TOKYO -- Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan's former president who died Thursday at the age of 97, once called the island's long-ruling Kuomintang, or the Chinese Nationalist Party government a non-native administration, lamenting the "woe of those born as Taiwanese." After losing a civil war with the Chinese Communist Party, the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan and installed a dictatorship. Key positions in the party, military and media were occupied by those from the mainland. The native Taiwanese, who accounted for more than 80% of the population, were shut out of power.
Taiwan native Lee, who was repulsed by the Kuomintang dictatorship, once told me that he flirted with communism when young. While hiding his objection to rule by mainlanders, he moved up the political ladder in the Kuomintang government.
After becoming party leader in 1988, Lee embarked on fulfilling his long-held desire. Repeatedly battling fierce power struggles, he drove influential native mainlander political and military figures out of the inner circles of power. Responding to student pro-democracy movements, Lee introduced a direct presidential election in which Taiwan citizens vote to choose their president. In the first direct presidential election, he won a landslide victory with his power solidified on the back of the voters' will.
Taiwan natives, who call Lee "Uncle A-hui," cheered his victory. He built a society in Taiwan where all residents, whether mainlander or native, could exercise their rights freely and equally, rooting a Taiwan-based consciousness in the minds of the people.
But Lee's fight did not end here. As China's economy grew in size, its Communist Party government strengthened its push to absorb Taiwan. After retiring as president, Lee said he still had things he needed to do for Taiwan and continued political activities despite having heart disease. He joined hands with the independence-oriented Democratic Progressive Party and continued fighting with the Kuomintang, which sought reconciliation with China. He probably did not want to have Taiwan dominated by external forces.
Following the first direct election in 1996, I obtained the text of Lee's presidential inaugural speech before it was published and disclosed its contents in a report, infuriating Taiwanese people. But Lee was forgiving. "It's something that is over," he said when I met him later. He was skilled at winning the hearts of others.
As a politician, he was naturally subject to both praise and censure. He faced criticisms that he had used opaque political funds for elections and that he had brought a group of people regarded as a member of an antisocial group into the political world. He also displayed a cold side, relentlessly dismissing James Soong, a mainlander and trusted friend, when his power base was consolidated.
When I chatted with him after he retired from the presidency, he murmured in Japanese, "It is better not to be involved in the world of politics." I cannot forget this.