Lee Teng-hui— a Leader of Shifting Principles, Wonderful Vision, Skill and Legacy

Written by Mark Wenyi Lai.

Image credit: 08.27 「人民直選總統暨臺灣民主發展二十周年」研討會中播放的台灣民主發展影片2 by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

Former President of Taiwan, Lee Teng-hui passed away this summer. The Beijing/Unification faction hated Lee, and the Independent faction/Mike Pompeo praised him as the Father of Taiwan Democracy, if not the Father of Taiwan. How do we evaluate Lee? What is Lee’s vision of where and how Taiwan is heading in the next century? How do our perspectives of him reflect our Taiwanese identity?

Looking back through Taiwan’s history, many political leaders and activists have contributed to its current political stability, economic prosperity and social progress. In the 17th Century, Zheng Chenggong defeated and expelled the Dutch. If this did not take place, Taiwan would not be a Han Chinese based society. Time moved on. During the 19th century’s self-strengthening movement, the Qing Dynasty’s Hanlin Academy official Shen Baozhen promoted the strategic importance of Taiwan and Beijing. He began the investment in public infrastructure, defence, and public service on the island. Without Shen, Taiwan would have fallen into the hands of an imperial predator, or predators. Nevertheless, Taiwan did not avoid the fate of colonialisation. Still, the Japanese Imperial Official Goto Shinpei, through his diligent work and far-sighted policies, paved the way for Taiwan’s modernisation in the early 20th Century.

After WWII, the Chinese authorities came back to Taiwan. As a consequence, Chiang Kai-shek was not a popular historical figure due to 26-years of harsh authoritarian rule in Taiwan. However, his retreat to Taiwan, along with his alliance with the United States, allowed the island to stand on the world’s political main stage. If it were not for Chiang, Taiwan would be poor and underdeveloped. Authoritarianism and development thus seemed to go hand in hand. Consequently, in the 1950s, the Governor of Taiwan – Chen Cheng – led a successful land reform while also slaughtering dissidents as part of the White Terror. Hence, although KMT years brought Taiwan an economic miracle in the late 20th Century, Taiwanese people have mixed feelings about this part of history.

Perhaps already, readers with different political stances are angry with the paragraph above. It is not easy to give an objective evaluation of historical figures because people use different criteria. Let us evaluate Lee, the most important politician after Chiang, based on the elements of a great statesman: vision, skill, legacy, and principle. This essay argues that throughout Lee’s life, he proved himself as a great statesman, although the last element, principle, is absent.

First, Lee is a great statesman because he had a passionate – and correct – vision. The story started in the late 1980s. Ching-kuo initiated the project of democratisation in his life’s final moments. He took over leadership in 1988, resulting in power and the ability to make far-reaching decisions. Facing the pressure of democratisation, moderates in KMT believed that the economic miracle in Taiwan could gain the Taiwanese people’s support and win the election.

They were right. In those years, the KMT prevailed in all elections. The opposition party hardly found substantial cause to challenge the dominating KMT regime. The DPP was surprised that the Taiwanese people continued to vote for the Party who massacred innocent citizens, imposed 38-years long marshal law, maintained their oligarchy system benefiting only small circle of mainlanders in public service and local corruptive factions. The main issues for Lee, at that moment, were to maintain authoritarian rule and enjoy his presidency rather than his lucrative retirement. Alternatively, Lee could have further liberalised politics and dealt with the challenges from the KMT base. That all being said, he made Taiwanese democracy possible. He did not have to, but he chose the second, tougher option.

Lee knew the survival of Taiwan’s political autonomy relied on US support. Maintaining the KMT’s authoritarianism was, therefore, a difficult choice. One did not want to reflect the practices of the authoritarian mainland if Taiwan wanted the support from Washington DC. Still, Lee’s vision was correct. He knew that the hegemonic conflict between the US and China was inevitable. He predicted, correctly, that there would be more consolidated cooperation between the US and Taiwan from then to now.

Secondly, Lee is a great statesman because of his marvellous political skill. Lee won the 1996 general direct presidential election and garnered more votes than the three other candidates combined. It is worth noting that Lee’s opponents were formidable. The number one challenger at the time, Peng Ming-min, led the DDP, and he was a martyr of the independence movement in the 1960s. Peng was like a combination of Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi for many years in Taiwan. The second challenger, Lin Yang-kang, was a member of the Taiwanese landlord class. Lin had a perfect resume just like Lee, and he was even more popular than Lee among local Taiwanese factions. Lin’s vice president candidate, Hau Pei-tsun, was the spiritual leader of the mainlander group. The third challenger, Chen Li-an, was young, bright, handsome and charismatic. Lee won the election. This proved that Lee had sophisticated political skill to win votes from people who did not like him. His secret weapon was to use the newly developed Taiwanese identity to motivate feelings of collective solidarity. Lee built a Taiwanese identity and helped to shape the modern movement of Taiwan Independence. It is his most important legacy.

Instead of the father of democracy, this essay argues that Lee should be called the father of Taiwanese identity. Rethinking the 1990s, without Lee, Taiwanese democratisation would have likely continued. The opposition party was there, competition inside KMT was fierce, the rising middle class demanded more political rights, and the pressure from the US was enormous. If not Lee, there would have been another leader or other leaders who would have succumbed to the third wave of democratisation. However, it is only through Lee that collective thoughts of independence blossomed throughout the 90s. This new identity was discussed and built by intellectuals. Talking about Taiwanese independence used to be a crime in the 90s, but now it is a commonplace thought in Taiwan — this would not be possible without the work of Lee. Lee was brave enough to deter military pressure from Beijing, along with the threat of a coup d’état from the far-right military faction in Taiwan. This legacy of Taiwanese consensus in independence gave Taiwan a strategic bonus when facing a stronger China.

Last but not least is the issue of principles. Accordingly, Lee Teng-Hui’s political life reflected his adaptability – something particularly evident in pronounced shifts in his identity (i.e., from a pan-Chinese identity to Taiwanese localism) and party affiliations (i.e., from the KMT to localist/democratic parties). This is a source of critique toward him. Still, since national identity and party politics changed so fast in Taiwan, one can hardly blame Lee for this inconsistent political stance. Perhaps Lee adopted a pragmatic stance to operate in the field of Taiwan’s politics and achieve his goal. Lee is one of the great statesmen in Taiwanese history, if not the greatest. His drive for absolute power and his lack of stable, grounding principles reflect the real sadness of Taiwan’s destiny in history—surrounded by powerful countries, Taiwan has had to change its principles following the flux of world politics.

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.

Mark Wenyi Lai is an Associate Professor, a non-resident fellow of the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham in UK, Chairperson of the Department of International Affairs, Graduate Program of International Affairs, Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages, Taiwan.

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