TAIPEI/TOKYO -- Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan's first democratically elected president, died of multiple organ failure at a Taipei hospital on Thursday. He was 97.
His death was confirmed by the hospital in a statement.
Lee, who long advocated the democratization of Taiwan, was elected as president by popular vote in 1996 after decades of martial law. While a member of the nationalist Kuomintang, he worked to improve the island's standing in the international community. His policies created friction with Beijing.
The office of President Tsai Ing-wen said in a statement: "No one could replace former President Lee's contribution and position in pushing forward Taiwanese democracy. And his death is a great loss for Taiwan. President Tsai has ordered all the related departments to fully support Lee's family with his funeral and other related events."
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that as Taiwan's first democratically elected president, "Lee helped put an end to decades of authoritarianism and ushered in a new era of economic prosperity, openness, and rule of law." Pompeo said that Lee's reforms during his 12-year tenure "played a crucial role in transforming Taiwan into the beacon of democracy we see today."
Born during Japanese colonial rule in northern Taiwan in 1923, he studied agriculture at Japan's Kyoto University. After World War II in 1945, he returned to Taiwan to teach at a university.
Lee entered politics and became vice president in 1984 under former President Chiang Ching-kuo, becoming party chair and president in January 1988 after Chiang's death.
The first native-born Taiwanese to become president, Lee gradually stripped power from Chinese who came from the mainland after World War II, introducing direct elections and freedom of speech.
In 1991, he formally ended the civil war with the Chinese Communist Party and started a semi-official dialogue with Beijing in 1993. Lee sought to expand the island's diplomatic activities as "Chinese Taipei," and in 1995 became the first president of Taiwan to visit the U.S.
But relations with the mainland soured. In 1995 and 1996, the Chinese People's Liberation Army conducted a series of missile tests in the Taiwan Strait, leading to the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis. Lee urged Taiwanese companies to reduce business with their counterparts on the mainland, while the CCP criticized Lee as one of the main people on the island seeking independence.
Lee did not run in the 2000 presidential elections, and Chen Shui-bian, from the Democratic Progressive Party, became president. This was the first time that a Taiwanese leader was not from Kuomintang in the 55 years since the end of World War II.
When a Kuomintang government mended relations with Beijing in 2008, Lee criticized the administration for undermining Taiwan's sovereignty.
Lee spoke Japanese fluently and was close to many Japanese politicians. Under Kuomintang's authoritarian rule, he relaxed a ban on Japanese pop culture and strengthened relations with Tokyo.
In 2007, he visited Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honors those who died in the service of Japan, including 14 Class-A war criminals. Lee's brother is also commemorated at the shrine.
In his statement, Pompeo said Lee cemented the deep friendship between the U.S. and Taiwan. "We will honor President Lee's legacy by continuing to strengthen our bond with Taiwan and its vibrant democracy through shared political and economic values," he said.