Lee Teng-hui (born 1923) succeeded Chiang Chingkuo as president of the Republic of China and chairman of the ruling Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) in 1988. He was re-elected president by the National Assembly in 1990. Lee was the first Taiwanese to become head of state and chief executive of the country.
Lee Teng-hui was born in Sanchih, Taiwan. His grandfather was a well-educated village leader during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945). His father, a small landlord, was a manager at the local irrigation service of the Rural Cooperative Program. Upon graduation from grade school, Lee attended a Christian middle school and a high school enrolling mainly Japanese youth on Taiwan. As one of only four Taiwanese students in his high school, he had to work hard to prove that he was as good as, if not better than, his Japanese classmates.
Education and Early Career
In high school, Lee received a military-type education, graduating with honors. Subsequently, he passed the entrance examination to enroll in Kyoto Imperial University where he studied agricultural economics. In 1946, following World War II, he returned to Taipei to complete his college education at National Taiwan University. He received his B.S. degree in 1948.
In 1952 Lee went to lowa State University for advanced study after serving four years as an instructor at National Taiwan University. He received an M.A. degree in agricultural economics the following year and immediately returned to Taiwan to resume his teaching and research career. Twelve years later, he left Taiwan again for further graduate work at Cornell University, where he earned a Ph.D. in agricultural economics in 1968. His Ph.D. thesis, entitled "Intersectoral Capital Flows in the Economic Development of Taiwan, 1895-1960," received an award for the best dissertation in the United States in the field of agricultural economics.
Prior to pursuing a political career in 1972, Lee held teaching posts at National Taiwan University and National Chengchi University. He also served as an economic analyst at the provincial government's Department of Agriculture and Forestry and as a research fellow at the Taiwan Provincial Cooperative Bank from 1948 to 1957. In 1957 he began his career at the U.S.-Republic of China Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction (JCRR), first as a specialist and then in charge of the administration of its Rural Economy Division. During that period he distinguished himself as a man thoroughly knowledgeable about Taiwan's economic development in general and rural economic problems in particular. He advocated agricultural reform and later became the protagonist for dismantling the outmoded barter system of exchange between rich crops and chemical fertilizer. He was credited with major contributions to establishing farmer's associations, irrigation systems, warehousing of rice in harvest season, rural health programs, and mechanization. He was instrumental in guiding the passage of the Agricultural Development Act.
In 1972 Lee was appointed by Chiang Ching-kuo as a minister without portfolio in the Cabinet, with major responsibilities in overseeing the agricultural economy. The appointment not only led to a successful career in politics, but also began his close relationship with Chiang Ching-kuo as the latter's protégé. From 1978 to 1981 he was appointed mayor of Taipei, a key post for advancing to higher positions. In order to build Taipei into a modern city, he pioneered new programs and scientifically oriented the administration. He encouraged popular participation in city administration, in office automation, and in the strict implementation of scientific management. He helped allay Taipei's chronic water shortages, built miles of metropolitan freeways and modern sewage disposal facilities, and relocated factories to the countryside.
Gaining Chiang Ching-kuo's growing confidence, he was subsequently appointed governor of Taiwan in 1981, a position deemed second in administrative importance only to the president and the premier. He devoted himself to regional economic planning and a wide range of agricultural reforms such as village renewal, sewer construction, and the improvement of irrigation systems.
In 1984 he was elected vice-president by the National Assembly. In his four years as vice-president he became President Chiang Ching-kuo's close adviser. As Chiang's health deteriorated, Lee was increasingly regarded as Chiang's heir-apparent. Lee met early resistance from old-line Kuomintang leaders, including Madame Chiang Kaishek, who intervened unsuccessfully to block his ascension in 1988. Two years later, the old guard rallied again, vainly, to try to stop his nomination for the indirectly elected presidency. Then Lee set the electoral ball rolling to build a new democracy—and to clean house. In 1991 he retired all of the parliamentarians who were awarded their seats in 1948 in Nanjing. He held the first free elections for the Legislative Yuan, in which the once outlawed opposition, which coalesced into the Democratic Progressive Party, won 31 percent of the seats. When rampant vote buying was discovered among newly elected members of 23 county councils last year, Lee cracked down. A total of 365 people were convicted, including 302 councilmen (most of them KMT delegates). In December 1996, Chen Shui-bian of the D.P.P. clinched the Taipei mayoralty, putting one of the most powerful posts in the country in opposition hands.
