Lee Teng-hui's Complicated Legacy Spans a Century of Taiwanese History

Lee Teng-hui's Complicated Legacy Spans a Century of  Taiwanese History
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
What you need to know

Like the history of Taiwan, Lee Teng-hui's life went through several political and ideological twists and turns. But the only thing that remained consistent was his advocacy of Taiwanese sovereignty.

Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan’s first democratically elected president, died on Thursday in Taipei. The hospital stated the cause of death was septic shock and multiple organ failure. Lee had been hospitalized since February after a choking incident, following which he was diagnosed with pneumonia and pulmonary infiltration. He was 97. 

Lee served as president from 1988 to 2000, and was Chiang Ching-kuo’s vice president before succeeding Chiang upon his death. Chiang named Lee as his vice president as a gesture toward diversifying the composition of the Kuomintang (KMT), as Lee was benshengren — Han Chinese who had arrived on the island before the KMT. Lee, having earned a Ph.D in agricultural economics from Cornell University in 1968, rose to prominence in the KMT as an agricultural expert.

In 1990, Lee was elected as president by the National Assembly, an unelected body jokingly called “The Ten Thousand Year Parliament” because of its long-serving, unaccountable members. The Wild Lily Student Movement, which took place during Lee’s six-day inauguration, protested his presidency and the KMT regime. Thousands of students called for democratic reforms as Lee was chosen by this unelected National Assembly, rather than through voting by the general public. 

When Taiwan held its first direct presidential elections in 1996, Lee defeated the Democratic Progressive Party candidate, Peng Ming-min, and served until 2000. 

In this way, despite having already served eight years as an appointed president, Lee became the first democratically elected president in Taiwanese history. It would not be until 2000 that a non-KMT president, Chen Shui-bian of the DPP, became president of Taiwan. It was not until 2016 that a non-KMT political party held the majority in the Parliament.

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Photo Credit: National Depository of Cultural Heritage
Lee Teng-hui's first international press conference after taking office in 1988.
From Blue to Green

Verdicts on Lee vary greatly from when he served as president and as he is remembered now, two decades later. Contemporary members of the pan-Green camp see Lee as a historical pioneer, in asserting Taiwanese sovereignty, seeking to localize the institutions of the Republic of China (ROC), and standing up for Taiwan against China. Current President Tsai Ing-wen began as a protege of Lee, serving as an advisor on the National Security Council under Lee in the 1990s.

During Lee’s presidency, he was also the KMT chairman. He made moves to “localize” the KMT, appointing a number of benshengren in the party’s Central Committee and the Executive Yuan in 1988. This was an early sign of Lee’s seeking to carve out an alternative political path, even as he spent many years working his way up through the KMT. 

In 1991, Lee terminated the “Temporary Provisions Against Communist Rebellion,” which included martial law declarations under the justification of fighting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). A push by Lee to nationalize the military and disconnect it from the party control of the KMT may have been done to prevent military coups, a very real fear during the early stages of Taiwan’s democratization. 

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Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images
Lee Teng-hui raise hands during Tsai Ing-wen's election rally at New Taipei City, Taiwan, January 13, 2012. 

But the political fallout after elections in March 2000 led to his resignation as KMT chair that month, then his expulsion from the party a year later. Lee was accused of sabotaging the KMT in the 2000 presidential elections by creating internal splits in the party, enabling the victory of DPP President Chen Shui-bian.  

In particular, Lee named his former vice president, Lien Chan, as the KMT presidential candidate, bypassing James Soong, who was widely seen as a stronger candidate than Lien. This resulted in Soong, once a political ally of Lee’s, running as an independent, splitting the vote in a manner that resulted in both his and Lien’s defeat. 

After endorsing the new pan-Green Taiwan Solidarity Union, Lee was officially expelled from the KMT in September 2001. In the years since, the KMT has remained deeply fearful of party members proving to be unexpected political turncoats. Potential reformers in the party were accused of secretly being infected with pan-Green ideology in Lee’s manner.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
President Lee Teng-hui (L) and running mate Lien Chan (C) toast with their Nationalist Party comrades and supporters at the party headquarters, after winning Taiwan's first ever direct presidential elections on March 23, 1996.
Shifting views of Lee’s legacy over time

The contradictions of Lee’s career are reflected in the reversal of historical judgments about him after he left office and Lee’s rehabilitation by the pan-Green camp. Lee is now seen as having secretly harbored ambitions for Taiwanese independence during his many years as part of the KMT.

