The legacy of Taiwan’s “Mr. Democracy”

Written by Frédéric Krumbein.

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 

President Lee Teng-hui’s most enduring legacy is his crucial role in the process of Taiwan’s democratisation. His predecessor, Chiang Ching-kuo, had already started the process of liberalisation. Yet despite his having lifted martial law in July 1987, Chiang died a few months later with the KMT dictatorship still intact. Lee Teng-hui then gradually implemented democratic reforms during his presidency (1988-2000). In 1996, he won the island’s first free and direct presidential elections and became Taiwan’s first democratically elected president. Taiwan made astonishing progress towards the consolidation of democracy and respect for human rights over his three terms as president. Whereas Taiwan’s scores in the Freedom in the World Index of the US-based non-governmental organization Freedom House were five for political rights and three for civil rights in 1998, the island republic had achieved the scores one and two respectively in the year 2000. Seven is the worst, one the best value.

Firstly, Lee Teng-hui’s main contribution was to give the Taiwanese democracy and human rights. As a result he also created the first and only Chinese democracy that has ever existed. In so doing, he fulfilled the second principle, i.e. democracy, of Sun Yat-sen’s three principles of the people that are the foundation of the Republic of China. Thirdly, he gave the over 85% of the population that were born on Taiwan, but did not have a voice before he came to power, the means to express themselves.

By giving the native Taiwanese (本省人) their voice and by making Taiwan a democracy, it was inevitable that the psychological gap between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan would increase. Still, “Mr. Independence” Lee Teng-hui should be separated from “Mr. Democracy”. Both of his legacies are interconnected, but at the same time different. Taiwan’s democracy can also be the “Chinese dream” and a role model for mainland China. As he said in his inaugural address: “We in Taiwan have realised the Chinese dream. The Chinese of the 20th century have been striving for the realisation of a happy, wealthy China and of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s ‘popular sovereignty’ ideal. For 50 years, we have created in the Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu area an eye-catching ‘economic miracle’ and achieved a world-acclaimed democratic reform. The Chinese who were regarded as dictatorial, feudalistic, penurious, and backward by Western countries one century ago have by now created in the Taiwan area a new land of democracy, wealth and progress, proudly enjoying enthusiastic recognition from the world.“

Lee Teng-hui has also contributed to the so-called “Asian Values” debate in the 1990s and has, together with Japanese and Korean politicians, vigorously opposed the ideas, brought forward by Singapore’s former leader Lee Kuan Yew and others, that democracy and human rights cannot be implemented in Asian societies. He held the deep conviction that Chinese culture cannot only be harmoniously combined with democracy, but that it even provides ideas and concepts that support democracy. Lee wrote: “’Following the hearts of the people’, an idea expressed in the ancient Chinese Book of History, could also serve as a succinct statement of the essence of modern democracy. This kind of precept for the head of a nation was widely prevalent in ancient Chinese culture. This amply proves that the political thought of the time basically affirmed that the ultimate objective of politics was to fulfil the wishes of the people, just as democratic thought today stresses a similar function of government.”

Before he became president, Lee held several high positions in the KMT dictatorship, such as minister, mayor of Taipei and vice president. Only when he became president and had secured his power did he initiate the process of democratisation, on account of which he has been called “ultimate Trojan horse” (The Economist 2020). This course of action was certainly prudent and allowed him to implement a “top down” process of democratisation. But it also made Lee complicit in the human rights violations of the dictatorship when he was a member of the highest echelons of the authoritarian system. It is important not to forget that the democratisation on the island was also a “bottom up” process in which brave Taiwanese spoke out, protested, and fought for democracy and human rights. These people have often paid a heavy price for their courage as they were imprisoned, tortured or killed by the KMT dictatorship. Taiwan has many “Mr. and Mrs. Democracies” and Lee Teng-hui is one of them. Without him, Taiwan may never have experienced democracy, or at the very least would have undergone a much bumpier transition to democracy.

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.

Frédéric Krumbein is a Research Associate at the Institute for European Politics, Berlin, and a Visiting Professor at the Tel Aviv University European Studies Program.

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