Lee Teng-hui and the democratization of Taiwan

The following is a guest post from Jerome Keating.

Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan’s Man of Democracy: Bete Noire or Bel Esprit?
Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.
National Taipei University

If you could use one word to describe Taiwan’s former president Lee Teng-hui, it would be “Controversial” with a capital “C.” One word, however, is not enough to describe this complex man who has done more than any other in this century to move Taiwan to its present democratic state. That’s a bold claim; but after matching his words and his actions for the past sixteen years and a recent two-hour personal interview with him, this is why I make it.

Lee Teng-hui’s Taiwanese origins mix Hoklo and Hakka roots. A people known for their hard work, perseverance and clannishness, the Hakka are no strangers to overcoming persecution and discrimination. Lee would need such diligence and perseverance to rise through the ranks of the waishengren Kuomintang (KMT) Party. In becoming Taiwan’s first native born president, he has witnessed all aspects of the political spectrum. To survive, he had to learn to swim with the sharks and now Lee remains a man unafraid to call a spade a spade. Throughout his life of struggles and accomplishments, people either love him or hate him; there is rarely a middle ground.

Born in Taiwan on January 15, 1923 Lee Teng-hui spent his early years as a colonial subject of Japan. One of the few to best the rigorous and discriminatory selection process for “colonials” to attend university in the motherland he entered Kyoto Imperial University in the early 1940’s. The defeat of Japan in World War II cut short his studies there, but undaunted, he returned to Taiwan and finished his bachelors degree at prestigious National Taiwan University in 1948.

Lee was 24 years old when Taiwan’s post WWII turmoil exploded in the infamous February 28 (er-er ba) Incident (1947). Like many of that time, he still remembers emotionally the shootings and suffering and witnessing people being executed in the streets.

Lee then flirted with the Communist Party, a dangerous notion at a time when death was meted out for lesser matters but it also could be seen as a natural choice of opposition by Taiwanese experiencing KMT oppression. This past record would be something that the KMT would publicly gloss over and play down when he later became an official party member. However, Lee recalls being questioned every day by security personnel when he began to enter the inner circles of the party (1971). Interesting also is that about the only good thing Lee could say about Chiang Kai-shek is that he kept Taiwan from being taken over by the Communists.

In 1949, Lee married (he would have a son and two daughters); then he went to Iowa State University in the heart of the Farm Belt in the USA and got a masters in Economics (1951-1953). Joining the Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction (1957-61) on his return, his early work in Taiwan was subsequently related to land issues. Lee returned to the USA and spent 1965-68 getting a Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics at Ivy League, Cornell University. It was a far cry from the cornfields of Iowa but still in the field of agriculture. The American Association of Agricultural Economics would vote Lee’s doctoral dissertation as the best of his graduating year.

After his return to Taiwan, Lee applied himself. As his work and accomplishments began to get recognition, he had the fortune to be introduced to Chiang Ching-kuo. In New Zealand on a working trip (1969), Wang Zuo-rong did the honors. (Lee comments that Wang did not let him forget this favor.) Later when it was found that Lee could not attend certain meetings unless he was a KMT member, Lee joined the party (1971).

Lee became a minister without portfolio in 1972 and he continued to show his competence. Finally he became mayor of Taipei (1978-81) and then governor of Taiwan Province (1981-84). When he was provincial governor, he was selected by Chiang Ching-kuo to be his vice president, a position in which he served 1984-88.

Upon Chiang’s death (January 13, 1988), Lee assumed the presidency but not without controversy; objections and challenges came from within the KMT party. When Chiang Ching-kuo was in his last days various party members questioned him whether he wished that Lee be kept on; Chiang said yes and his judgment held sway over the party powers.

Lee filled out the remaining two years of Chiang Ching-kuo’s term consolidating his power base and proving to party members Chiang’s choice of him was justified. Then in 1990 he again had to convince the party he should be their leader. After some infighting he won out, and was chosen to be president. Six years later, in 1996, he again became the party’s presidential candidate.

Lee’s early years had been spent proving himself to the party. In his years alongside Chiang Ching-kuo, he watched how Chiang was able to initiate unwanted and unpleasant changes within the party and keep his leadership position. In the three years and eight months that Lee was vice president, he met privately with Chiang 186 times and got to know his mind. For both practical and analytical reasons, he kept notes. Speaking highly of Chiang, Lee credits him as the one who started Taiwan’s democratization process.

