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

Written by Frank Hsiao.

Photograph courtesy of the author.

 A Talented Scholar

My last encounter with Lee was in July 2004. I read in the newspapers that he was trying to go to Japan for treatment for his heart problem, but that the Japanese government had turned down his entry visa. At that time, both my children had finished their MD/PhD degrees and were completing their residency requirements at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Mei-chu and I were impressed by its hospital facilities, especially its living and treatment quarter for world dignitaries and celebrities. Through one of my Rochester alumni, who was working for Lee for a mission, I wrote to Lee in 2004 to tell him about the Johns Hopkins hospital facilities and asked whether we could help him to come to Baltimore for treatment at Johns Hopkins.

That summer, my wife Mei-Chu and I were invited to present a paper at an international conference at the Academia Sinica in Taipei, and we visited Lee at his Green Mountain residence. When we arrived at his house, Lee was as friendly and talkative as the old days. Mrs Lee also came to sit with us and exchanged greetings.

Lee talked about the new development of nanotechnology, the hottest topic at that time, and its applications for organic chemistry, molecular biology, and engineering amongst other fields. Since we were staying at the Academia Sinica guest house, he also talked about his view of the institute. As usual, he talked fluently in Taiwanese and dominated the conversation.

When I asked him whether he knew So Sin (蘇新), one of the leaders of the Taiwanese Communist Party in early 1931, he was perplexed and asked me whether I was referring to So Sin (蘇震same pronunciation in Japanese) at the Bank of Taiwan, whom I also knew. From this, I concluded that Lee was not a member of the Taiwanese Communist Party in his early years.

Lee was often criticised for joining the communist party (for a year or so) when he was young. In fact, immediately after WWII, corruption and poverty were rampant in China, as described by a propagandist Chen Boda (陳伯達in “China’s Four Big Families” in 1947, and by novelists like Mou Dun (矛盾). Many young Taiwanese, who felt strongly about social justice, were sympathetic to the suffering of the Taiwanese farmers and workers and tended to side with the socialists. Lee, as a young agricultural economist from a village, might have been attracted to such movements in his youth. It also shaped his concerns of the Taiwanese “tillers and toilers” in his works in later years.

We talked a little over an hour. When we were leaving, he gave us four books and three huge volumes of his collected papers. Two books were Witnessing Taiwan (2004) and Explanation of “Wu Shi Dao” (2004) a Chinese translation of his Japanese book. He kindly signed both books for us in beautiful Chinese calligraphy. The other two books were about the process of his efforts to promote democracy in Taiwan and his vision for Taiwan’s future in the world (Qun-ce Hui 群策會, 2003). His followers wrote both.

Books by Lee Teng-hui, photography courtesy of the author
More writing by Lee Teng-hui, photography courtesy of the author

According to the Preface of the collected papers, the three volumes were a 60th birthday gift from Mrs Lee in 1983 when he was the Governor of the Taiwan Provincial Government. The first volume has 67 papers in Chinese and is 808 pages in total. It includes a translation of his Cornell thesis. The second and third volume together have 36 articles in English, adding up to a total 1923 pages (Lee’s year of birth), including 300 pages of his 1968 PhD thesis. These academic papers were written between 1950 and 1977, that is, between the time he was appointed as an Assistant Teacher (助教) at NTU and a year before he left his consultant position at JCRR to take the busy job as the Mayor of Taipei in 1978. 

The topics of the two English volumes are more macroeconomics oriented. The major topics include economic development, the role of agriculture in economic development, agricultural policy and planning, agricultural development, etc. The topics in the Chinese volume are more microeconomics oriented. They include, in addition to some of the topics in the English volumes, papers in agricultural finance, prices, specific foods problems, and agricultural insurance. The three volumes covered all the major topics on the production side of Taiwan’s agricultural industry during the early postwar period of Taiwan. Except for some policy-oriented topics, most of the papers were written rigorously with numerous statistical tables and illustrative figures. The analytical technique mostly used was the multifactor Cobb-Douglas production function and multiple regression analysis. This was the most popular and “high level” econometric method at that time. 

Lee was able to manipulate the variables and equations to find the theoretical relations for his empirical investigation. In one section, he even presented the CES production function (1983b, p. 181), a very new topic of “mathematical economics” during that era. Even today, not all economists can comprehend his work.

It appears that Lee could perceive the abstract variables and equations as only some realistic agricultural products and found the functional relations and policy implications from the variables and equations. He was very intelligent and unusually talented.

 A Man for All Seasons

In an interview, President Lee once said he chose to major in agricultural economics because he was deeply moved by and felt for the hardship and struggle of the Taiwanese farmers and villagers that he saw during his childhood. Thus, he was always sympathetic to the “tillers and toilers.” From his writing in “Interpretation of Wu Shi Dao” and “Witnessing Taiwan,” we can see his high morality and self-discipline. We also see he was compassionate to people, respectful to superiors, kind to friends and inferiors, and had his own vision of the Taiwanese (and the Japanese) society and the future of Taiwan. From the authors of two books and his edited series, we can see that talented people and advisors surrounded him. This included one of my classmates and his student, Guo-shu Liang (梁國樹), and other distinguished scholars in and out of the National Taiwan University and other research institutes. 

He was fluent in Japanese, Taiwanese, Mandarin and English. He read widely in these languages, especially in Japanese. Professor Shiratori (白鳥)wrote to me that when he visited Lee, he was surprised to find that Lee was reading the History of Japanese Cabinets (Nihon no Naikaku), a collection of three volumes, one of which Shiratori authored. In general, it appeared that most of LEE’s knowledge came from reading Japanese bunko hon (文庫本). These are small but concise books on the topics covering from philosophy, history, society and politics to new sciences and technological discoveries. Lee himself also wrote Bunko Hons. In 2016, he wrote a book with Koichi Hamada (浜田宏一), who is an economic advisor to the Abe Cabinet and a Chair Professor Emeritus at Yale University. This work envisions the future Taiwan-Japan alliance on the Internet of Things (IoT) as being the start of the fourth industrial revolution in East Asian. 

Lee had an extensive collection of books, as his followers in Taiwan were proposing to build a library under his name to house his books. This made him quite different from other politicians. He read widely, had an excellent memory, could express his learning and thinking eloquently, and could write fluently. He was a very rare and talented scholar. 

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 KoreaLondon: 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 second part of his three part special on Lee Teng Hui’s scholastic legacy

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