President Lee Teng-hui as a Scholar- A Recollection and Tribute: part I

Written by Frank S.T. Hsiao.

Photograph courtesy of the author.

Part I. The Early Years

Mr Democracy

President Lee Teng-hui (LTH) of Taiwan passed away on July 30 2020, at the age of 97 (1923-2020). As is usual in a democratic country, there were a small number of TV and newspaper reports criticising him for the part he played in the so-called demise of the omnipotent Nationalist Party (KMT). They also criticised him for his promotion of the local Taiwanese-centred politics, economics, history and culture. The majority of reporting has praised him as the father of Taiwanese democracy, although they use the same reason as those criticising him.  

He oversaw the end of the 38 years old Martial Law period (1949-87), whose end was initiated by his predecessor, President Chiang Ching-kuo ((蔣經國, CCK), shortly before his death (1988). LTH was the Vice President of Taiwan (1984-1988) and then became the President (1988-2000). During his tenure, LTH eliminated the dreaded “Temporary Provisions Effective During the Period of Communist Rebellion” (1991). He also revised the Constitution to allow for the re-election of the seemingly “eternal” members of the National Assembly (1991) and Legislative Yuan (1992) (the majority of members were elected in China in 1947). He then undertook six revisions (one of which ultimately failed) to the ROC Constitution, and the National Assembly a “dormant body” (2000), before its abolition in 2005. In 1996, he became the first directly elected President of Taiwan (1996-2000). He disbanded the so-called “Provincial Government” of Taiwan (1997) and coined the phrase “special country to country relations” about Taiwan’s relationship with China (1999). 

The year 2000 saw the first peaceful regime change from the long-governing KMT (in power since first coming to Taiwan in 1945) to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). All these were accomplished adroitly without bloodshed. He did not even have his own political clique, military backup and secret service supports. Unquestionably, LTH was indeed one of the greatest politicians in the World.

The Taiwanese and foreign media have very well documented all these achievements. What is seldom mentioned is his academic achievements and scholarship in the field of Agricultural Economics and his various writings. 

National Taiwan University

I had the opportunity to see LTH four times. The first time I saw LTH was when I took his class. I was enrolled at the Graduate Institute of Economics at the National Taiwan University (NTU) from 1956-59. The Graduate Institute was established in 1955 for the required three-year MA program, as all the classes carried only two credit hours. At that time, our professors (except one with PhD) had degrees only up to BA. The first intake in 1955 had only two students, and my class of 1956 had six students. All received fellowships from the government. 

LTH taught a class called “Special Seminar of Agricultural Economy of China” in the fall of 1957. At that time, he had just been promoted to an associate professor. During the same time, he worked as a technician (技士) at the Agricultural Department of the Taiwan Provincial Government. He was one of only three young active Taiwanese professors we know of during this period. In addition to LTH, we had Associate Professors Peng Ming-min (彭明敏)of the Department of Political Science and Liu Qing-Rui (劉慶瑞) of the Department of Law. Professor Liu passed away young shortly after, whereas both Professors Lee and Peng went on to become key figures in Taiwanese politics. 

In our class of 6, four were “benshengren” (本省人, native Taiwanese) and two were “waishengren” (外省人, those who immigrated along with the KMT from 1945-1949). Among the four Taiwanese students, we called each other using the Japanese pronunciation of our names and spoke mostly in Japanese, mixed with some Taiwanese. I do not recall precisely what LTH taught in the class. Still, I remember being invited to a discussion group of LTH and other Taiwanese classmates. This was to discuss the Taiwanese economy on Saturday evenings at the house of my classmates, Kuo-Shu Liang (梁國樹), as his newly married wife, Ching-Ing Hou (侯金英) was enrolled in the class of 1955. Since my father disapproved on this extra curriculum activity, I attended the discussion group only once or twice. 

During the discussion, LTH, as usual, did most of the talking. I was very impressed by his profound knowledge of Taiwanese farmland and villages, which, as a city boy, were entirely foreign to me. He was tall, friendly, and exceptionally eloquent. I genuinely began to think that he would be the leader of Taiwan in the future. I still remember when he talked about the self-education and innovativeness of Taiwanese farmers. I had footnoted this in one of my co-authored books entitled Economic Development of Taiwan (published in 2015). In that book, I pointed out that “the high literacy rate among the Taiwanese farmers (in 1960, 57% of farmers had some formal education) and accessibility of reading materials and others” to improve the productivity. I wrote in a footnote that

“Those who received a Japanese education were in their thirties during the 1950s and the 1960s. In a private conversation, Professor T.H. Lee (who later became the President of Taiwan) of JCRR (Joint Commission of Rural Reconstruction) once remarked to the first author in a gathering in the late 1950s that the Taiwanese farmers read Japanese magazines, even before the JCRR experts, to diversify and improve their farming methods. The KMT government banned importing all Japanese books and magazines except technical and agricultural publications.”

