Lee Teng-hui served as president of Taiwan for 12 years from 1988 to 2000. The first native-born Taiwanese to become president, he is credited with deftly presiding over Taiwan’s transfer from an authoritarian to a democratic state. His big smile and folksy style made him very popular. He made appearances dressed in a feathered tribal headdress, and wielding a baseball bat as the head of a baseball team.

Lee was vice president under Chiang Ching-kuo. When Chiang died in January 1988, Lee succeeded him in spite of attempts by Madame Chiang Kai-shek to block him. Lee took office when the presidency was still an unelected position. As a reformist he picked up where Chiang left off and accelerated the democratic reforms and became known as “Mr. Democracy” both at home and abroad..

Lee was a Taiwanese-born and Japanese- and American-educated academician who had previously served as the appointed governor of Taiwan Province. Although the KMT won the most seats in the 1989 elections, the DPP made major advances. At the same time the KMT was becoming increasingly factionalized over political reform and foreign policy.

Jens Kastner wrote in the Asia Times, “Lee changed Taiwan's politics profoundly in the 12 years he governed the island as president and KMT chairman. His twin legacies are democratization and the so-called "localization reform", a policy that led to the shifting of power previously held by mainland-born KMT cadre to people with local backgrounds. These two processes put Taiwan ever farther from mainland China. In the later years of his presidency, Lee worked increasingly toward practically achieving Taiwanese independence. The combination of this endeavor and his sympathy with imperial Japan, which invaded China and colonized Taiwan, make Lee a much-hated figure for the Chinese side.” By the time left left office in Lee was vilified as a traitor by the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) he once headed, while Beijing reviled him for his pro-independence and pro-Japan stances. [Source: Jens Kastner, Asia Times, July 13, 2011]

Taiwan in the 1990s and 2000s

Taiwan progressed towards democracy far more quickly than many expected. It held its first genuinely competitive elections in 1996 and saw the transfer of power from the Kuomintang (KMT) to the Democratic Progressive party (DPP) in 2000 and 2004. Kuomintang President Chiang Ching-kuo launched the changes in the 1980s and his successor Lee Teng-hui continued the process to its conclusion. Power returned to the KMT in 2008. Lee was known to secretly favor independence from China while remaining a member of the Kuomintang, some of whose leaders favor reunification.

According to Lonely Planet: “With Taiwan all but excluded from the international community and China growing economically and militarily, Lee Teng-hui had his work cut out for him. Early in his presidency, Lee paid lip service to the ‘One China policy, ’ but as the years progressed he developed a more pro-independence stance. Mistrustful of Lee, China launched a series of missiles only 25 kilometers away from the Taiwanese coast in 1995. But the scare tactics backfired, and Taiwan reelected Lee Teng-hui in open elections the following year. Sensing that the ‘stick’ approach had failed, China switched to carrots, and in 1998 offered to lift the ban on shipping and direct flights. The offer was rebuffed by Lee, who incensed China even further the next year by declaring openly his belief that China and Taiwan, as two separate countries, should enjoy ‘state to state’ relations.[Source: Lonely Planet]

Lee Teng-hui's Early Life and Career

Unlike most of the other high-ranking Kuomintang members from the Chang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo era, Lee was a native Taiwanese. The son of a coal miner and a policeman, he was born in 1923 during the Japanese occupation to a Hakka family in the rural farming community of Sanzhi now in New Taipei City, Taiwan. He was brought up on a rice farm, went to Japanese schools under a Japanese name and performed military service in Japan, where he studied as an undergraduate at Kyoto University. During his school days, he learned kendo and bushido and was heavily influenced by Japanese thinkers like Nitobe Inazo and Kitaro Nishida in Kyoto. In 1944 he too volunteered for service in the Imperial Japanese Army and became a second lieutenant officer of an anti-aircraft gun in Taiwan. He was ordered back to Japan in 1945 and participated in the clean-up after the great Tokyo firebombing of March 1945. Lee stayed in Japan after the surrender and graduated from Kyoto Imperial University in 1946. Lee once said that until the age of 22, he had considered himself to be Japanese. Lee's elder brother served in the imperial Japanese army during the World War II and was killed in the Philippines.

Later Lee came to the United States, where he studied at Iowa State University before moving on to Cornell, where he received a Ph.D. in agricultural economic in the midst of campus unrest of the 1960s. His doctoral dissertation, Intersectoral Capital Flows in the Economic Development of Taiwan, 1895–1960 (published as a book under the same name) was honored as the year's best doctoral thesis by the American Association of Agricultural Economics and remains an influential work on Taiwan's economy during the Japanese and early KMT periods.