Much commemorations of Lee have focused primarily on his being the first democratically elected president in Taiwanese history, or that he was the first president of the ROC born in Taiwan. But, again, the Wild Lily Movement was in part a response to that his 1990 election was not by democratic means, and during the 1990s, Lee competed against DPP candidates. As a KMT president and party chair, Lee could have been seen as an antagonist of the pan-Green camp until later on in life, when he became more open about his political views. 

Likewise, Lee was long suspected to have political connections to gangsters during his presidency. Lee was believed to have relied on organized crime as a political muscle to secure votes. Gangster activity in Taiwan saw its height under Lee’s early presidency. He also faced charges of corruption at several points in his career, most notably in 2011 for embezzlement, which he was later cleared of.  

Many crucial concepts regarding contemporary Taiwanese identity or central to the present state of cross-strait relations can be traced back to Lee's presidency. He promoted the notion of the “New Taiwanese” (新台灣人), suggesting that Taiwanese identity can be defined by identification with Taiwan rather than ethnic background. It was a way of healing the split between benshengren and waishengren, Chinese who had arrived to Taiwan with the KMT. Among other efforts, this concept has been crucial in the shift in Taiwanese nationalism from a form of ethnic nationalism to civic nationalism. 

During an exclusive interview with Deutsche Welle in 2000, Lee proposed the notion of a “special state-to-state relation” between Taiwan and China. Later Taiwanese presidents have also sought to propose formulas for the political relationship between Taiwan and China, but Lee was the first to do so. 

His 1995 visit to the United States under the pretense of visiting his alma mater, Cornell University, also set the precedent for Taiwanese presidents conducting unofficial visits to the U.S. under alternate pretexts.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
President Lee Teng-hui waves to armed forces school graduate students at their graduation ceremony in Taipei, November 11, 1996.
A life reflective of Taiwan's complicated 20th century 

To understand Lee’s complicated political history, it is necessary to examine Lee’s early life. Lee was born in a farming community in northern Taiwan during the Japanese colonial period in 1923. As a result, Lee received a Japanese education and name, graduating from Kyodo Imperial University in 1940. 

Some have noted that Lee seemed to speak Japanese more fluently than Mandarin even in his later years. Given the KMT’s strong anti-Japanese stance, Lee became much more open in his expressions of fondness for Japan after exiting the party. Lee visited the Yasukuni Shrine in 2007, a move that incensed KMT members. He once referred to Japan as “the motherland,” leading the then-president Ma Ying-jeou to demand an apology from Lee. 

In a memorable occurrence, Lee also cosplayed as a character from Japanese anime Sakigake!! Otokojuku along with now-legislator Freddy Lim — a former student of the Lee Teng-hui School — in 2004. 

After the end of WWII, Lee returned to Taiwan for further education at National Taiwan University, where he had reportedly joined or flirted with joining the CCP. Although Lee later denied that he had ever joined the CCP, it would not be surprising if he did, given the popularity of Marxism among proponents of Taiwanese self-determination in the early post-war period, and the influence of Marxism in the Japanese social sciences during the early 20th century. 

The KMT sought to cover up this period of dalliance with the CCP in Lee’s life after he ascended within the party. However, ironically, he had found himself in contention with China in the 1990s, as his comments frequently instigated military saber-rattling by the Chinese government directed at Taiwan. Following Lee’s death, Chinese state media has been condemnatory of Lee’s actions during his life. 

The life of Taiwan’s “Mr. Democracy” proves one that captures the many twists and turns of Taiwanese politics and identity, encompassing close to one hundred years of Taiwanese history in microcosm. 

Having been born as a Japanese colonial subject, briefly joining the CCP, and then spent many years as a KMT member before betraying the party, Lee had betrayed most of the political forces he joined. The one constant, however, was his advocacy of Taiwanese sovereignty. 


This article was last updated at 2:54 p.m. on July 31, 2020.

READ NEXT: A Timeline of Lee Teng-hui's Political Career in Taiwan

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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