 In the late 1950s, Taiwan’s White Terror was still raging, and Martial Law was in full effect. After this discussion, my classmates and I were very discrete. We left Liang’s house one by one at intervals of about five minutes to avoid arising suspicion and even potential arrest by the secret police.

Cornell University

I left Taiwan for the United States in 1961 and completed my PhD degree at the University of Rochester in 1967. I joined the faculty at the University of Colorado Boulder in 1966. I returned to Rochester to attend the commencement in 1967. With the help of David Tsai (蔡武雄), who was studying Library Science at Cornell at that time, Mei-Chu Wang (王美珠), who also finished the PhD degree at Rochester in 1967, and I took a one day trip by Greyhound bus to visit LTH in nearby Ithaca. 

Mr and Mrs Lee were as friendly as before. We talked about our research and family (LTH knew my father). LTH was wondering whether he had to go back to Taiwan or take a job at the United Nations (or World Bank) to work as an agricultural specialist in Bangkok, Thailand. He also said he might return to Taiwan since he had a job in the JCRR, and his son had health problems. At lunch, Mrs LTH treated us to delicious duck. They eventually returned to Taiwan. 

Joint Commission of Rural Reconstruction (JCRR)

After moving to the United States, I visited Taiwan for the first time in August 1974. I revisited Taiwan as a Fulbright-Hayes Research Fellow at the NTU and Hitotsubashi University from 1975-76. I met LTH again for the third time at one of the receptions in Taiwan. He was still just as friendly and approachable as before. In the conversation, he talked about his recent work at JCRR, and I was told he had just completed a series of studies on Taiwan’s agricultural economy and he said he would like to give me a copy of the series. I was also asked to pick it up at his office at JCRR. I was also invited for dinner on several occasions

I picked up the series at the JCRR. I was told that he was in a meeting and was unable to see him, thus, to my great disappointment, the dinner invitation was forgotten. In any case, I received three volumes of The Study of the Change of Taiwanese Agricultural Structure, Vols. 1 to 3 (LTH, ed, 1972. See Figure 2, right-hand side).

The series had a 4th volume which was published later. The series’ contents are given in Volume 3, with an Introduction by LTH. He used a three-factor Cobb Douglas Production Function, namely, in addition to usual labour and capital, it included land and disembodied technological progress. He then argued in the Introduction that the Taiwanese agricultural structure was at a crossroad and that the Taiwanese economy was on the brink of much more profound transformations. During the early 1970s, industrial development had the potential to promote agricultural structural change, but without appropriate government policies, this change might not be achieved. He argued that the policy problems facing Taiwan were the underdevelopment of labour-saving technologies, the old land system not matching the agricultural organisation, small scales of production and an aged agricultural labour force. Without an improvement in these areas, LTH argued, Taiwan could not avoid reduced agricultural production and a rise in the price of agricultural products. 

With these policy insights, from 1968 to 1972, LTH mobilised five to seven of the best agricultural economists at that time to research the agricultural structural change taking place in Taiwan. These scholars did fieldwork in the farmland and villages, collected data and distributed questionnaires for analysis. Altogether, he collected 25 research papers. The success of such teamwork was early evidence of the leadership and the scholarship of LTH. 

LTH’s clearest insights about Taiwan’s agricultural and economic problems must have deeply impressed his JCRR colleagues and then Premier, Chiang Ching-Kuo (1972-78) as LTH was appointed as a Cabinet Minister without Portfolio in 1972 with a joint appointment as a consultant of JCRR. LTH was in charge of dismantling the disputed unfair rice-fertiliser barter system and promoting farm reconstruction. He was also in charge of planning the development of the petrochemical industry. 

This was the beginning of his government career. When Chiang became the President of Taiwan in 1978, LTH was appointed as the Mayor of Taipei from 1978-81. Later he was elected as the governor of Taiwan Province from 1981-84. During these years, LTH worked as a skilled technocrat and improved the irrigation problems of Taipei and around Taiwan. In 1984, Chiang, as the Taiwan President, rightly chose LTH, among many other candidates, as his Vice President (1984-1988). 

Frank S.T. Hsiao is Professor Emeritus of Economics, University of Colorado Boulder (UCB) Boulder, CO. USA. He was a fulltime professor at UCB from 1966 to 2007, and was an Associate Editor (2007-2020) of Journal of Asian Economics. His recent publications include Economic Development of Taiwan: Early Experiences and Pacific Trade TriangleWorld Scientific, 2015; Economic Development of Emerging East Asia: Catching Up of Taiwan and South Korea London: Anthem Press, 2017; Development Strategies of Open Economies: Cases from Emerging East and Southeast Asia. World Scientific, 2020 (all coauthored with Mei-Chu Wang Hsiao).

This is the first part of his three part special on Lee Teng Hui’s scholastic legacy

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