A little more than two months past the 20th anniversary of his leaving office, former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) died on Thursday at the age of 97. This nation and Taiwanese owe him an immeasurable debt of gratitude.
It is unlikely that this nation would be the democracy that it is today if Lee had not become president upon the death of Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) on Jan. 13, 1988, or would have seen its first transfer of power without a far more prolonged, and bloodier, struggle.
While it is worth acknowledging the debt that Taiwan owes Chiang for talent-spotting Lee, and helping propel him through the ranks of the bureaucracy and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) — from a minister without portfolio post in June 1972 to his 1978 appointment as Taipei mayor, Taiwan provincial governor in 1981 and vice president in 1984 — as part of his efforts to widen the KMT and the government beyond the ranks of the waishengren (外省人), who had followed the KMT from China in 1949, to include more benshengren (本省人), it was Lee’s own talent, ideals and ambitions that made him the right man at the right time.
He both used the KMT party-state apparatus and helped dismantle it, and it is worth remembering that he had to fight hard from the very beginning of his presidency against the entrenched conservative Mainlander faction that tried to block him from staying in power, from those who tried to block his election as KMT chairman in July 1988 to those who opposed him as he tried to win a six-year appointment as president in his own right in the 1990 selection by the National Assembly.
Having won that battle, Lee could begin to set his own stamp on the presidency and Taiwan, bringing a peaceful end to the Wild Lily student movement sit-in at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Square by pressing for direct presidential and National Assembly elections.
He helped lead the effort to shift the balance of legislative power from the National Assembly, and all of the lawmakers who had held on to their seats since being elected in China before 1949, to the Legislative Yuan and make the Republic of China government more Taiwan-centric.
In 1995, he issued the first public apology on behalf of the government for the 228 Massacre, and was the voice of calm and reason in the days of the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, when China was lobbing missiles into the Strait to deter Taiwanese from voting in the nation’s first direct presidential election in 1996.
He stood up for Taiwan’s nationhood with his July 1999 announcement that cross-strait relations should be run according to a “state-to-state” model.
He became a scapegoat for the KMT’s stunning loss in the 2000 presidential election for backing his vice president, Lien Chan (連戰), over former Taiwan provincial governor James Soong (宋楚瑜), a much more charismatic politician, but it was simply an excuse for the conservative KMT hardliners to blame a man they had always seen as not Chinese enough — too Japanese, too Taiwanese.
He was the model of grace in the days leading up to the nation’s first transfer of power, and afterward.
That the KMT expelled him in September 2001 for endorsing the Taiwan Solidarity Union — which was largely made up of former “nativist” KMT members driven from the party by Lien and his supporters after the 2000 election — was simply a convenient excuse. It freed him to speak his mind about what he thought Taiwan’s future should be.
It is difficult to think of anyone in the KMT — or outside it — who could have done what Lee did at the time. The nation’s path to democracy — and its robust civic society — is far better for it.
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