Let History Be the Judge

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Lee Teng-hui set a new direction for Taiwan's identity and democratization


As the oldest and most colorful leader in Asia, President Lee Teng-hui has transformed Taiwan's waning dictatorship into a working democracy, keeping his promise to bring about a peaceful transfer of power. In the process, his success has also led to failure for his own political party, the Kuomintang (KMT), which has ruled Taiwan for 55 years and which is, by all accounts, the world's richest political party.

It is ironic that four years ago China's missiles unintentionally helped Lee, now 80, become the island's first popularly elected President. This time, however, China was even more afraid of the Democratic Progressive Party and tried to help the KMT with an avalanche of menacing rhetoric. Again, Taiwan's people have rejected Beijing's threats. They have chosen as their leader the most anti-China candidate, Chen Shui-bian.

A peaceful transfer of power between parties is the essence of democracy. But despite the island's decade-long process of democratization, few in Taiwan anticipated that such an event was in the cards. Numbed by the long period of KMT rule, they viewed the party's victory as inevitable.

The KMT's loss of power is surely worrying to China. After the collapse of communist governments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe 10 years ago, the only remaining Leninist-style ruling parties of importance were those in China, North Korea, Vietnam--and the KMT. With the latter's defeat, China's Communist Party must feel isolated. The loss of its twin has also brought to an abrupt end the civil-war rationale--two Chinese governments squabbling over a single nation--for reunification between China and Taiwan.

Lee has traveled a tortuous political odyssey. A citizen of the Japanese empire until he was in his early 20s, he was adopted by the KMT, a party he secretly held in contempt. Plucked from technocratic oblivion and made a cabinet minister in 1972, Lee was a token Taiwanese treated with little respect by party elders who believed that the quiet scholar was ultimately harmless. When he succeeded the powerful President Chiang Ching-kuo, foreign observers figured Lee was a KMT cat's-paw who lacked the power base to survive as President.

But within five years, the professor managed to outfox the formidable KMT ´┐Żlite and consolidate power. His strategy was to exploit the contradictions among the mainlander heavies and align with some to defeat others. Eventually, the old guard was marginalized. The defeated mainlanders could do little other than complain about his so-called autocratic style, which they had taught him.

Lee possesses a brash, folksy manner. He often responds to threats from China with colloquialisms like bandit, blockhead and dead brain. Rather than employing sophisticated references from Peking opera, he tends to use examples from the much cruder Taiwanese variety. Although China's leaders themselves are crass bullies, they have not appreciated his directness.

Because Lee dares to say no, China has demonized him as a traitor to be dumped into the historical rubbish bin, together, presumably, with former Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten and Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

Despite his KMT position, Lee is an ardent nationalist and genuine Taiwanese patriot. He has worked hard to cultivate Taiwanese political identity. He is the first President of Taiwan to have made several trips abroad, thus enhancing his status as a national hero. Lee's democratic reforms have created a government from the bottom up, with a free press unsurpassed in Asia. His reform leadership prolonged the KMT's lease on life as the ruling party. Now, with the KMT's loss of the presidency, Taiwan is poised to join Eastern Europe's ex-communist countries in a third democratic wave.

President Lee has likened himself to Moses, trying to lead the people of Taiwan out of their servitude under various forms of colonial control. Lee, however, failed to find a Joshua to succeed him within the confines of his party. Instead, Taiwan's people have chosen opposition leader Chen Shui-bian to lead them to the promised land. But Lee's legacy in history is assured. People will surely miss him after he retires. He set new directions for Taiwan in terms of both local identity and democratization, which will prove irreversible.

Antonio Chiang is publisher and editor-in-chief of the Taipei Times