Lee Teng-hui, the first Taiwan-born president of this island state whose prickly relationship with China and unbending passion for self-rule set the tone for every leader who followed, has died at a hospital in Taipei. He was 97.
Active until late in life, Lee died Thursday evening after suffering from infections, cardiac problems and organ failure since being hospitalized in February, Taipei Veterans General Hospital said, according to the Associated Press.
Few political figures in Taiwan have cast as long a shadow as Lee. He oversaw the end of martial law, loudly rejected Beijing’s pursuit of unifying China and Taiwan, and led an ambitious foreign policy aimed at winning allies around the world. For years, China fumed at his provocations.
President for 12 years beginning in 1988, Lee stepped onto the world stage in 1996 when he suggested Taiwan adopt a “special state-to-state relationship” with China — the antithesis of Beijing’s prized unification goal. In response, China flexed its muscles by testing missiles off Taiwan’s coastline, letting that dramatic display signal its feelings about Lee’s pursuit of democracy.
Lee’s idea for an autonomous Taiwan took root when he was growing up during Japan’s oppressive colonial rule of his homeland, said Anna Chou, a departmental director with the Taiwan Solidarity Union political party, which considers the former president its “spiritual leader,” though he was neither a member nor a founder of the group.
Under Tokyo’s rule from 1895 through the end of World War II, Taiwanese were barred from advancing upward in government to the level of their colonizers. Local militias and other small bands of Taiwanese revolted but lacked the resources to overthrow the Japanese.
The Nationalist Party, or KMT, which had ruled all of China before being overpowered by communist revolutionary Mao Zedong’s troops, regrouped in Taiwan in the 1940s and kept the island under martial law until Lee took office. Subsequent presidents in Taiwan have followed Lee’s lead on self-rule, particularly current President Tsai Ing-wen, who routinely flouts China’s advances.
KMT elders came to resent Lee for pushing back against their goal of unifying with China and blamed him for their losses in the 2000 presidential election. Opposition politicians had also sought his support and sometimes received it.
Lee was born Jan. 15, 1923, in Sanchih, a farming town about an hour north of Taipei. He took an interest in Japan, Taiwan’s colonizer then, as his father worked in the Japanese-run police force. Lee studied Japanese martial arts in school and eventually became a second lieutenant in the Japanese imperial army in charge of an anti-aircraft unit in Taiwan. In high school, he won a scholarship to Kyoto Imperial University, where he graduated in 1946.
Lee initially joined the KMT’s political operations in the 1970s as minister of agriculture. The party eventually named him chairman and then vice president and finally, in 1988, president.
As president he eventually rejected KMT authoritarian rule and its goal of unifying with China. The party threw him out after 2000, when its nominee lost the presidential race to the relatively new Democratic Progressive Party.
“Lee worked within this system to get to the top, but eventually turned his back … supporting some democratic reforms and emphasizing Taiwan’s worthiness for individual statehood,” said Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Center research institution in Honolulu. “His description of Taiwan and China having a ‘special state-to-state relationship’ is as good as any bumper-sticker principle anyone has offered to capture Taiwan’s point of view.”
The Democratic Progressive Party, which is in power today, advocates a guarded, distant relationship with China. Beijing still insists on eventual unification, by force if necessary.
The current president’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, a member of the KMT, opened a dialogue with China but vowed not to unite with the country during his eight-year term.
Ma’s predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, talked about declaring legal independence from China — the ultimate consecration of self-rule – throughout his own eight-year term. His words inflamed Beijing and rattled the United States, which at the time advocated a stable China-Taiwan relationship.
Lee typically saw Washington as an ally in resisting China’s aggressions. In 1995, he became Taiwan’s first president to visit the United States, where he spoke at an alumni reunion at Cornell University, where he had earned his PhD.
He appealed to the United States by accelerating Taiwan’s democratization by meeting with pro-democracy protesters in 1990 and later by forcing parliamentary elections that gave seats to more native Taiwanese instead of KMT backers from China.
“As the first president to visit the U.S., Lee opened a new chapter in U.S.-Taiwan relations,” said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington. “Chen and Tsai inherited some of his thoughts but have taken Taiwan’s independent identity further.”
His appearance at Cornell is what inspired former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry to speak out against China’s perceived interference in the Taiwan 1996 presidential race, said Parris Chang, a Taiwanese professor emeritus of political science at Pennsylvania State University.
Lee also reestablished diplomatic relations with several countries that had abandoned it in favor of China. After leaving office, he kept China on edge with visits to Japan, which he respected culturally even if not as a colonizer. On a particularly splashy trip in 2015, he visited the Japanese parliament.
All three of his successors in Taiwan have sought closer political, military and economic ties with the United States and Japan. Tsai and Chen vied with China for diplomatic recognition from small, impoverished nations in Africa, the Americas and the South Pacific. Those countries speak for Taiwan in the United Nations, while Washington sails warships near Taiwan as a warning to China.
Lee’s most common nickname among Taiwanese remained “Mr. Democracy” throughout his life.
“The general public in Taiwan has a very high regard for President Lee,” ruling party lawmaker Lo Chi-cheng said. Lee, he said, “played an important role in the process” of reversing authoritarian rule.
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