Lee Teng-hui’s legacy

Mainichi Shimbun, 25 March 2000

Lee Teng-hui resigned as chairman of Taiwan’s Nationalist Party on Friday. After the recent election setback, President Lee stated that old ginger is better because it is spicier and appeared to be intent on staying on as party leader in order to calm the discord within his party. But a backlash from within his own party persuaded Lee to step down before his presidential term ends in May and turn the party leadership over to Vice President Lien Chan.

The Nationalist Party’s defeat in the presidential election will not only transfer the presidency to the Democratic Progressive Party but will also accelerate a changing of the guard within the Nationalist Party.

The term tosan has been used in Taiwan to refer those stubborn patriarchs who were educated under Japanese colonial rule, and who ruled their families as well as the nation with an iron hand. The 77-year-old Lee was considered to be an archetypical tosan.

Lee was automatically promoted from vice president to president in 1988 after President Chiang Ching-kuo died. Democratic reforms were implemented during his tenure against the backdrop of his powerful patriarchical authority and his strong sense of Taiwanese identity.

Until 1988, the Nationalist Party was dominated by people from the Chinese mainland who tried to prevent the Taiwan-born Lee from acquiring power and sought to block his ascension to the presidency. But Lee became president after skillfully surviving conflicts within his party. Under his chairmanship, the Nationalist Party gradually came under the influence of politicians born in Taiwan.

Lee pursued his democratization program by dismantling the Nationalist one-party dictatorship, which was used to preserve the privileges of Mainlanders. He abolished the lifetime parliamentary memberships granted to Mainlanders and recognized opposition parties. He also implemented legal changes that allowed the Taiwanese people to directly elect their president.

In 1991, Lee unilaterally declared that Taiwan’s state of civil war with the Chinese Communist Party had ended. He also announced that reunification would occur only after China had achieved the political and economic level of Taiwan. Lee viewed reunification as something that could only take place in the distant future.

China attacked Lee because it was alarmed by his efforts to democratize and Taiwanize Taiwanese politics and feared that he was bent on securing Taiwan’s independence. The democratic reforms implemented by Lee eased frictions between Mainlanders and native-born Taiwanese, and younger people born in Taiwan began to perceive themselves as the New Taiwanese.

Gradually, the style of governance that characterized the tosan generation fell out of favor. Although Lee won a majority of the votes in the presidential election of 1996, Lien Chan, the candidate he had tapped as his successor, suffered a crushing defeat in the recent election.

The winner, Chen Sui-bian, a former mayor of Taipei, is a youthful 49 years old. James Soong, the former governor of Taiwan Province, the second-place candidate, is also a relatively young 57. Their vitality and administrative ability appealed to many Taiwanese voters. The era of the strong man, as represented by Lee Teng-hui, has come to an end.