ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronTitle ChevronIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinIcon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailPositive ArrowIcon PrintIcon Twitter

Lee Teng-hui's dream of 'two states' paved way for Tsai Ing-wen

Former president's education policy helped forge Taiwanese identity

Tsai Ing-wen, then presidential candidate from the Democratic Progressive Party, hugs former president Lee Teng-hui during his last election rally at New Taipei City in January 2012. Tsai is now Taiwan's president.   © Kyodo

TOKYO/TAIPEI -- Lee Teng-hui, the former president of Taiwan who died on Thursday, was known on the island as "Mr. Democracy."

Censured by Beijing for seeking Taiwan's independence from China, Lee had spent his life championing the island's interests and sovereignty.

His ideas strongly influenced Tsai Ing-wen, the current president.

On Friday morning, Tsai tweeted that "former president Lee was a cornerstone of Taiwan's transition to democracy," adding that he "paved the way for the freedoms we enjoy today."

Governments around the world expressed condolences. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters on Friday that he "contributed to enhancing Japan and Taiwan's bilateral relations" and added that he promulgated freedom and democracy in Taiwan.

The American Institute in Taiwan, Washington's de facto consulate in lieu of formal diplomatic ties, lowered the U.S. flag at half-mast on Friday morning.

A spokesperson of the U.K. Foreign Office said he "played a crucial role in Taiwan's transition to a fully democratic process. He should be credited for playing a big part in the vibrant democracy and society that Taiwan's people enjoy today."

Lee and the incumbent Tsai had strong bonds.

On Jan. 14, three days after Tsai was elected to a second term, Tsai visited Lee at his home on the outskirts of Taipei. Back in the 1990s, as a law professor, Tsai gave Lee's government legal advice on the island's diplomatic relationship with Beijing, playing a key role in forming Lee's "two-state" policy that depicted Taiwan and mainland China as different countries.

There was a strong bond between the two. Lee saw Tsai as a disciple, while the current president considered her mentor as the defender of democracy on the island.

In 1996, when Lee won Taiwan's first democratic presidential election, he declared: "The door of democracy has been completely opened now."

Former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui in a rally in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, 2018. (Photo by Kensaku Ihara)

When former President Chiang Ching-kuo died in 1988, the Kuomintang government was still dominated by mainlanders who fled to Taiwan after World War II. Lee, who had an academic background and was born on the island, was seen as a safe "setup pitcher" by mainland leaders.

But Lee, who earned a doctorate in agricultural economics from Cornell University in the U.S., embraced democracy and political freedom. He stripped political power from Kuomintang mainlanders, promoting Hau Pei-tsun, who was a powerful military figure, to the premiership to keep him away from the armed forces.

Lee enjoyed support from Taiwanese who were born on the island. They accounted for about 70% of the population. As free elections were impossible in the mainland, Lee held parliamentary polls only on the island. Some analysts called it a "quiet revolution" to democratize Taiwan.

In a conversation with the Japanese writer Ryotaro Shiba in 1994, Lee said that Taiwan had a sad history because the island had been continuously occupied by foreign powers, such as the Netherlands and Japan. He added that Kuomintang was also a foreign force.

Lee told a German radio station in a 1999 interview that Taiwan and the mainland had special "country-to-country relations." This came to be known as his "two-state" policy.

Many Taiwanese who moved over from the mainland believed that Taiwan and China are inseparable and are critical of Lee. When Lee's would-be successor as Kuomintang leader, former vice president Lian Chan, lost the 2000 presidential election to Chen Shui-bian of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, Lee was ousted as leader of the party and later expelled.

Beijing called Lee a "perpetual criminal," as he was among senior figures advocating for Taiwan's independence.

On Friday, China's Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson Zhu Fenglian was quoted by Xinhua News Agency as saying: "I've read the news [about Lee]. What I am going to emphasize here is that Taiwan's independence is a dead end. The megatrend of national unification and national rejuvenation is unstoppable."

Relations between Taiwan and the mainland have since oscillated: Ties improved under former President Ma Ying-jeou, who served from 2008 to 2016 and strengthened cross-strait economic ties. But anti-mainland sentiment was bolstered by the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, helping to carry Tsai to a landslide victory in January.

Most young people on the island these days see themselves as Taiwanese, not Chinese.

Currently, 67% of people on the island regard themselves as Taiwanese, according to a June survey by Chengchi University. This is the highest ever, and compares with only 2.4% who consider themselves Chinese.

Lee's education policy in the 1990s contributed to this identity shift. While previous Kuomintang governments saw Taiwan's history as less important than the mainland's, Lee believed the island's history should take precedence with the youth.

Chinese President Xi Jinping had spoken of the "Chinese dream" of becoming a global power. But Lee said in 2018: "Regarding the 'Chinese Dream,' I would like to ask: What is our 'Taiwanese Dream?'"

The answer now lies in the hands of the Taiwanese.

Sponsored Content

About Sponsored Content This content was commissioned by Nikkei's Global Business Bureau.

Nikkei Asian Review, now known as Nikkei Asia, will be the voice of the Asian Century.

Celebrate our next chapter
Free access for everyone - Sep. 30

Find out more