Taiwan's godfather of democracy Lee Teng-hui mastered the long game

Former President Lee Teng-hui passed away at age 97 on July 30, 2020

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Former President Lee Teng-hui (Reuters photo)

Former President Lee Teng-hui (Reuters photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) will be forever remembered as a monumental figure in Taiwan’s struggle to break free from the clutches of a brutal authoritarian regime and develop into one of the world's most vibrant democracies.

While many people deserve credit for Taiwan’s democratic transformation, few had the patience and the long-sightedness that Lee possessed to start at the bottom from within the Kuomintang (KMT) and slowly move up, step by step, until he could go no higher, before finally letting his true Taiwanese colors shine. That is what's called mastering the long game.

Lee Teng-hui was born on Jan. 15, 1923, in Sanzhi (三芝) in northwest Taiwan during the Japanese colonial period. He studied agricultural economics in Japan at Kyoto Imperial University in 1943 but returned to Taiwan after World War II and continued his studies at National Taiwan University, where he graduated in 1949, before then moving on to complete his graduate studies at Iowa State University and Cornell University.

Lee joined the KMT in October 1971 to help solve Taiwan’s agricultural problems and in 1972 was appointed by Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), who by then had become premier, as a minister without portfolio assigned to work on agriculture. Lee then worked his way up to become a member of the KMT’s Central Committee on Nov. 17, 1976.

When Chiang was made president by the National Assembly in 1978, he appointed Lee as mayor of Taipei on June 9. Lee continued his upward trajectory within the KMT by becoming a Central Standing Committee member on Dec. 14, 1979.

Chiang then promoted Lee as governor of Taiwan on Nov. 26, 1981, and then as vice president in 1984. When Chiang died on Jan. 13, 1988, Lee took over the reins as president, with the KMT Central Standing Committee first making Lee acting KMT chairman before finally appointing him as official chairman on July 8, 1988.

At the time, even though native Taiwanese made up 85 percent of the population, they were nearly non-existent in the cabinet and central standing committee. This all changed once Lee became president and party chairman, as he quickly moved to increase the number of Taiwanese selected for key positions.

Part of Lee Teng-hui’s genius was his planning and pragmatism in the early years of his presidency. He helped to develop Taiwan’s democracy in a decades-long chess match against China by at first claiming the country and China would eventually unify, but only after Beijing democratized.

Lee strategically gave the nod to “unification” so that he could not be slammed for refusing it, but he provided no timetable, which gave him and Taiwan considerable room to maneuver. By the mid-90s, Lee began advocating using the Taiwanese language and learning about Taiwan, instead of China, in schools, according to Bruce Jacobs and I-hao Ben Liu.

When he met with members of the World United Formosans for Independence (WUFI) in August of 1994, he was still cautious, especially when they suggested the country officially change its name to Taiwan. He told them the Republic of China is Taiwan and that he would not make an official name change while president.

A big turning point came in June of 1995 when he visited his alma mater Cornell University, which caused Beijing to flip its lid and begin attacking Lee through Chinese state-media. In August of 1995, while accepting the KMT nomination for president in the 1996 election — Taiwan’s first democratic election — he began to stress Taiwanese consciousness, according to Jacobs and Liu.

Lee won the 1996 election by a considerable margin, making him the first democratically elected president in Taiwan’s history. Then came a seismic shift in policy when he gave an interview to Deutsche Welle on July 7, 1999, where he described cross-strait ties as a state-to-state or "special" state-to-state relationship.

Lee resigned as KMT chairman on March 24, 2000, and then on August 12, 2001, formally established the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU). According to Jacobs and Liu, by September 2003, Lee was openly pushing for the country to be called Taiwan, officially.

Lee understood that while he was president, he couldn't make any radical changes, so he carefully bided his time. When he no longer had the responsibilities of the presidency hanging over his shoulders, Lee became an even bigger voice for the idea of Taiwan as a fully independent nation — a voice that will never be forgotten.

Rest in peace godfather, rest in peace.