After cleaning up Taiwan's political regime, Lee was eager to pursue new challenges on the international front. However, China's constant pressure on Taiwan's trading partners in neighboring countries made them wary of extending him an invitation. Lee therefore decided to take matters into his own hands. With no public warning, he took a low-key tour of Southeast Asia, ostensibly to indulge in his favorite sport, golf. He visited Indonesia and was invited to a private golf game with President Suharto. In the Philippines, Lee laid the groundwork for financing and construction of a 325-hectare Subic Bay industrial park, where Acer Computer announced that it would set up a factory. When he reached Thailand, the Chinese angrily demanded that he be denied a meeting, however "private," with the Prime Minister. The Thais acceded to the Chinese, but gave Lee an audience with King Bhumibol Adulyadej instead. Asian countries had good reason to accommodate Lee: Taiwan was the No. 1 foreign investor in Vietnam ($2.6 billion in approved investments); No. 2 in Malaysia ($7.3 billion); No. 3 in the Philippines ($737 million); No. 4 in Thailand ($5.1 billion); and No. 5 in Indonesia ($7.7 billion).
Relations with China
As the Republic of China entered a period of great political transition from authoritarian one-party dictatorship to a multiparty democracy, Lee faced the immense task of constitutional reform during his six-year term. He was also invested with responsibility to steer the country toward a competitive party system, requiring him to transform the KMT from its Leninist orientation into a democratic party. More importantly, he was charged with guiding a policy of reconciliation with the People's Republic of China (PRC) at a time when economic and social relations between Taiwan and the mainland were growing. The question of political unification or maintaining Taiwan's independent political identity loomed large in Lee's initiative toward rapprochement with the Beijing regime.
Some see the birth of a working relationship between Lee and Jiang Zemin, Deng Xiaoping's chosen successor in China. In January, Jiang announced an eight-point proposal for building ties that had a softer tone than anything Taipei had heard before. Jiang even held out the possibility of a meeting with Lee some day. Lee responded in April with his own six points, apparently dropping Taiwan's insistence that China recognize the island's sovereignty before talks could begin. "It means that Jiang and Lee have entered into informal dialogue," says Tien at Taipei's Institute of National Policy Research. A Western analyst agrees: "These guys who were shouting at each other constantly in the past are now working together quite well."
In June 1995, however, Lee spoke at Cornell University's commencement on a visitor's visa to the U.S., which enraged China. He did not receive an official head-of-state welcome or reception, but he met perfunctorily with three U.S. Senators—Jesse Helms, Al D'Amato and Frank Mirkowsk—delivered the Olin lecture and attended some of the class-reunion festivities. Then, without a press conference or even a single intervew, he packed up for home.
Nonetheless, Lee's visit was perhaps the most important Taiwanese diplomatic coup since the U.S. broke off formal relations in 1979 in deference to mainland China. He may have been denied the pomp and circumstance of an official welcome, but he did gain a tacit U.S. admission that Taiwan, its sixth largest trade partner, would have to be dealt with more seriously. The countries President Lee can officially visit—which include Tonga, the Grenadines, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica and Saint Vincent—number only 29.
"This is the first breakthrough we have made," Lee told his staff when he learned that the U.S. would allow a President of the Republic of China to set foot on U.S. soil for the first time. "As long as we have one, there will be a second and a third." Still determined to recover Taiwan someday, Beijing responded that the very basis of its relationship with the U.S.—Washington's 1979 acceptance of a one-China policy—had been hurt by the granting of Lee's visa.
First Free Elections
On March 23, 1996, Taiwan's first free elections were held, and Lee won a landslide election victory after he faced down a menacing China, which suspected him of privately favoring independence. But since then, his popularity has slipped, as he has failed to exert strong leadership on issues from constitutional reform to the flagging economy. Taiwan has recently been getting bad press in the U.S. in the wake of accusations that a KMT official offered an illegal $15 million donation to the Democratic National Committee. Meanwhile, Washington remains under pressure from Beijing to lessen its support for Taiwan and decrease arms sales to the island. Lee says he is in favor of reunification but stresses that China must first fulfill the conditions of becoming democratic, free, and having a similar level of wealth as Taiwan. For its part, Beijing has refused to endorse Taiwan's Western-style democracy. In fact, China held military exercises near Taiwan to warn Taipei against trying to become independent.
The challenges of both political democratization at home and proper relations with the PRC will likely determine Taiwan's future political stability and continuing economic growth.
President Lee's wife, Tseng Wen-hui, was also a native Taiwanese. The couple was fond of music and mastered impressive skills in golf. They had one son and two daughters. Le Hsien-wen, their son, died at an early age from an illness. Anna and Annie, their daughters, both married and lived with their parents.
Further Reading on Lee Teng-hui
There is little biographical information on Lee Teng-hui published in English. His Agriculture and Economic Development in Taiwan, Volume I and II (Taichung, Taiwan: 1983) contains President Lee's English publications.