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A nation must think before it acts.
On July 30, 2020, former President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan passed away at the age of 97. He had served as vice president to President Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek, before becoming president himself. Lee was the first Taiwan-born president and also the first democratically elected president of the Republic of China, earning him the nickname of “Mr. Democracy.” His tenure as president saw great change and transformation in Taiwan: he finished Taiwan’s long path to democracy and ended the decades-long martial law. To evaluate his legacy, Thomas J. Shattuck, Managing Editor and Asia Program Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and Jacques deLisle, Asia Program Director at FPRI, discuss Lee’s role in making Taiwan what it is today.
Jacques deLisle: There are likely to be two principal legacies, one of which seems well-settled and the other of which may be less determined as yet. He will be remembered as the father of Taiwanese democracy. To be sure, the seeds were planted earlier, in the dangwai, among exiles during Taiwan’s authoritarian era, and—farther back—in the authoritarian-era KMT regime’s tolerance for a modicum of democracy at local levels. Foundations for the transition were laid during the final years of Chiang Ching-kuo’s presidency. Taiwan’s constitutional court played a key role as well. And Lee came to the presidency initially by succession, rather than democratic election. But none of that can—or should—take anything away from the fact that Lee was the first democratically elected president of Taiwan, or from his crucial role in advocating for democracy and in shepherding Taiwan into full-fledged democracy. Taiwan’s peaceful transition, in which Lee played a defining and high-profile role, was—and remains—a remarkable accomplishment, all the more so given the consolidation and continued vibrancy of Taiwan’s democratic politics a quarter-century later.
Lee will also be remembered for his impact on questions of Taiwan’s status and sovereignty. His tenure was pivotal in moving the ROC position away from the traditional and long-increasingly-untenable KMT claim that there was one China with the point of contention being whether the ROC or the PRC was the rightful government, to a position that asserted Taiwan’s separate, at-least-state-like status—without crossing Beijing’s redline of a formal declaration of independence. For now, Lee’s legacy on this front remains uncertain. Thus far, his innovation of a framework of a viable, if formally murky, functional independence for Taiwan has proved remarkably resilient. If Taiwan were someday to become a fully, formally independent state, Lee surely would be remembered as the father of Taiwanese independence as well as Taiwanese democracy.
Thomas Shattuck: Jacques, you summed up Lee’s legacy pretty well. I’d just like to emphasize how critical of a role the democracy element is not just for Taiwan, but for the rest of the world. People often forget (or more realistically, don’t know) that Taiwan “fully” democratized around the same time/slightly after post-Soviet states. There were local elements of democracy in cities before 1996, but let’s face it, if the people are not voting for the national leader, then the claim to being a democracy is quite weak. Lee’s decision to finish that push by making the 1996 presidential election a direct election still is a model for countries going through democratization. He was the incumbent and still decided to let the people vote for or against him. This decision makes him more of a George Washington figure in Taiwan than Chiang Kai-shek. He led Taiwan through its first transition between political parties—from the KMT to Chen Shui-bian, a member of the Democratic Progressive Party—peacefully. I jokingly say that Taiwan is the most successful “post-Soviet state” because Taiwan’s democracy has gotten stronger since 1996, while the status of democracy in other post-Soviet countries (looking at Poland and Hungary) is no longer settled. Without Lee, Taiwan wouldn’t be where it is today.
deLisle: Lee started out as something of a thorn in the side of the Clinton administration, which took significant heat from Taiwan’s friends in Congress for allowing Lee nothing more than a refueling stop in Hawaii as the first visit by an ROC president to the U.S. after the severing of diplomatic relations in 1979. Congressional pressure also led to the Clinton administration’s acquiescence in allowing Lee the visit on which he gave his famous speech at his alma mater, Cornell University—a speech that angered Beijing, which announced the missile tests that led to the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in the run-up to Taiwan’s first fully democratic presidential election. Despite this fraught backstory, the missile crisis was a turning point in Taiwan’s favor in U.S.-Taiwan relations. The dispatch of a carrier group to the region was a striking demonstration of U.S. support. And Taiwan’s successful first-ever democratic presidential election—which Lee, of course, won—in the shadow of PRC efforts to intimidate Taiwan voters not to support Lee was a major step forward in the values-based component of the support Taiwan has enjoyed from the United States.