Chiang is a controversial figure in his own right. As director of internal security and the secret police, many were imprisoned and died under his rule; Chiang was so hated that an assassination attempt would be made on his life, yet he seems to have changed in his later years. Chiang prepared the way for Taiwan to have a multi-party system. He also lifted martial law (1987) before his death in early 1988. I asked Lee whether Chiang had lifted martial law because he wished it or (as others have suggested) because he was forced into it by external pressures and media exposure. Lee’s answer was that it was a combination of both. (For Lee, life is a constant interplay of will and the forces of environment.) Chiang had also begun releasing many political prisoners, a task, which he gave Lee the responsibility to oversee.

1996 marked the year for Taiwan’s first public presidential elections. It was an open election, Lee and vice president Lien Chan, the KMT candidates, were opposed by more conservative, dissatisfied KMT members running as independents. Lin Yang-kang teamed up with Hau Pei-tsun getting 14.9% of the vote. Chen Lu-an and Wang Ching-Feng got 9.98%. Peng Ming-min ran with Frank Hsieh on the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) ticket (21.1%). Lee and Lien however won with 54. % of the vote and became Taiwan’s first popularly elected president and vice president. The term of presidency was now four years.

Innumerable people are responsible for democracy in Taiwan. Many on all sides have made their contributions big and small. Without the opposition parties little progress would have been made. Numerous people paid for Taiwan’s democracy with the ultimate sacrifice of their lives; others provided philosophical and personal inspiration. As for Lee’s contributions, he turned out to be the right man for the right job at the right time.

Lee certainly contributed to Taiwan’s economy in the areas of agriculture and land development, but it is in his role as president that we see his major contributions to the development of Taiwan’s democracy. Under his leadership, the final changes took place. Under a lesser man things could have stalled or been done halfway. When you look at the years of his presidency, 1988—2000, the final major breakthroughs happened. A sampling follows.

The Civic Organization Law of 1989 legitimized the DPP (formed in 1986) and other political parties and officially made Taiwan a multi-party country. Top political prisoners were released and free to run for office. The military were also allowed to join political parties other than the KMT.

In May 1991, Lee formally ended hostilities between the ROC and the PRC; this put to rest the still fostered dream of some KMT that they would retake the mainland; this allowed both the party and people to officially concentrate on Taiwan. In December of that year a great step in equalization took place; all the KMT members of the Legislative Yuan who had been elected in 1947 and had had the unspeakable luxury of never having to run for office again, were forced to resign. The Legislative Yuan would now serve as an elected body truly elected by and speaking for the people. A six-year development plan for Taiwan also began in 1991.

Under Lee, the outdated Constitution, which had been written for a totally different country, in a totally different situation–the mainland as ruled by the KMT in 1945–would be changed and updated six times. The dreaded Garrison Command, long responsible for political persecution, torturing etc. would be disbanded in 1992. The most important change however happened in 1994; the Second National Assembly adopted the resolution that the President and Vice President would be directly elected by the people. The choice of presidency was now in the hands of the people and not the politicians and their parties; the first such election would be in 1996.

Further, Lee had assigned a task force to determine the true causes of the February 28, 1947 uprising. As a result of its straightforward fact-finding and analysis, Lee officially apologized on behalf of the ROC government in 1995 for the 2/28 crackdown and subsequent persecution. This formal recognition would move the healing process of the island forward.

In 1997, opposition forces gained the right to have their own TV stations; up until that time the KMT had dominated the TV media by controlling the only three stations. In 1999, the Green Island Memorial was dedicated to all the political prisoners that were forcibly imprisoned there and another step was made in coming to terms with Taiwan’s past.

During Lee’s presidency, Taiwan’s economy also adapted to the high tech future and numerous reforms were instigated. Similarly, Taiwan’s dignity was confirmed when Lee stood up to the threats of Mainland China. In matters involving the Taiwan Strait he publicly expressed that all negotiations should be done on a state to state basis. At home Lee’s style was also to listen to and not suppress opposition as his dealing with the leaders of the White Lily Movement of 1990 indicate.

