As Chiang Ching-Kuo’s vice president, Lee Teng-Hui was the first Taiwanese born person to rise to such a powerful position. Then in 1988, Chiang Ching-Kuo passes away and Lee succeeded him as President. His ascension to power was unsettling for many people within his party, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), as Lee was a local Taiwanese. Lee placated the party to also take up the KMT chairman position as well.

Democratization

It would be fair to say that Lee was the flag bearer to bring upon democracy to Taiwan. While growing up in the Japanese rule, he was able to work with KMT, unite with across the aisle, and work with the citizens to bring upon a democratic society. Prior to Chiang Ching-Kuo’s death, in 1987, Lee, as his vice-president, helped end martial law and brought upon the end of the white terror. At this time, this was the longest martial law ever exacted in the world’s history.

Wild Lily Movement

Read more: Wild Lily Movement

In 1990, Lee assumed his first official term as president (his presidency from 1988 to 1990 was Chiang’s remaining years). At this time, the president were selected and voted upon by a committee of old KMT party elders. On March 16, students from National Taiwan University gathered at Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall and demanded the following:

  1. Dissolve the National Assembly (國民大會) and re-establish a new National Assembly infrastructure
  2. Nullify the Temporary Provisions Against the Communist Rebellion (動員戡亂時期臨時條款) and re-establish constitutional order
  3. Hold a National Affairs Conference (國是會議)
  4. Establish a political reform timetable

Later on, thousands of people joined them in the protest.

On March 21, 5 days from the first group of students gathering, President Lee Teng-Hui invited the student movement leaders to meet with him in the presidential office. Together they came up with plans to meet their demands. He followed through:

A National Affairs Conference was held in 1990.

The National Assembly was disbanded in 1991.

The Temporary Provisions Against the Communist Rebellion were nullified in 1991.

1994 direct vote was passed by the government.

Re-election

With the direct vote allowed, 1996 saw the first time in Taiwan and Republic of China history, that the leader and president of the government would be decided by the people. Selecting Lien Chan as his running mate, Lee won the election with 54% of the votes (voting participation was 76%).

Cross-Strait Policy: Special State-to-State Relationship

Unlike a lot of peole from his part, Lee was a local Taiwanese that lived through the Japanese rule of Taiwan, so he had no direct connections with the land of China. This was an idea that not only troubled his party members, but also the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Throughout his years, he classified the cross-strait relationship as a “special state-to-state relationship”

Third Missile Crisis

In 1995, prior to the 1996 election, Cornell University, Lee’s alma mater, invited him to speak about “Taiwan’s Democratization Experience”. This would require Lee, a sitting president of ROC, to step onto US soil. With the backdrop of ROC and United States no longer having official diplomatic relations, this would be a symbol of legitimizing Lee’s title and hence the government of ROC. Citing the One China Policy, PRC, government of China, vehemently opposed this. Despite PRC’s anger, the US congress passed a concurrent resolution to allow for Lee’s visit.

As a response to this, China conducted missile tests in areas around Taiwan as an attempt to intimidate the people of Taiwan to not vote Lee into office. However, this backfired as it united the people of Taiwan against a common enemy and fear.

The red boxes indicated the location of the missile tests (screenshotted from Wikipedia)

This event was the inspiration for The West Wing Season 3 Episode 14 titled “Hartsfield’s Landing” where tensions on the Taiwan Strait plays the main conflict that the fictional White House has to defuse.

Legacy

Lee was succeeded by President Chen Shui-Bien of the Democratic Progress Party (DPP) and saw a peaceful transition of power. In 2001, KMT removed Lee’s party membership. This was due to the fact that many saw Lee as a a proponent of Taiwan independence. Lee has stated that his is not a proponent of Taiwan independence because Taiwan is already independent. He became the spiritual leader of the newly formed Taiwan Solidarity Union but never held any formal position within the party.

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