Lee Teng-hui is married to woman partly of aborigine descent. His only son died of cancer in 1982. Lee speaks Mandarin Chinese, Taiwanese Hokkien, English, and Japanese. Lee speaks Japanese fluently. As of 1996, he was more proficient in Japanese than he is in Mandarin.

Lee joined the Communist Party of China (CPC) briefly two times in the 1940s. In a 2002 interview Lee admitted that he had been a communist but came to strongly oppose communism because he understands the theory well and knows that it is doomed to fail. Lee stated that he joined the Communists out of hatred for the KMT.[15]

Shortly after returning to Taiwan in 1971 from the U.S., Lee joined the KMT and was made a cabinet minister without portfolio responsible for agriculture. Lee Teng-hui spent most of his government career working in agricultural agencies. He was a beneficiary of the Kuomintang policy to promote more native Taiwanese and he rose through the ranks even though he did not become a member of the Kuomintang until relatively late.

Lee Teng-hui's Character

Lee is a man who has risen despite going against the grain. He is a devout Christian in a land of Buddhists and Taoists; an admirer of Taiwan's colonial oppressor, Japan; and a democrat and Taiwanese member of the traditionally authoritarian and pro-Chinese Kuomintang. Until the mid-1990s, Lee sponsored monthly lectures in honor of Sun Yat-sen, respected by both mainland China and Taiwan as the "father of the nation."

Lee has been described as ebullient, stubborn, chatty, combative and extremely focused. "Whatever Lee Teng-hui undertakes," one diplomat told Time, he pursues until he has learned to do it extremely well." He also famous for his strong will. He reportedly quit smoking by staring at a pack of 555 cigarettes and chanting, "I will quit, I will quit..."

Lee is a devout Presbyterian who reads the Bible everyday. He once told an interviewer that he saw himself as Moses leading the Taiwanese to their promised land. Despite his beliefs he regularly visits Buddhist and Taoist temples. Lee was exposed to Christianity as a young man and was baptised in 1961. In his political career, despite holding high office, Lee regularly gave sermons at churches around Taiwan, mostly on apolitical themes of service and humility.

Lee was an excellent golfer, who was capable of breaking 80 when he played at his best. His driving is reportedly better than his putting game. He once said he refined his skills while employed in Taiwan's agricultural bureaucracy. Lee liked to spend his vacations at the golf course.

Democracy and Reforms in Taiwan Under Lee Teng-hu

In 1991, Lee Teng-hui restored constitutional rule and paved the way for free elections for the legislature. In Taiwan first Parliamentary elections in 1992, many native Taiwanese were elected and the opposition DPP won 31 percent of the seats. In 1994, a DPP candidate won the first election of the mayor of Taipei, one of the most powerful positions in the country. In 1996 the president was directly and democratically elected for the first time.

Lee Teng-hui told Newsweek, "freedom and democracy are the most important things for the Republic of China or Taiwan—and how to defend that freedom and democracy.” Under Lee Teng-hui, native Taiwanese were allowed to speak their native language and discuss their history in schools. Film and television were allowed to breach sensitive subjects such as homosexuality, AIDS and the unfair treatment of political prisoners by the Kuomintang government. He also reformed the education curriculum to give more coverage to Taiwanese history.

Lee retired the Old Guard of the Kuomintang He passed a law, which required all the representatives of the legislature who took their positions in 1948 to retire. He also clamped down on vote buying. A total of 365 people were convicted, mostly Kuomintang council members, of the offense.

See Kuomintang’s Business Empire, Political Parties

Politics in Taiwan Under Lee Teng-hu

While Lee was known as “Mr. Democracy,” at home he often ran Taiwan like a strongman with his dictator-like control over the Kuomintang. Inside his party, he conducted purges and hired economists to run it like a corporation. His style caused mass defections and important members such James Soong to leave the party. Soong ran for president in 2000 as an independent.

Lee was elected president by the National Assembly in his own right in 1990, but a conservative career military man—“one-China” policy supporter and law-and-order advocate Hau Pei-tsun—was elected premier. This situation further factionalized the KMT and emboldened the DPP to issue statements promoting Taiwan independence. Lee Tung-hui continued his reforms by transforming the National Assembly to a smaller (327 seats instead of 613), popularly elected legislature with four-year instead of six-year terms. Another parliamentary body, the Legislative Yuan, was reduced from 220 seats to 161. The DPP’s platform called for a plebiscite on independence, but voters, uneasy with this concept, overwhelmingly supported KMT candidates in the December 1990 National Assembly elections (254 seats for the KMT to 66 for the DPP). [Source: Library of Congress *]