In any one of these changes particularly those relating to democracy Lee could have settled for lesser solutions and even catered to conservative KMT resistance to change. He did not have to push that presidential elections be directly done by the people for example. Likewise he could have worked a slower system of phasing out the KMT legislators. Many would have been satisfied with lesser progress but Lee pushed the envelope.

Who doesn’t like Lee? The list is long. The hard core KMT for one. He is seen as the one who cost them their privilege. He was kicked out of the party after it, with Lien Chan as presidential candidate, lost the 2000 elections. Retired General Wang Sheng speaking indirectly of him at a recent KMT dinner, called him evil and said he would like to “beat” him. For libel reasons, Wang avoided calling Lee by name, but all knew whom he meant. However, if the two would square off with Japanese “shinai” or kendo sticks, I would bet on Lee.

Wang Sheng has more reasons than one to dislike Lee. As one of the top military generals under Chiang Ching-kuo, he was angling for the vice presidency of the ROC with hopes of eventually succeeding Chiang. Wang was banished as ambassador to Paraguay by Chiang in late 1983, and shortly after in 1984 Chiang chose Lee as his VP running mate. According to Lee, the major contributing reasons for Wang’s banishment were Wang’s ambition and his role behind the scenes in the set-up and subsequent political punishments orchestrated in the Kaohsiung Incident (December 1979). Wang had done this without informing Chiang Ching-kuo.

Within the KMT, various other individuals and groups also have their reasons for disliking him. First there are those who like Wang Sheng had competed with him for positions in the past and lost out to him. Then there are those who see Lee as the prime cause of the KMT losing its privilege. Lee did more than talk about democracy like the other KMT; he put it into practice. This is why he is seen as instrumental in the KMT losing power. By giving the people a choice, the people could choose other than the KMT. In an ironic way, some also blame Lee for splitting the party by choosing Lien Chan as his VP over Soong or others. Yet when Lee had been kicked out of the party, the KMT stayed with Lien as party chairman and again as presidential candidate in 2004. I have presented the reasons for this in my May 10 entry, “Protecting the War Chests.”

Third there are the KMT who believe the paradigm of “One China” above that of democracy. They see Lee as a traitor because he advocates Taiwan independence. This third group has this in common with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP); their foremost priority and belief is the same paradigm. These have never accepted the localization aspects of the party. Insisting that democracy submit to their paradigm, they came to Taiwan as waishengren and will always remain as waishengren. In attempts at character defamation these will ironically play up Lee’s “traitor” qualities both as to how he was traitor to his early communist membership and then traitor to the KMT. They avoid contrasting it to his loyalty to democracy or Taiwan.

Of course a final obvious group that hates Lee is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Lee is the archetypal “splitist.” As for Lee as president, you have to admire a man who could raise the hackles of China just by simply speaking or by leaving the island. Take for example his visit to his alma mater, Cornell University. To paraphrase an ad, “when Lee Teng-hui speaks, China goes ballistic.” Even now, long after he has retired, Lee still knows the right buttons to push to draw reactions from the other side of the Strait.

Lee is a well-read man who has developed his own belief system; and belief systems have long been a strong factor in his decisions. At sixteen he states he no longer believed in reincarnation; for him the Japanese bushido code offered a better perspective more focused on life here. China he sees as having a cyclic history of progression and regression. The KMT for him taught only China and nothing of Taiwan. In values for Lee, one should not speak of Asian values but of human values. Lee had become a Christian after he turned thirty and that has strongly influenced his approach and views on life.

Lee’s readings add to and explain his complexity. He integrates his readings into his life and philosophy. In matters of principle and belief, Lee has the resoluteness of Martin Luther known for his statement, “Here I stand, I can do no other. So help me God.” Lee sees life as an ongoing struggle where there will always be a gap between reality and our understanding of it as is expressed in Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus. Yet despite this gap, Lee also retains the spirit of Goethe’s Faust that believes that man must achieve things day by day and that error is as necessary to growth as the realization of ideals.

As of late, Lee remains in controversy. He and Chen Shui-bian have had their differences. Among other things, Lee states he told Chen to meet with James Soong, but not cave in to him. Lee has also criticized Chen for losing direction and having no clear China policy. Chen responds that if Lee wanted more done why didn’t he do it in his last four years as president. Others ask questions as to why Lee did not go further, for example in matters like that rooting out “black gold” (political corruption and profit).

