Lee Teng-hui, the former President of Taiwan (aka the Republic of China), who has died 97, was his country’s first leader to be elected by popular vote; but his insistence that Taiwan be regarded as a sovereign state led Beijing to damn him “for 1,000 generations” and call him a “whore”.
As president from 1988 to 2000, Lee presided over his country’s transformation from one chiefly associated with cheap plastic toys and cut-price computers to one of Asia’s most prosperous democracies.
Yet his insistence that Taiwan be treated as an independent state posed a political quandary for western nations seeking to improve relations with Beijing, which views Taiwan as a breakaway province and insisted on Lee being treated as an international pariah. Taiwan still has formal diplomatic relations with only 14 UN member states, not including the US or the UK, both of which recognise Beijing as the sole government of China.
In 1995, when US President Clinton bowed to Congressional pressure to allow Lee to make a private trip to his old university, Cornell, relations with Beijing spiralled into freefall, hitting a nadir when the US deployed the seventh fleet in the Taiwan Strait to stop China from firing ballistic missiles at Taiwan.
When, after he left office in 2000, Lee was granted a visa to visit his granddaughter’s school in Malvern (granted on condition that he agreed to public silence), China lambasted the British government for breaking the boundaries of what China deemed acceptable.
Lee Teng-hui was born on January 15 1923 in Sanchih, a village on the outskirts of Taipei, when the island was under Japanese rule; he never set foot on mainland China. His early successes could be traced to the efforts of the Japanese empire to co-opt local elites in its colonies; in his high school class, he was one of only four Taiwanese students.
He sat out the Second World War at the Kyoto Imperial University in Japan, returning to study at the National Taiwan University in 1945, during the brief period of reunification with mainland China which ended in 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek led his nationalist supporters to freedom from China’s communists.
In 1952 he completed a Master’s degree at Iowa State University, and returned to the US in the 1960s to do a PhD thesis at Cornell on agricultural economics. In the meantime, he had worked in the US-Taiwan Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction.
Lee joined the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) in 1971 and was made a cabinet minister responsible for agriculture. In 1984 President Chiang Ching-kuo appointed him his vice-president.
Lee was widely credited with the agricultural reforms which yielded the surpluses that created the basis for the spectacular industrial growth of the 1980s.
In his final years, Chiang lifted martial law and legalised opposition parties, but the KMT still ran Taiwan as, in effect, a one-party state. When Chiang died in 1988, Lee was sworn in as his constitutional successor.
In the years that followed Lee outmanoeuvred the more conservative elements in the KMT and continued the process of democratisation, decreasing the concentration of government authority in the hands of mainland Chinese.
Until the 1990s the president had been chosen in a ballot of the deputies of the National Assembly. In 1996, however, Lee was re-elected in the first direct presidential election in Taiwanese history, his public popularity boosted by missile tests carried out by Beijing in an attempt to intimidate and discourage the electorate from supporting him.
Lee was succeeded in 2000 by Chen Shui-bian, the Democratic Progressive Party candidate whose election ended KMT rule, but who, like his predecessor, continued to frustrate Beijing’s attempts to get Taipei to acknowledge the mainland’s sovereignty and accept a timetable for unification.
Lee Teng-hui, born January 15 1923, died July 30 2020