KMT factional politics eventually meant losses for the conservatives led by Hau Pei-tsun and victory for Lee Tung-hui. In 1991 Lee declared an end to the hostilities with the mainland regime, abandoned the long-standing claims that the Taiwan authorities governed mainland China, and stated that Taiwan no longer disputed the fact that the People’s Republic of China controlled mainland China. KMT power was slipping, as it won only 102 seats to 50 seats for the DPP and 9 other seats for tang-wai candidates in the 1992 Legislative Yuan elections. The DPP then joined with the New KMT Alliance, a coalition of anti-Lee, reform-minded, pro-reunification KMT legislators, to pass the Sunshine Bill, an act to force legislators and bureaucrats to disclose their financial assets. In July 1993, the New KMT Alliance broke with the KMT to form the New Party (Hsin Tang or Xindang, initially the Chinese New Party or Zhongguo Xindang). *

Lee Teng-hui and China

Lee was notorious for taunting and aggravating Beijing. His reason for doing this was at least partly rooted in the fact he was born in Taiwan and his loyalty was to his island home not to reunification with mainland, the cornerstone of Kuomintang ideology. In 1994, Lee told a Japanese historian that as a boy he felt more Japanese than Chinese, a remark considered traitorous by Beijing.

In 1991, Lee renounced the use of force to retake the mainland, paving way for unofficial talks. In 1993, a landmark bilateral meeting between China and Taiwan was held in Singapore. In January 1995, Chinese President Jiang Zemin called for high-level talks to end the state of hostility between Taiwan and China. Taiwan rejected offer. Lee offered to make a “journey of peace” to Beijing. Beijing never replied. Beijing was angered by Lee's refusal to discus Jiang's proposal for talks on reunification in January, 1995.

Lee Teng-hui was called many things by the mainland Communists: "a schemer," “the chief troublemaker.” "the sinner of the millennium," a "betrayer of the Chinese people," and man on "political hallucinogenic drugs." For his part, Lee called the leaders in Beijing "bandits, "block heads" and "damaged brains." He once said, "Our people can choose their own leader and be the boss of the president. Just the thought of this makes them [China's leaders] scared to death."

Lee's International Travels

Lee Teng-hui defied Beijing’s wishes by visiting a number of foreign countries and meeting several world leaders. In 1994 Lee went on “holiday” to several Southeast Asian countries and "happened to run into a series of leaders and senior officials on the golf course." Lee took "golf holidays" in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, where he had meetings with Indonesian President Suharto, the Thai king and the Philippine president. He also visited Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and attended the inauguration of Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

In June 1995, Lee gave a speech at his alma mater Cornell University in New York and became the first Taiwanese leader to visit the U.S. since the U.S. switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. The Chinese were very angry about the visit and they directed their anger at the United States. The Clinton administration was not excited about the visit but was forced by a U.S. Congress resolution to give Lee a visa. The move was seen as an effort to improve relations with Taiwan at the expense of its relations with China. Taiwanese government gave a $2 million gift to Cornell.

Hostilities Between China and Taiwan in 1996

Prompted by Lee’s trip to the United States in June1995, Beijing began threatening Taiwan with war games, missiles and warships in what also seemed like a definite attempt to influence the outcome of presidential election in March 1996.

Between mid-1995 and 1997, Beijing staged six rounds of war games within short-range missile range of Taiwan. The Chinese miliary performed repeated amphibious landings on coastal area only 50 kilometers from Quemoy (Kinmen); they conducted live-artillery drill in the Taiwan Straits that affected air traffic and shipping going in and out Taiwan; and test fired missiles that flew over Taiwan's territorial waters, 25 kilometers from the Taiwan coast, near two of Taiwan’s ports, and that effectively formed a "guided-missile blockade."

After one Chinese official said "the People's Liberation Army can bury an enemy intruder in a sea of fire," Taiwan raised it military alertness to level two, one notch below war is imminent. All Taiwanese troops on holiday were called to the front and troops began digging trenches along the roads. China blanketed the airwaves (which can be picked up in Taiwan) with images of Chinese military exercises.

Amid rumors of war in 1996, the stock market crashed 1000 points, $15 billion in investment capital fled the country, many foreign business people and Taiwanese nationals fled from southern China and people in Taiwan scrambled around, trying to get their hands on foreign currency, food supplies and airline tickets. To boost blood supplies, Taiwanese hospitals encouraged people to donate blood.

During the crisis, Lee Teng-hui told China to stop "nagging" Taiwan and said that his government was made up of "shrimps with weak feet." He added that in Taiwan "Nobody is scared" and assured the Taiwanese that the sea goddess "Matsu will protect Taiwan. Don't worry." At the height of the hostilities, delegations and businessmen continued to travel back and fort between China and Taiwan.

