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Lee Teng-hui

Lee Teng-hui, born 1923, is a politician of Taiwan and an ardent advocate for Taiwan’s independence. He was the President of the Republic of China and Chairman of the Kuomintang (KMT) from 1988 to 2000. He presided over major advancements in democratic reforms including his own re-election which marked the first direct presidential election for the Republic of China.

In 1978 he was appointed Mayor of Taipei. Completes major construction projects on public housing, Taipei’s suburban centers, the Xinyi project, Feitsui Dam, the Taipei expressways, relocation of factories to the countryside, and a modernized sewerage system. In 1981 he was appointed Governor of Taiwan Province. Initiates agricultural reforms and works for balanced development between urban and rural areas. Trains 80,000 farming households to be a new force in Taiwan’s agricultural development, launches the 6-year rice-crop substitution program, and resolves imbalance between production and marketing of agricultural products. In 1984 he was elected by the National Assembly as Vice President of the Republic of China.

After the death of Chiang Kai-shek in 1975, his elder son, Chiang Ching-kuo, formally took over the political leadership and served as President from 1978 to 1989. Unlike his father, who suppressed all forms of opposition, he was willing to gradually liberalize the political system and promote democratization. After the death of Chiang Ching-kuo, Vice President, Lee Teng-hui, a Taiwan-born Taiwanese of pre-1945 Chinese descent, was appointed President during the remaining months of Chiang’s term. Lee was successfully re-appointed as the Eighteenth President by the National Assembly in March 1990, where he continued to develop the process of democratic transformation.

President Lee was born during the Japanese colonial period (1895-1945), and later studied in Japan and in the United States. Unlike the conservative KMT members, he abandoned the prevalent anti-Communist posture of the Thirteenth Party Congress in 1988 and promoted the concept of “one nation, two equal governments—The People’s Republic of China governing mainland China and the Republic of China governing Taiwan.

In May 1995 the Clinton administration, under intense political pressure from Taiwan supporters in Congress, allowed Lee Teng-hui to visit his alma mater, Cornell University, where Lee made a provocative speech in June about Taiwan’s democratization and its future. Beijing was infuriated. It saw the sanctioned visit—the first time that a Taiwanese president had traveled to the United States after Washington switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979—as a major setback in U.S. policy on the Taiwan issue.

The Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996, sparked by Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui’s visit to the United States, led to the first face-off between Chinese and US militaries since President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Even so, transparency on the part of China, restraint on the part of the United States, and regular communication between Beijing and Washington during the crisis helped reduce anxieties and the possibility of misjudgment on either side, thus avoiding an escalation of the crisis.

For the first time in Taiwan’s 400-year history, the first direct presidential election was held in March 1996. Presidents had been elected by the National Assembly up to this point. There were heightened political tensions in the run-up to Taiwan's first direct presidential election on 23 March 1996. China carried out a series of military exercises, including missile tests in waters near Taiwan's two major ports and live-fire war games in the Taiwan Strait.

These actions were aimed at intimidating Taiwan's voters into opposing the candidacy of incumbent President Lee Teng-hui but were countered on two fronts. While the US deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups to monitor China's military maneuvers, Taiwan marshaled its financial muscle to shore up confidence. Under such calming measures, President Lee won the election in a landslide, with 54% of the vote in the four-man contest. The first native Taiwanese to become ROC president and KMT chairman, Lee promoted the Taiwanese localization movement and led an aggressive foreign policy to gain diplomatic allies. Critics accused him of betraying the party he headed, secret support of Taiwanese independence, and involvement in corruption.

In the 1990s he launched a series of constitutional reforms beginning in 1990, including the termination of the Period of National Mobilization for Suppression of Communist Rebellion, complete re-election of the national legislature, institutionalization of local self-government, direct mayoral elections of Taiwan's two special municipalities of Taipei and Kaohsiung, direct presidential election, and downsizing of Taiwan Province.

In March 2000, there were five candidates in the presidential campaign: Lien Chan (the KMT’s candidates), Chen Shui-bian (the DPP’s), Li Ao (the New Party’s), Soong Chu-yu, and Hsu Hsin-liang (an independent candidate). Chen Shui-bian, DPP’s nominee, defeated the other political parties and won the presidency for a four-year term.

After leaving office, Lee was expelled from the KMT for his role in founding the pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), which forms part of the Pan-Green Coalition alongside Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party. Lee was considered the "spiritual leader" of the TSU. Lee has been outspoken in support for Taiwanese independence.

Lee Teng-hui died of multiple organ failure on 30 July 2020 at the age of 97, after bringing full democracy to Taiwan. President Tsai Ing-wen was among those who paid their respects. Mourners laid flowers and said prayers in front of Lee's photo, while his favorite Japanese song "Sen no Kaze ni Natte" was played.

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Page last modified: 06-10-2021 12:14:51 ZULU