Politically, Lee’s style is combative. He is not one to turn the other cheek. When it comes to fighting for Taiwan’s right to determine its own destiny; he is unbending. A phrase that may gain currency is that of “New Age Taiwanese.” Lee had originally coined the phrase “New Taiwanese” a phrase that helped Ma Ying-jeou in his bid for mayor of Taipei. New Taiwanese meant unified thinking, overcoming waishengren/benshengren differences. Lee now feels Taiwanese must go a step further. “New Age Taiwanese” or “New Era Taiwanese” means both abandoning past ethnic rivalries and then thinking globally and with a Taiwanese self-dignity. Identify first and foremost as Taiwanese and then apply this globally.

When most politicians would rest on their laurels, relax and play golf, Lee (an avid golfer) remains an indefatigable warrior of Taiwan. He continues to speak and write prolifically. At present Lee is considered the spiritual father of the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), a party that strives for Taiwan independence.

Lee’s ideology is based on the dignity of Taiwan; he also favors its independence. There is logic to this and a recognition of 60 years of de facto reality. True choice is true only if it can be done freely and independently. A person or country must first have dignity and independence, only then can each truly choose its future. Those who advocate forced marriages that demand one side be subordinate to the other, never have the good of both in mind.

Could Taiwan be a model for the PRC? Lee believes it can but many on this side of the Taiwan Strait will not listen to him because of past conflicts, annoyances, and grudges. On the other side of the Strait, those not willing to give others free choice perceive themselves as superiors and can never entertain the possibility of listening to “subordinates.” Lee wants the people and especially the next generation to think beyond what Lee Teng-hui says. “They need to have their own thought,” he optimistically states. Whether that will happen remains to be seen.

I asked Lee directly whom he favored for the 2008 Taiwan presidential elections. He would give no answer. He also spoke on how United States foreign policy both hindered as well as helped Taiwan’s democracy, but that is too lengthy to report here.

Lee has five points that he feels are vital for any leader or president. First have a strong faith and belief in principles to which you can always go to for answers and guidance. For Lee, his Christianity serves this purpose. Second, do not be attached to power; be willing to give it up at anytime. This is hard advice for those in a culture that defines most relationships as superior/subordinate and determined by power. Third, make a very clear, sharp distinction between private life and public life; this applies both to the person and the nation. It implies that what is good for the self may not always be good for the nation. Fourth, always take the more challenging tasks for yourself. Fifth, and perhaps the most surprising, don’t watch or rely on TV news. Lee does not listen to public trends and opinions as reported by the media. For those who are familiar with the fad-chasing shallowness of much of Taiwan’ TV reports, this is no doubt sage advice.

So, why do I say Lee is the greatest single contributor to the democratization of Taiwan? Look at the cause of democracy in Taiwan, its history and the history of all of its participants. Look at what each has done in the totality of their lives. Look at the specific contributions and accomplishments of each for democracy. Look as well at what they have done to delay it or hinder it either by the complicity of silence or by direct persecution.

Finally, look at what each past participant has done for his/her own gain and privilege, for the privilege of a party or class, and even for an ideology or paradigm belief that would make Taiwan subordinate to such a belief. Ignore participants’ mouthed words or ideals. Weigh their actions and the results of those actions both for and against the cause of democracy and then make your judgment. I still find no other whose scale tips farther for achieving democracy than Lee Teng-hui’s does.

Jerome F. Keating Ph.D. has lived in Taiwan for 16 years; other writings can be found at http://zen.sandiego.edu:8080/Jerome

The Discussion: 2 Comments

Richard, I find it interesting that you devoted so many precious inches to an encomium to Lee Teng-hui that ignores some interesting elements of his character: rabid Japanophile and Sinophobe, neocon darling, Taidu extremist and, I would posit, Chen Shuibian’s personal hemorrhoid, in short the man most likely to provoke World War III if his party regains political power. An important figure but something more or less than Taiwan’s George Washington. I’ll post on China Matters in a day or two to present my perspective. If you’re looking for Taiwanese heroes, I’d look for guys like Shih Ming-teh. And if you’re looking for a really unique human being, check out Li Ao.

July 12, 2005 @ 5:27 pm | Comment

Chi, you’re making an excellent case for more Lee Denghui and more Taiwan on TPD. Thanks.

July 12, 2005 @ 6:36 pm | Comment

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