Lee Teng-hui's Glory and Darkness: Taiwan's Unbearable Turning Point
United Daily News Editorial, August 1, 2020
As the leader of Taiwan’s transition from an authoritarian country to a democracy, former President Lee Teng-hui won the nice title of “Mr. Democracy”. As the advocate of Taiwanese local identity, Lee was called “Godfather of Taiwan Independence”. The road from “Mr. Democracy” to “Godfather of Taiwan Independence” was a discontinuous dash line, symbolizing Lee’s turning from the frustrated route of democracy to the narrow road of Taiwanese nationalism. Because of this, when Lee passed away at the advanced age of 98, while those affiliated with both the Kuomintang (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) expressed condolences, what he left for Taiwan is a split society of divided identity.
When he was young, Lee was a member of the Communist Party and studied the philosophy of Hegelian dialectics. He joined the KMT when he was middle-aged, and finally became the nation’s leader. During his tenure as chairman of the KMT, he often helped the opposition DPP surreptitiously. When he was old, Lee became the spiritual leader of the small party Taiwan Solidarity Union. Such a strange and jumpy history not only reflects Lee’s capriciousness of personal ideas, but also depicts a politician’s political beliefs that is not self-sustained. Although recently the powerful personnel of the DPP still deemed Lee as the political teacher, yet Taiwan’s democratic atmosphere had changed. Lee Teng-hui probably knew the change deeply and he could no longer offer meaningful advice on democracy to the Blue Camp and the Green Camp.
Lee’s most glorious time was the eight and nine years after he succeeded Chiang Ching-kuo as president in 1988. At that time, he faced the confrontation of KMT’s mainstreamers and non-mainstreamers. He skillfully used the tactics of alliances and divisions to solve the intra-party struggles and solidified his power. He later declared the termination of the “Period of Mobilization to Suppress Communist Rebellion”, abolished the “Temporary Provisions”, and started a series of constitutional amendments. He promoted the new elections of the “eternal parliament,” abolished the National Assembly, and implemented direct elections of Taiwan Provincial governor, mayors of Taipei City and Kaohsiung City, and even the president. These reforms made Taiwan leave from an authoritarian country, started modernization and institutionalization, and became a pioneer of East Asia’s democratization. But these reforms also caused constitutional chaos and the expansion of presidential power. However, Taiwan’s modernization and institutionalization had begun in 1984. Without the foundation laid by Chiang, Lee’s democratic re-engineering could not have been so smooth.
At the same time when Lee won the title of “Mr. Democracy”, he often showed his dark side. For example, when interviewed by Japanese writers, he described the KMT he led as the “outside regime”. As the nation’s leader, he lamented the “sorrow of born Taiwanese”. After he broke up with the KMT, he even said that the “Republic of China has ceased to exist”. Born as a Japanese, Lee could not untangle the perplexities among Japan, Taiwan, and China during his whole life. He had wanted to travel around the world like Confucius, but instead he only managed to take short trips inside Japan. The political localization Lee had promoted also helped the emergence of “corruption politics” and “money and power politics”. He was unable to explain these contradictions.
Lee was the first directly-elected president amid the 1996 missile crisis. After taking office, Lee adopted a series of measures to cut ties with mainland China or even to confront the mainland. From the economic “No Haste, Use Patience” policy to the political “Two-State Theory”, Lee has brought the cross-strait relations to the point of no return. As a matter of fact, after the 1989 Tiananmen Incident, when the whole world was boycotting China, Lee allowed Taiwanese businesspersons to pursue economic development in the mainland. Lee proposed “Asia-Pacific Regional Operations Center” plan, attempting to make Taiwan the center of Asia-Pacific’s economy and trade. But when he adopted the “No Haste, Use Patience” policy, Taiwan and China became stalemate, the Asia-Pacific Regional Operation Center plan died, and Taiwan lost the good opportunity. Lee had advocated for unification under the Three Principles of People, though a slogan, Taiwan had at least the political advantage and economic pride at that time. After more than 20 years, however, Taiwan’s economic advantage is not as good as before, and the anti-China framework left by Lee cannot escape the blame.
Ironically, Lee’s most glorious period was the 12 years when he led the transformation of the KMT. After Lee left the KMT, both presidents Chen Shui-bian and Tsai Ing-wen tried to continue Lee’s policies of localization, anti-China, and New Southbound strategy, but there is no momentum of national development. This probably is Lee’s sorrow. He time and again trampled the KMT and forgot this party was the biggest stage for him to achieve democratization. If we discard the partisan view and political rivalry and observe from the point of people, Lee’s glory was his promotion of Taiwan’s democratic reform that magnified his stature. Lee’s dark side was his entrapment in the narrow localization idea and the incorrect and chaotic national identity that lowered his stature. The splits and chaos that Lee Teng-hui brought to Taiwanese society is Taiwan’s unbearable frustration.