David D. BUCK

Lee Teng-hui was the first Taiwanese native to lead the government and the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang/Kuomintang) in Taiwan. His leadership brought full democracy to Taiwan. Since 2000 former president Lee has become an outspoken advocate of Taiwanese nationalism.

Born in 1923 when Taiwan was a Japanese colony, Lee Teng-hui attended Christian schools as a boy and then received a Japanese education until 1945, when he returned to Taiwan. In the 1950s Lee was among the first generation of Taiwanese students to undertake graduate studies in the United States. He alternated between studying in the United States and working for the Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction, a successful joint Chinese Nationalist–U.S. land reform program for Taiwan. Taiwan’s land reform stressed legal procedures combined with agricultural improvement projects and economic development. It contrasted sharply to the Communist Party’s populist, confiscatory, and often violent land reform on the Chinese mainland.

In 1968 Lee earned a PhD in agricultural economics from Cornell University. Back in Taiwan he emerged as a rising Taiwanese Christian in the Nationalist Party. He served as mayor of Taipei before he was elevated to Taiwan’s vice presidency in 1984. Lee’s elevation marked acceptance by the mainland Nationalist Party of that fact that its future is tied to Taiwan and needs support from the Taiwanese. When President Chiang Ching-kuo, who did much to further Lee’s career, died in 1988, Lee succeeded him. Lee served as president until 2000 and won his last four-year term as the first popularly elected president of Taiwan. Lee’s outspoken advocacy of Taiwan’s cultural differences from China and his unflinching support for Taiwan’s political independence from the Chinese mainland earned him the deep enmity of the Beijing leadership as well as strong criticism in Taiwan.

After stepping down from the presidency Lee Teng-hui has used his stature as Taiwan’s senior statesman to advocate even more forcefully for Taiwan nationalism. He has repeatedly spoken of Taiwan’s “de facto independence.” He opposes reconciliation with the People’s Republic of China because he fears that Taiwan would lose its separate government and come under Beijing’s control. He was critical of President Chen Shui-bian and the Democratic Progressive Party during their leadership from 2001 to 2008 as well as criticizing the policies of President Ma Ying-jeou and the Nationalist Party since they returned to power in May 2008.

Further Reading

Huang Chun-chieh. (2006). Taiwan in transformation, 1895–2005: The challenge of a new democracy to an old civilization. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Jacobs, J. B., & Liu I-Hao Ben. (2008, March). Lee Teng-hui and the idea of “Taiwan.” China Quarterly, 178–179.

Source: Buck, David D.. (2009). LEE Teng-hui. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1286–1286. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

LEE Teng-hui (Lǐ Dēnghuī 李登辉)|Lǐ Dēnghuī 李登辉 (LEE Teng-hui)

Download the PDF of this article