United States and the 1996 Hostilities in Taiwan

In response to the 1996 hostilities, Clinton sent two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and six other ships into waters near Taiwan; the U.S. Congress voted to support a non-binding resolution that the U.S. would intervene military on behalf of Taiwan if it were blockaded, attacked or invaded by China, and promised to sell Taiwan stinger missiles, and advanced targeting and navigation systems. The U.S. threatened to use force against China to keep shipping lanes in South China Sea open.

The crisis reportedly came close to resulting in war and brought the United States and China closer to conflict than they had been at any time since the Korean War. Taiwanese forces were ready to retaliate aggressively in the case of an attack and the United States began mobilizing huge supplies of arms. Ultimately China backed down and assured the U.S. it had no plans of attacking Taiwan. Many experts believe the confrontation could have been avoided by alerting Beijing in advance and negotiating a face-saving gesture with Taipei.

Lee Teng-hui and the 1996 Election

In March 1996, Lee Teng-hui won Taiwan’s first presidential election in a landslide. It was the first direct vote for a national leader in the 5,000 history of Chinese civilization. Lee took 54 percent of the vote. He defeated three other candidates and won twice as many votes as his nearest rival. More than 10 million voters (76 percent of Taiwan's 14.1 million eligible voters) cast their ballots at 12,500 polling stations scattered around the country.

An amendment to the constitution in 1994 made the March 1996 election possible. Premier Lien Chan was elected vice president. In the National Assembly elections held at the same time, the KMT won only a slim majority, 183 seats to the DPP’s 99 seats and the New Party’s 56 seats.

Lee called the election "the first Chinese democracy in 5,000 years." To celebrate Lee Teng-hui's victory, Taipei officials unveiled new postage stamps and a new line of wine. Lee's inauguration was held on May 20, 1996 in a huge stadium. After the victory, Beijing expressed its willingness to conduct talks.

Decline of Kuomintang and More Hostilities with China After the 1996 Election

The Kuomintang was humiliated in local elections in November 1997 and December 1998 as the DPP gain followers and strength. Across the country, thousands of statues of Chiang Kai-shek were removed. Lee chose Vice President Lien Chan as his successor and candidate for president in the 2000 election. The popular leader, James Soong, was expelled from the Kuomintang because he refused t support Lien. He decided to run for president as an independent. This divided the Kuomintang.

Tensions between Taiwan and China increased in July, 1999 after President Lee Teng-hui told a German journalist that China-Taiwan should be handled on a “special state-to-state” basis. Beijing not surprisingly was pissed off. It denounced Lee in the strongest of terms, calling him a “historical sinner,” and issued a warning that it would invade if Taiwan continued pursuing independence.

Around the same time that Lee made his statement, Beijing sent Sukhoi and MiG jets into the air space over Taiwan Strait, and announced it had created a neutron bomb, capable of killing lots of people while leaving buildings intact. The Taiwanese stock market crashed as rumors spread that China was going to take military action.

Lee After the 2000 Elections

In March, 2000, in Taiwan’s second presidential election., Chen Shui-ban defeated Lien Chan, Lee’s successor in the Kuomintang, and James Soong, a longtime Kuomintang insider who broke away from the party. Chen was a member of the Democratic Progressive Party, which moved closer toward advocating formal independence. The result marked the first time in Taiwan’s 40 year history that it would not be run by the Kuomintang and the first democratic transfer of power in China’ 5000 year history.

Lee resigned as head of the Kuomintang after the 2000 elections. He was blamed for the Kuomintang’s poor showing and for the decline and divisions within the Kuomintang. He then went on to form his own party, the pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU). Lee did not formally become head of the party but rather called himself the party’s spiritual leader. The Kuomintang responded by kicking him out of their party, a move that seemed to hurt the Kuomintang more than it hurt Lee.

In August 2003, at the age of 80, Lee Teng-hui underwent heart surgery but was still going strong afterwards with eight stents in his heart. He remained a powerful and outspoken force in Taiwanese politics. He was able draw a crowd of 150,000 in a demonstration to have Taiwan’s name official name changed to Taiwan.

