11.08.2020 Author: Vladimir Terehov

On Death of Lee Teng-hui, Former Taiwan President

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On 30 July of this year, Li Teng-hui, who served as the President of Taiwan (officially the Republic of China) from 1988-2000, died in a hospital in Taipei at the age of 97. In some way or another, most of the world’s leading publications and many statesmen have expressed their opinions on this issue. As reported by the Taipei Times, 206 foreign dignitaries from 45 countries and organizations had expressed sadness over Lee’s death.

This is not surprising, since Li Teng-hui was an outstanding personality, as well as a politician whose activities at the highest post of the island significantly affected the formation of one of the most prominent phenomena of modern international processes called the “Taiwan problem”.

Being under constant focus attention from NEO, this issue plays an increasing role in the political situation throughout the Asian and Pacific region. Today, it is at the top of the list of key aspects regarding relations between the two leading world powers, the USA and the People’s Republic of China.

Lee’s biography, full of the most diverse and contradictory factual information, could well be used as a basis for writing a political bestseller. On the occasion of a sad event for Taiwan in the Taipei Times recites major events in Lee Teng-hui’s life. But not all, of course. In particular, the extremely important period of the first post-war years of Lee’s biography is almost not reflected. Only the fact is noted that he was transferred to National Taiwan University’s agricultural economics program in 1946. Meanwhile, it was the time when the range of current problems in relations between Taiwan and the “mainland” was mainly set, and the future President of the Republic of China (Taiwan) also participated in forming them, playing very minor roles at that time, but still.

It should be recalled that after the Japanese surrender in World War II, the Republic of China took over Taiwan; Formosa which is a former name for the island of Taiwan was passed (“given back”, considering the results of the First Sino-Japanese War 1894-1895) under the control of the government of the “Republic of China”, which was then headed by Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Republic of China and a member of the Kuomintang

The process of the mentioned transition did not proceed smoothly at all. For a significant part of the Taiwanese, the Kuomintang officials who had “moved” from the mainland did not look at all “locals” and were in no way better than the “Japanese colonizers”.

At the end of February 1947, the accumulated anti-Kuomintang sentiment resulted in mass protests. As always in such cases, after a relatively minor and accidental incident occurred on February 28, 1947, what later became known as the “228 massacre” (the 2nd month of the 28th day of that year). Until now, there is no exact data on the number of victims of these events, but experts have no doubt that they number in the tens of thousands.

There is a view that the 228 massacre was to some extent a reflection of the renewed struggle on the continent between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which was rapidly gaining weight. What matters is that after leaving the post of President of Republic of China, Lee admitted that exactly in 1946-1947 he was a member of the CCP (which he left “disillusioned with basic ideas”) and participated in the fight against the “hateful” (only during that time?) Kuomintang.

But the fact that doesn’t require any acknowledgement (since it is initially well known) is of him being in the Japanese Imperial army with the rank of Lieutenant of the air defense forces since 1944. Also, this is not mentioned in the brief biography of Lee from the Taipei Times, which only notes his admission in 1943 to study at the Taiwan Department of Kyoto University followed by a move to Japan to continue his studies.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Lee Teng-hui visited US Universities twice to improve his knowledge and experience in the agricultural development area. During this period and later, he wrote several dozen different types of works. Taiwan’s Position is one of them, published in Russian in 2000. It is useful for those who are interested in the background of the current extremely serious events in the Taiwan Strait.

Upon returning to Taiwan, Lee joined the same Kuomintang in 1971. His administrative and service career began after this. This to a large extent was due to the course of President Chiang Ching-kuo (son of Chiang Kai-shek) to attract “local” Taiwanese (and not fugitives from the “mainland”, as it had been before) in the system of administrative management of the island.

This was the first step in the transition from an actually dictatorial regime in Taiwan to a democratic one. And if in 1988 Lee Teng-hui was the first “true Taiwanese” to hold the post of President following the “old rules”, then in 1996, he retained it as a result of a completely democratic procedure.

After leaving the post of President in 2000, Lee Teng-hui also left the Kuomintang, founding the Taiwan Solidarity Union, which as a “minority party” is currently (for the second consecutive term) part of the ruling “Pan-green coalition” led by the Democratic Progressive Party.

In contrast to the more cautious position of the DPP and its leader, current President Tsai Ing-wen, Lee’s party has, from its foundation and until present, supported the immediate de jure establishment of Taiwan’s independent status.

In fact, this perspective is the basis for the growing tension in the Taiwan Strait, and “external” significant forces are more and more involved in the game unfolding here. First of all, this applies to the United States and Japan, whose leaders expressed the most meaningful expressions of condolences on Lee Teng-hui’s death.

One can’t help but note the remarkable features of statements on this issue from the American administration in general and the US Department of State in particular. The first was expressed in a Facebook post of a representative of the administration (without reference to President Donald Trump personally), while Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, spoke directly on behalf of the Department of State.

This shows a certain difference between the approaches of Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo to the phenomenon of PRC becoming a second world power. Apparently, the current American President does not lose hope for the possibility of maintaining constructive relations with Beijing, whose vital interests must be taken into consideration. These include the exclusion of any signs of recognition of Taiwan as an independent subject of international relations by any of the significant players. And Le Teng-hui self-styled himself as the “President of the Republic of China”.

Meanwhile, Mike Pompeo increasingly positions himself as a politician ready to burn bridges in relations with China and therefore does not consider it necessary to address any “subtleties” in the “Beijing-Taipei” relations.

Prime Minister Shinzō Abe also wasn’t taking them into account, as he emphasized in a personal message of condolence “Lee Teng-hui’s great contributions to enhancing friendly ties between Japan and Taiwan”. It should be noted that Shinzō Abe has every reason for this opinion since the former Taiwanese President has repeatedly and very complimentary assessed the role of Japan in the process of Taiwan’s modernization including (perhaps above all) the “colonial” period.

But the most important thing is that the majority of the Taiwanese agree with him in this matter, given that Japan looks even more attractive in public opinion than the actual key ally, the United States.

As for the most interested participant in the “Taiwan problem”, that is, the PRC, the assessments of Lee Teng-hui made here was unsurprisingly quite restrained. At the regular press conference held on July 31 the representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, in response to a request to comment on Pompeo’s statement about the former Taiwanese President, said (without mentioning the name of the deceased) that “No individual or force could hold back the historical trend of reunification and revitalization of the Chinese nation.”

Finally, it should be noted that the biography of Lee Teng-hui serves as another evidence of the extreme complexity of real life, which cannot be painted in only black and white.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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