Lee Teng-hui, 1923 – 2020

Lee Teng-hui and Nelson Mandela met twice: in 1993, when Mandela visited Taiwan, and in 1994, when Lee attended his inauguration as South Africa’s first democratically-elected president.

台湾的主张, 台湾,1999,p. 103

They were two 20th-century giants of democracy, and there were a number of experiences they had in common – struggles for emancipation, more or less intensive tries at Communism, and a crucial role in the democratization of their countries, respectively. But while Mandela led a long open struggle, spending many decades of it in jail, Lee rose through the ranks of the nationalist KMT, supported and promoted by Chiang Ching-kuo during the 1970s and 1980s.

Lee probably owed much of his career to Chiang’s intention to co-opt native Taiwanese citizens into the KMT – a party which Lee actually (and secretly) hated. In the end, he owed his presidency to Chiang, to those in the KMT who threw their weight behind him after Chiang’s death in January 1988, and his own skills as a politician and a technocrat.

Lee’s career came full circle after his presidency had ended in 2000. The KMT revoked his membership in 2001, citing violation of party rules, not least their former president’s and chairman’s close contacts with the Taiwan Solidarity Union.

The KMT had been a vehicle on which Lee pushed forward Taiwan’s democratization, and the re-emergence of Taiwan’s own identity. This rediscovery is still an ongoing process.

While Mandela’s successes and limits in democratizing South Africa were a matter of wide global concern, attention and respect, Lee’s achievements and setbacks mostly took place in the shadows. The likeliest situations that would make the global public look towards the island was when it was threatened by China, with words or military exercises.

Delivering a lecture to an audience at his American alma mater, Cornell University, in 1995, Lee described Taiwan’s situation this way:

When a president carefully listens to his people, the hardest things to bear are the unfulfilled yearnings he hears. Taiwan has peacefully transformed itself into a de­mocracy. At the same time, its international economic ac­tivities have exerted a significant influence on its relations with nations with which it has no diplomatic ties. These are no minor accomplishments for any nation, yet, the Repub­lic of China on Taiwan does not enjoy the diplomatic rec­ognition that is due from the international community. This has caused many to underestimate the international dimen­sion of the Taiwan Experience.

When Lee retired, he essentially moved from the “pan-blue” (KMT-dominated) political camp into the “pan-green” (DPP-dominated) one. He supported both President Chen Shui-bian, and then current President Tsai Ing-wen. And he was prosecuted by the KMT after Ma Ying-jeou had taken office as president in 2008. Lee apparently wasn’t accused of unjustified enrichment, but of “diverting funds and money-laundering”. In November 2013, he was acquitted.

While Lee was known as a technocrat, especially with a record in agriculture, he also sought for new “spiritual” foundations for Taiwan’s emancipation from the Republic of China, i. E. the Chiang Dynasty’s China, imposed on Taiwan during the 1940s’ second half.

My active advocacy, he wrote in the late 1990s,

for  the “reform of heart and soul” in recent years is based on my hope to make society leave the old framework, applying new thought, face a new era, stir new vigor, from a transformation of peoples’ hearts. This goes deeper than political reform, and it is a more difficult transformation project, but we are confident that we will, based on the existing foundations of freedom and openness, achieve the building of a new Central Plain.

近年来,我积极倡导“心灵改革”,就是希望从人心的改造做起,让我们的社会走出旧有的框架,用新的思维,面对新的时代,并激发出新的活力。这是一个比政治 改革更加深入、也更为艰巨的改造工程,但是我们有信心,可以在社会自由开放的既有基础上,完成建立“文化新中原”的目标。

Zhongyuan (中原, the central plains) is a term charged with a Chinese sense of mission and civilization – in that context, it may appear surprising that Lee, a “splittist element”, would use the term at all. The way Henan party secretary Xu Guangchun (徐光春) referred to the central plains may give you an idea: The history of Henan Province constitutes half of the Chinese history. Two years earlier, Xu had apparently given a talk in Hong Kong, with a similar message. But this wasn’t necessarily what Lee had on mind, in 1996.
From “Taiwanisation – Its Origin and Politics”, George Tsai Woei, Peter Yu Kien-hong, Singapore, 2001, page 19 – 20 (footnotes omitted):

Another anecdote should also be mentioned here. In 1996, Lee Teng-hui declared his ambition to “manage the great Taiwan, and to construct a new Central Plain”. As is known, Central Plain (zhong-yuan) was, and still is, a term usually reserved to describe cultural China. To “manage the big Taiwan” is something easily understood, but to construct a new “Central Plain” is very controversial, to say the least. Some argued that Lee’s aim was to help rebuild China as a “new” central plain, but with his foot firmly on Taiwan. But others rebutted that what really was in Lee’s minds was to build Taiwan as a new Central Plain so that there was no need to unify, or have connections, with the “old” central plain, China.

But while the Taiwan experience hasn’t become as much part of human heritage as South Africa’s has, Lee power to shape his country’s development was probably much greater than Mandela’s to shape South Africa’s.

Lee had become president in extraordinary times. Opposition groups, and “illegally” founded political parties among them, had demanded the lifting of the decades-old martial law for a long time. And when Lee began his second term as president in 1990, after the two remaining years of what had originally been Chiang Ching-kuo’s term, students occupied what is now Taipei’s Liberty Square. Once Lee had been sworn in again, he received a fifty-students delegation and promised Taiwan’s democratization, less than a year after the Tian An Men massacre in China.

When a man follows the leader, he actually follows the mass, the majority group that the leader so perfectly represents,

Jacques Ellul wrote in the 1960s*), and added:

The leader loses all power when he is separated from his group; no propaganda can emanate from a solitary leader.

Lee understood that. Maybe Chiang Ching-kuo understood it, too. But when he made Lee Vice President in 1984, and therefore his heir-apparent, he probably did not know at all how far the “group” – Taiwan’s complex mixture of “ordinary people”, Taiwanese and Chinese nationalists, and, all among them, the islands Indigenous people – would make Lee Teng-hui go.

Taiwan Presidential Office Spokeswoman Kolas Yotaka remembers Lee Teng-hui – click photo for Tweet

____________

*) Jacques Ellul: Propaganda, the Formation of Men’s Attitudes, Paris 1962, 2008, New York 1965, S. 97

One Trackback to “Lee Teng-hui, 1923 – 2020”

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: