Features | Politics | East Asia

The Glorious Contradictions of Lee Teng-hui

Throughout his 97 years, Lee took on multiple identities as a Japanese, Communist, Chinese, Christian, and, finally, Taiwanese independence activist – matching the island’s many changes.

By James Baron for
The Glorious Contradictions of Lee Teng-hui

In this March 6, 2005, file photo, former Taiwan’s President Lee Teng-hui gives a symbolic “push away” to Beijing’s plan to pass the anti-secession legislation during a large rally of pro-Taiwan supporters in the southern port city of Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

Credit: AP Photo/Wally Santana

“It was one of the few days in my life when I wore a suit,” remembers Hans Breuer.

Back in 1996, Breuer, then a freelance translator, was contacted to work as an interpreter for German TV network ZDF, which was in Taiwan to cover the first-ever democratic presidential election in a Chinese-speaking country.

More likely to be seen in shorts and sneakers at the time, Breuer opted for a makeover. “Considering the importance of the occasion, I thought I’d better make an effort,” says Breuer, who arrived in Taiwan in 1989.

The election of Lee Teng-hui, who died July 30, was a tension-fraught affair. China had been hostile for months prior. Having fired missiles toward the port city of Keelung in July the preceding year, conducted similarly menacing “tests” the following month and naval exercises in November, Beijing resumed its belligerence in the week leading up to the election. More missiles were launched, landing near Keelung, again, and off the coast of Taiwan’s second city Kaohsiung in the south. It was a warning: a vote for Lee, Taiwan’s first native-born president, spelled trouble.

“It was supposed to intimidate people,” says Breuer, who spent election day interviewing voters. “But it totally backfired.” This assessment was backed by polls showing a 5 percent spike in support for Lee.

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Beijing’s ire arose from a perceived shift by Lee, if not toward outright independence, then away from a “one-China” position. This apprehension stretched back to Lee’s first major constitutional reform – the abolition of the laws that had kept Taiwan under martial law for over 40 years.

Officially referred to by the unwieldy designation “Temporary Provisions Effective During the Period of National Mobilization for Suppression of the Communist Rebellion,” the act was used to justify the abuses of the White Terror period. Lee’s decision to end it was a watershed.

Yet the significance of the decision ran deeper. For, in maintaining the fiction of an ongoing civil war, the provisions helped define cross-strait relations; their abolition caused surprise and confusion on both sides.

Initially, the move might have been welcomed by Beijing as confirming the Communist “victory,” reinforcing the argument that Taipei was submitting to their authority. However, in one of the many ironies that has marked the metamorphosis of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) from Beijing’s bitter foe to its fawning bedfellow, Chinese officials soon sensed something more alarming afoot.

By scrapping the provisions, Lee – a Taiwanese with no affinity for China – had removed legislation that, however tenuously, tethered Taiwan to the “mainland.” If Lee was dropping claims to authority over China, what did that suggest about the entity known as the Republic of China?

At the press conference announcing the decision on April 30, Lee was careful with his language, making frequent references to “the Chinese nation,” “a reunified China,” “the National Unification Guidelines,” and “the one-China policy.” He criticized “those who advocate playing the Taiwan independence card,” insisting activism was “not home grown … but rather stems from our isolation in the international community caused by the Chinese Communists.” It was a curious claim.

Yet, despite employing “reunificationist” rhetoric, Lee’s hedging was beginning to cause concern. When asked how Taiwanese should now view China, Lee said, “Both sides of the Straits should not deny the other as a political entity.”

Amendments facilitating direct elections for the National Assembly followed in December 1991 after the Wild Lily student protests of March 1990. A vestige of the “mainland era,” which guaranteed the “old thieves” legislative seats and handsome salaries, the assembly was an obvious target for democracy activists.

With dissatisfaction at the pace of the reforms continuing, in 1994, Lee began the process that led to the assembly’s eventual dissolution, removing its power to elect the president and vice president. That same year, he opened the mayoralties of Taipei and Kaoshiung to direct elections.

However, it was Lee’s actions the following summer that set the stage for the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. Thanks to the efforts of the renowned lobbyists Cassidy & Associates, at a reported $1.5 million per year, Lee secured almost unanimous support from Congress for a visit to speak at Cornell University, where he had earned his doctorate in agricultural economics in 1968.

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Despite State Department misgivings, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton granted Lee a visa waiver for a 3-day stopover in a private capacity, with the strict understanding that there would be no fanfare or media interaction. Press conferences or no, with 4,000 attendees and 400 international journalists present, the event was hardly clandestine. A major coup for Lee, it had Chinese officials fulminating. Admonishments, diplomatic and economic, spewed forth.

Foreign Minister Qian Qichen summoned U.S. Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy for a tongue-lashing, and the closure of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu was mooted. (Coincidentally, Beijing made good on this threat in July 2020, following its latest trade spat with Washington.). Meanwhile, Defense Minister Chi Haotian put a visit to Washington on ice.

Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily joined the chorus of howls, with an editorial predicting Clinton would “pay a price” for “jeopardizing Sino-U.S. relations.” The piece apparently meant this literally, as doubt was subsequently cast on a deal for Boeing jet airliners.

Even the author of the “One China” policy weighed in. “Highly reckless and provocative” was how Henry Kissinger described Lee’s visit.

Lee’s 40-minute speech is often portrayed as anodyne, yet the subtlest sleights of tongue had long signposted important shifts in the cross-strait dialogue. It was therefore unsurprising that Lee’s decision to refer to “the Republic of China on Taiwan” for the first time caused consternation. A redoubled furor ensued following an interview with German radio in 1999 in which he introduced the notion of “state-to-state relations.” (The English translation on government websites was originally “country-to-country,” but this was quickly altered to the less controversial formulation at the behest of the Mainland Affairs Council.)

Taken by surprise, the KMT’s One China stalwarts began to wonder if Lee’s diversion from the script signified incaution or something altogether worse. Foremost among the detractors was Hau Pei-tsun, who had served as Lee’s premier from 1990 to 1993 but who, as a member of the “palace faction,” had never trusted him. Hau now campaigned against Lee as running mate to independent Lin Tang-kang, a former KMT vice chairman and head of the Judicial Yuan.

Hau, who died at age 100 in March, played up his military background and Lee’s lack thereof to suggest that his opponent was not cut out for such a volatile stand-off and risked embroiling Taiwan in a cross-strait war. On the eve of the election, the People’s Daily echoed this, claiming Lee’s actions “pushed Taiwan’s people toward the abyss of catastrophe.”

Yet for all the talk of impetuosity, Lee appeared unflappable. “Lee consistently displayed his calm manner … [and] thus effectively tempered voter unrest,” biographer Shih-Shan Henry Tsai writes. This was reflected in polls suggesting 800,000 voters switched support from Peng Ming-min, the candidate for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, to Lee.

Emboldened by this endorsement of his approach, Lee moved forward post-election. His convening of a National Development Council in late 1996, and subsequent adoption of its recommendations to suspend elections for the Provincial Government in 1998, signaled the end of another cumbersome civil war relic.

It also irreparably ruptured Lee’s relationship with James Soong, whose position as governor was rendered obsolete. Soong, who had once referred to relationship with Lee as a father-son bond, believed he had been deliberately sidelined; this was confirmed when Lee selected  Lien Chan as presidential candidate for the 2000 election, a move that opponents claimed condemned the KMT to failure against the Democratic Progressive Party’s Chen Shui-bian. For party hardliners, the snake had now fully emerged from the grass.

In later years, Lee became something of a comical figure to a younger generation who saw in his frequently contradictory outbursts the ravings of a confused has-been. It was hard to imagine such a person had ever been capable of dispassionate calculation. Even those who knew him well began to impute his erratic comments to instability or caprice borne of an absence of core values. Many believed “Lee’s pattern of changing beliefs and personality” was for expediency, writes Tsai.

Throughout his 97 years, a period of immense changes to Taiwan’s sociopolitical landscape, Lee showed an uncanny ability to emerge unscathed from potentially catastrophic scrapes.

As a young Japanese, he remained an obedient subject, but flirted with liberalism and Marxism. In 2002, he admitted to having briefly held Chinese Communist Party membership just as the February 28 uprising of 1947 was flaring up (though he later denied being a signed-up member).

During the same period, Lee claimed to have attended meetings of the Settlement Committee in Taipei. This ad hoc convention was formed by leading Taiwanese professionals and intellectuals to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the turmoil engulfing the country. Lee claimed to have refrained from speaking as he suspected KMT tolerance of the gatherings was a ploy to smoke out dissenters. This proved prescient as most of those who made their voices heard suffered arrest and, in many cases, worse.

On his return to Taiwan from Cornell in 1964, Lee was interrogated by the dreaded Taiwan Garrison Command, then hauled in again in 1968. Yet, three years later he became a KMT member and quickly earned the trust of President Chiang Ching-kuo. A notoriously tough judge, Chiang certainly knew about Lee’s past but, in Tsai’s words, “felt in Lee a calm and reliable personality, who was unconstrained by ethnicity, occupation, or rank.”

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While “happenstance,” as Tsai puts it, may occasionally have played a role, it is inconceivable that Lee navigated the pitfalls he faced through blind luck.

Among his wiles, there were unsavory characteristics, most notably his courtship of “black and gold” organized crime. Other shortcomings included his failure to promote women to his cabinets, his undemocratic manipulation of the law to consolidate his own power (in the name of democracy), and his initial dismissal of calls to address White Terror abuses.

In a frank eulogy published in the Taipei Times, Lee’s old friend, university peer, and one-time rival Peng summed up Lee’s predicament thus: “As a Taiwanese, he wanted to safeguard and enhance Taiwanese’s political rights and push for democratization. As KMT chairman, he had to sacrifice certain basic human rights for the sake of unification. He was constantly struggling with this dilemma.”

In a similar vein, Tsai has described Lee as “full of contradictions and confusions,” likening him to antiheroes of Dostoevsky, with whom he had a youthful fascination.

Perhaps it is these idiosyncrasies, expressed through his multiple identities as a Japanese, Communist, Chinese, Christian and, latterly, Taiwanese independence activist, that mark Lee out as a true Son of Taiwan – a title his successor Chen Shui-bian liked to use. For nothing captures the spirit of the island-nation better than such inconsistency.

That can be seen in KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu’s landslide in the 2018 mayoral election, which prised open the Democratic Progressive Party’s 20-year grip on the city, and in Han’s recall 18 months later. It is evident in the love-hate attitudes Taiwan exhibits toward East Asian neighbors Japan and South Korea, which veer between idol worship and xenophobia-tinged inferiority complex. And it’s there in the social values that move from all-in-together civility to rat-race self-interest in a matter of moments. It is Taiwan in all its muddled, sometimes frustrating, sometimes delightful, never lackluster glory.

To his detractors, Lee was, if not a snake, then a chameleon, changing colors as circumstances dictated. For Hans Breuer, who now runs a successful translation agency from his home in Sanzhi district, rural New Taipei city, a stone’s throw from where Lee was born, it was never that simple. “There’s never either black or white” says Breuer, an amateur herpetologist, who spends his spare time prowling the undergrowth for evasive reptiles. “Historians can argue about his character and agenda till kingdom come, but no one can deny his importance.”

James Baron is a Taipei-based writer.