Jens Kastner wrote in the Asia Times, “China's state-run media labeled Lee as "the scum of the nation" who should be dumped into "the dustbin of history", after he paid tribute in 2007 at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which is dedicated to Japanese soldiers including those who died during World War II. The Xinhua label didn't do much to alter Lee's standing in Taiwanese society. After retirement, he is still respected and remains something of an uber figure in Taiwan politics. Lee and the pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) he founded shortly before he was expelled from the KMT in September, 2001, supported Tsai Ing-wen, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP's) presidential candidate for the January 2012 elections. [Source: Jens Kastner, Asia Times, July 13, 2011]

Lee Teng-hui Charged With Graft

June 2011, Lee Teng-hui was indicted on charges of embezzling $7.79 million from a state fund, making him the second former president of Taiwan to be charged with corruption. Lee's successor, Chen Shui-bian is serving a 17-year term after being found guilty on similar charges. Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, Prosecutors said in a 23-page indictment that Mr. Lee, 88, took money from the government’s National Security Bureau fund while he was in office and laundered it in order to build the Taiwan Research Institute, which became his office after he stepped down in 2000 as president. Liu Tai-ying, one of Mr. Lee’s aides and the founder of the institute, was also charged. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, June 30, 2011]

“Ku Li-hsiung, a lawyer representing Mr. Lee, said the prosecution did not have sufficient evidence against Mr. Lee, according to the Central News Agency, the state news agency of Taiwan. Mr. Lee is known to be disliked by the current president, Ma Ying-jeou, and his party, the Kuomintang, which generally advocates closer ties with China. Mr. Lee took office as a member of the Kuomintang but was expelled from the party shortly after leaving office for founding a pro-independence group, the Taiwan Solidarity Union.

Jens Kastner wrote in the Asia Times, “Unsurprisingly, the Taiwanese opposition has been up in arms over Lee's indictment as soon as it was announced on June 30. They say the island's judiciary functions as the KMT's bloodhound, and is chasing Lee to ensure a KMT wins in the 2012 legislative and presidential elections. "The Lee Teng-hui indictment is in my mind unabashedly political," Jerome Keating, a political commentator and fierce critic of President Ma Ying-jeou's KMT government, told Asia Times Online in an interview. "Ma Ying-jeou says he is removed from the judiciary and will let justice take its course in a fair and even way; yet at the same time, he directs his lackeys to do his bidding and selectively pursue the opposition with a double standard." Zhang Baohui, an expert on East Asian democratization and associate professor at the Department of Political Science at Hong Kong's Lingnan University, stands at the other side of the spectrum of opinion. "I don't believe that Ma manipulated the judicial system to pursue private ends. Lee's indictment only indicates Taiwan's rapid progress in building the rule of law," Zhang said. [Source: Jens Kastner, Asia Times, July 13, 2011 ^]

“The content of Lee's indictment, which was brought forward by the Supreme Prosecutors' Office Special Investigation Panel (SIP), has been described by the Taiwanese media and is paraphrased as follows. In the mid-1990s, as a pertinent example of a phenomenon called "check-book diplomacy" under which Taipei sought to convince United Nations member states to recognize Taipei instead of Beijing as the legitimate government of all of China, Lee donated US$10.5 million to South Africa, where Nelson Mandela was president. South Africa was Taiwan's biggest diplomatic ally at that time, and Mandela had apparently harbored plans to turn away. As the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) happened to suffer from a budget shortfall in those days, the National Security Bureau (NSB) helped out by advancing secret diplomatic funds. When at the end of the decade the MOFA attempted to return the money, the allegation is that Lee together with an aide somehow managed to siphon US$7.8 million and launder it by establishing a think-tank called the Taiwan Research Institute, which used parts of the sum to buy luxury offices in downtown Taipei for both Lee and his aide. ^

“Naturally, the allegations could bring about significant repercussions. Although the SIP indicated from the early stages that it won't seek a prison term due to Lee's age, there is a chance the case could spin calamitously for the Taiwanese opposition. Taiwanese media have been speculating that it was no other than jailed Chen Shui-bian who filed the complaint that led to Lee's indictment in the first place. When Chen himself was under investigation for corruption in 2008, he offered prosecutors evidence pointing at Lee's involvement in money laundering, according to reports.” ^

In April 2013, Lee Teng-hui appeared in court for a first hearing after being indicted on charges of embezzling state funds in 2011, saying that thankful for having an opportunity to defend his integrity. “I am glad that I could speak my mind in court and answer the Taiwanese people’s doubts for the first time in two years,” the 90-year-old said after the three-and-a-half-hour proceeding. Chris Wang wrote in the Taipei Times, “The proceedings were closed to the public because the case involved confidential diplomatic information. Lee had previously appeared in court as a witness in the same case and at four pre-trial procedures since his prosecution. He said he had full confidence he would prove his innocence and integrity because the case is groundless.” [Source: Chris Wang, Taipei Times, April 17, 2013]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Bureau, Republic of China (Taiwan), Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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