notre Dame, and Syracuse, he has worked as a professor, human resource specialist, and consultant as well as technology transfer manager on the Taipei and Kaohsiung Mass Rapid Transit projects. After retiring from National Taipei University, he continues to be active in many fields including writing and political commentary.