Shattuck: The Honolulu refueling stop is the moment that things seemed to have changed for U.S.-Taiwan relations. It was an embarrassing move to make a national leader not leave his plane. Now, whenever a president of Taiwan makes a stopover visit, he or she sits down with members of Congress, or in the case of Tsai Ing-wen visits NASA, a federal building. If the COVID crisis in the United States ever ends, it is realistic to expect that Tsai’s next stopover will have something even more special occur. Then, with the missile tests that became the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, U.S. support never wavered. The relationship has had its peaks and valleys depending on the executives, but arms sales continues to this day; a Cabinet-level official is scheduled to visit Taiwan for the first time in a few years; the U.S. patrols the Taiwan Strait regularly. The fact that China played the bully role at the same time that Taiwan was having its first democratic presidential election was a necessary combination for Clinton to finally back Taiwan’s existence. As China’s military grows stronger, U.S.-Taiwan relations cannot afford to go back to pre-1995 levels of lack of care. In effect, those critical years in Lee’s presidential term put U.S.-Taiwan relations on the path that they are today.
deLisle: Lee’s characterization of cross-Strait relations as “special state-to-state relations”—which Beijing derided as a “two state” thesis—has faded from the lexicon (with even Chen Shui-bian promising not to constitutionalize Lee’s formulation). But the basic notions in Lee’s framing—which was more complex than “special state-to-state relations” and included, among other things, assertions that cross-Strait relations were neither fully international nor fully domestic—and the core of his cross-Strait policies have persisted in substance. Steering between formal declarations of independence, on one hand, and commitments to move toward unification, on the other hand, has been the basic course that his successors have charted, steering more or less (and often more) close to the dangers that lie at either side. Ideas set forth in the Lee-era Guidelines for National Unification remain important today, in that Taiwan’s policy is not to take the China-provoking move of definitively ruling out unification (although Lee’s approach of setting preconditions that Beijing would not meet has given way to a straightforward official agnosticism about ultimate, distant-future end-states). Arguably, President Tsai is closer to President Lee’s careful and nuanced navigation of the treacherous waters of cross-Strait relations than Presidents Chen or Ma were—and perhaps not surprisingly so, given her role in shaping Lee’s “state-to-state” policy.
Shattuck: I’m going to focus on a different element of this question: the Chinese reaction to Lee’s death and how that plays into his cross-Strait formula. Global Times editor Hu Xijin wrote a piece on Lee after his death. The vitriol that Hu spits shows Beijing’s insecurity and disdain towards Lee. “Lee is undoubtedly a sinner in the eyes of the Chinese nation. The sharp turn he initiated in Taiwan politics has greatly increased resistance to China’s rise and brought long-term strategic risks to Taiwan. . . . His name will live in infamy in the Chinese history as he stood against the Chinese people in their goal of national reunification.” While Taiwan and democratic nations view Lee positively as “Mr. Democracy,” those on the other side of the Taiwan Strait view him as the godfather of secession/independence—which links to Lee’s “special state-to-state relations” formula. That set the groundwork for Taiwan’s current status. Beijing continues to squeeze Taipei particularly in the diplomatic realm as a way to ensure that Taiwan is never considered “special” by other countries. The situation between China and Taiwan is still unsettled, but Lee’s example points to a different vision for a country’s governance, which is important in 2020 as Xi Jinping continues to consolidate his own authority domestically.
deLisle: In terms of formal affiliation, Lee traversed much of the visible spectrum of Taiwan’s politics, from being vice president in a Chiang-led KMT regime to founder of the Taiwan Solidarity Union—a “deeper green” party than the DPP. But that story likely overstates the extent of any changes his views, even publicly expressed ones. Inherent in his status as the first Taiwanese (as opposed to “mainlander”) president of the ROC, implicit in his early and sustained advocacy for democracy (which inevitably called for Taiwanese governing themselves and doing so autonomously), and reinforced in his notion of a “New Taiwanese” (including all people in Taiwan, regardless of origin and background) was a claim of democratic self-determination and sovereignty that gets fairly close to Taiwan independence. His post-presidential views were more openly status quo-challenging, but changes in role matter here: the head of a small political party and a president face different restrictions. And his support for Tsai’s candidacies—back to her unsuccessful presidential run in 2012—reflects a good many things, including an evident appreciation of politics as the art of the possible.
Shattuck: Lee’s political development, or as Jacques notes, the change in his position and circumstance make him such an interesting character. Presidents of any country are often restricted in what they can say vs. what they want to say (one notable American exception). After leaving office, Lee (and really any national leader) can finally say what they want, and in Taiwan, the executive must be even more careful about the most simply statements, so Lee’s move from a KMT president to “deep-Green” makes his political life a great case study in what happens when someone is freed from the shackles of political office.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.