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Taiwan Mourns Death of 'Mr Democracy,' Former President Lee Teng-hui

2020-07-31 -- Taiwan on Friday mourned the death of its former president Lee Teng-hui, widely regarded as the man who brought about the island's democratic transition.

Flags were flown at half-mast to mark Lee's death at the age of 97 on Thursday evening, while tributes poured in to honor a consummate politician who presided over Taiwan's transition from authoritarian state under the Kuomintang (KMT) nationalist regime to a pluralistic democracy.

In 1996, Lee graced the cover of Newsweek with the words "Mr. Democracy" emblazoned under his photograph, after he became the first president to be chosen by direct, universal suffrage, in spite of military intimidation by China.

In the first election of a president under universal suffrage in Taiwan, Lee swept to a landslide victory as KMT candidate in the March 23, 1996 poll with 54 percent of the vote, becoming the first Taiwan-born politician to lead the country, which is still formally known as the Republic of China, an entity founded at the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911.

Born in northern Taiwan in 1923, when the island was part of Japanese territory, Lee was educated in Japan, Taiwan, and Iowa.

Considered a skilled technocrat, Lee made his name addressing water supply and irrigation problems during his three-year tenure as mayor of the island's capital, Taipei, in the late 1970s.

He was vice-president to KMT leader Chiang Ching-kuo, who ruled the island under martial law and kept a tight lid on local, pro-independence voices and other forms of political dissent.

Campaigners for human rights and democracy were routinely arrested, jailed, or forced into exile during authoritarian rule by the KMT, which was founded with Soviet help and along similar lines to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Like the CCP, the KMT once had party committees at every level of administration and in major state-owned companies, holding billions of dollars in assets.

Lee became president automatically on the death of Chiang Ching-kuo in January 1988, and later went on to lead the KMT.

His re-election in 1990 was by limited electoral college in the form of the much-criticized National Assembly, whose delegates had remained unchanged since the KMT lost the civil war to Mao Zedong's communists on the mainland and occupied Taiwan at the end of World War II.

The election of a fresh National Assembly in 1991 saw the rise of a growing popular campaign for direct presidential elections, which culminated in Lee's re-election by direct popular vote in 1998.

A rift within the KMT caused by Lee's falling out with long-time political ally James Soong paved the way for the election of the first Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) president, Chen Shui-bian, in 2000.

Lee was later also forced out of his position as KMT chairman.

'Deeply impressed'

Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen said she had been "deeply impressed" by Lee when she worked with him during the 1990s.

"I was deeply impressed by his persistence in the ideal of democratization and his firm attitude towards national sovereignty," Tsai said.

"My democratic predecessor experienced many challenges while leading Taiwan to democracy."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered the condolences of the American people on Lee's passing.

"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 in a statement.

"During his 12-year tenure, Lee's bold reforms played a crucial role in transforming Taiwan into the beacon of democracy we see today."

He said the U.S. would honor Lee by "continuing to strengthen our bond with Taiwan and its vibrant democracy."

Lee was taken to the Veterans General Hospital in February with pneumonia, and was visited there by his wife Tseng Wen-hui and Tsai shortly before he died.

Gratitude for Taiwan's democracy

The DPP expressed its "deepest grief and sorrow" at Lee's passing, and its respect and gratitude for his contribution to Taiwan's democratic development.

"He had always had the development of Taiwan's democracy in his mind, bearing the welfare of the people as his mission, and strove to protect the sovereignty of Taiwan," the party said in a statement, crediting Lee with Taiwan's "economic miracle" and for promoting its democratic transition.

He helped dismantle martial law and promoted constitutional amendments, the re-election of all legislative seats, and direct elections for the presidency, it said.

Lee had also helped remove the KMT from the military and administrative systems, and promoted freedom of speech and assembly.

His passing was also mourned by Chinese democracy activists, in particular veterans of the 1989 mass movement on Tiananmen Square that ended in a massacre by the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

Veteran rights activist Yang Jianli said Lee had written about the 1989 movement as "an opportunity for democratic development" as late as 2019, and described him on Twitter as "Mr. Democracy, the giant of Taiwan."

A different path from China

U.S.-based political commentator Li Hongkuan said Lee had led Taiwan down a different path from China, as the government there became every more corrupt.

But he said that decision had originated with Chiang Ching-kuo, not Lee himself.

Former 1989 student leader Wang Dan said he had spent more than two hours with the former president in 2013.

"We didn't expect to extend the meeting for two hours," he said. "We didn't expect to extend it for more than one hour, but he wanted to keep talking, and he was very interested in talking [to me]."

Wang recalled: "I remember he took my hand when I left and said, 'I am ninety-two years old and I am not afraid of death anymore. What I care most about now is Taiwan's democracy'."

Lee had also lent him around a dozen books, and had shown a keen interest in how Taiwan's democratic transition could inspire change in China.

"He was actually very concerned about China's democratization, and he also asked a lot of questions," Wang said. "What impressed me most was the democratic transformation of Taiwan that he presided over ... which has become a model for the rest of the world."

Threats from Beijing

Beijing has refused to acknowledge Taiwan as a sovereign nation, although the island has never been controlled by the CCP. China has threatened to invade if Taiwan's 23 million people don't submit to "peaceful unification."

But opinion polls show Taiwanese have a strong sense of their own identity and nationhood, and have no interest in being ruled by the CCP.

Tsai and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) swept to a landslide victory in January, garnering more than 57 percent of the total vote after she vowed to defend the island's way of life against threats, infiltration, and saber rattling by China to win a second term in office.

Tsai's election victory came after she stood up to increasingly aggressive rhetoric from Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Tsai had also argued that the erosion of democratic progress and civil liberties in Hong Kong under China's "one country, two systems" means that Taiwan should never take Beijing seriously when it talks about "unification."

In an interview with the BBC in 2014, Lee warned that Chinese president Xi Jinping would take China back to a level of control and authoritarianism not seen since the Mao era.

He said Xi had no intention of bringing democracy to China, and that pursuing corrupt officials was the role of the judiciary, not a campaigning politician.

Asked how history would remember him, Lee said: "I hope everyone will say that when Lee Teng-hui was in power, everyone lived a very good life."

Reported by Hwang Chun-mei, Hsia Hsiao-hwa, Li Zonghan, Lee Yu-ping, Zheng Chongsheng, Wu Hoi-man and Ma Lap-hak for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

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