Discover more from Nothing New Under the Sun
March 23, 1996: Democracy in East Asia
Taiwan holds its first direct presidential election. The office is no longer chosen by the National Assembly.
Taiwan has been a nation voluntarily and involuntarily influenced by external powers throughout its history. The Native Peoples on the island are often overlooked, exploited, and discriminated against. This trend was exacerbated after World War II when Japanese imperialism broke down and the Taiwanese people were pushed into a cold civil war involving the Nationalist Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China and the Communist Party in the People’s Republic of China. But running even deeper than ideology is always an urge for independence. On March 23, 1996, the Taiwanese people elected its first president that wasn’t chosen by the archaic and elitist National Assembly, Lee Teng-hui.
Lee Teng-hui is also the first president to be born on the island of Taiwan and many argue his background was also convenient for Nationalist Kuomintang interests as a nod to the local native-born population. For many of the elites were born in and fled mainland China and imposed a brutal class system on the native population.
His critics call out his failure to promote women to higher office, the perceived slow pace of reforms in his early presidency, and his incoherent outbursts later in life. More nuanced accounts note that Lee Teng-hui displayed an ability to adapt to different identities as the political temperature frequently changed in Taiwan, depending on what agenda was being set. In 2011, it was revealed that he had embezzled millions of dollars during his public service. He was acquitted in 2013, a decision upheld by the High Court.
His impact on geopolitics can’t go understated and the consequences of his work are felt today.
Born in 1923 near Tan-shui in northern Taiwan (now New Taipei City), Lee Teng-hui was raised in a Taiwan that had been dominated by the Japanese since the previous century. In fact, he identified as Japanese and attended a university in Kyoto. Later, he studied agricultural economics at the National Taiwan University. The future president’s passion lay in agricultural development and that would be a mainstay throughout his career as his homeland goes through dramatic changes. From 1958 to 1978, he served as a professor of economics at the National Taiwan and National Chengchi universities while also participating in plans for agricultural development as a member of Taiwan’s Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction.
The changing tides often put Lee Teng-hui in dangerous positions. He officially became a member of the Kuomintang in 1971 as an agricultural minister, however later in life, he admitted to briefly flirting with the writings of Karl Marx before the Nationalist crackdown in 1947. He even refused to speak at an event he rightfully assumed to be a ploy to smoke out detractors. In 1964, upon returning from earning his doctorate at Cornell University, he was interrogated by the Taiwan Garrison Command and faced further pressure leading to another interrogation in 1968.
Still, Lee Teng-hui was favored by Chiang Kai-shek's eldest son, Chiang Ching-kuo, and was elected mayor of Taipei in 1978. He served as governor of Taiwan province from 1981 to 1984 and then became vice president under Ching-kuo in 1984. This was a direct path to the presidency in 1988 when the eldest son of Chiang Kai-shek died. In the early part of his presidency (he was not directly elected at this point), Lee Teng-hui played into the precepts that subverted Taiwanese identity by keeping the image of a cold civil war alive between two Chinas.
However, that would change.
President Teng-hui would institute democratic reforms, for example, direct elections for members of the National Assembly and for the mayoralties of Taipei and Kaohsiung. The biggest blow to the Assembly (viewed as an imperialist institution) was stripping them of the power to choose presidents and vice presidents. This led to President Teng-hui’s direct election on March 23, 1996. In the run-up to the election, the Communist party staged military exercises for eight months.
In the summer of 1995, the president visited Cornell for a reunion to the dismay of the People’s Republic. Even President Bill Clinton’s State Department was weary and offered Lee a 3-day stopover meant to suppress public exposure and press coverage. However, his speech at Cornell was highly public as it was attended by thousands within a prestigious worldwide community, including international journalists, and the reformer knew that. Within his speech, he used strategic language to suggest a separation from China altogether, referring to his government as “the Republic of China on Taiwan.” The event would cause diplomatic consternation between the U.S. and the People’s Republic, as the latter saw a pattern with the U.S sending Taiwan F-16 fighter jets (under the Bush administration) and the changed Taiwan engagement protocols a year earlier. The incident resulted in low relations between the superpower and budding power, as well as hostile missile launches off the coast of Taiwan. To history, this moment is known as the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis.
Lee also pushed for participation in the United Nations and an invitation to the Asia-Pacific Economic Council Summit (APEC). In 1999, in an interview with a German radio program, he called for “state-to-state relations” with the neighboring power.
The Kuomintang was splitting on Lee and his detractors felt he was a snake in the grass trying to sabotage it from the inside. His endorsement for the 2000 election was unsuccessful, which many in the party saw coming, thus giving power to the Democratic Progressive Party. This party would also control Taipei from 1998-2018. Some of the nationalist suspicions may have been warranted as Teng-hui became an outspoken advocate for Taiwanese independence in his twilight years as well as ramping up calls for the creation of a collective Taiwanese identity stemming from the variety of ethnic groups and cultural interests inhabiting the island.
Most importantly, President Lee Teng-Hui’s legacy is felt today as the United States begins to fall short of its global commitments. The democratic reformer’s connection to the U.S. supplied him with education, exposure, and diplomatic networks that aided his plans to change his homeland. Before going to Cornell, he earned an M.A. from Iowa State University in 1958.
A nation that has felt the fruits of democracy and self-actualization would need to be forced back into the auspices of a neighboring power. It would be a most unfortunate development featuring instability and violence. It serves the American people to remember that we are a democratic force around the globe and a beacon of free trade, assembly, and expression.
We can’t control the world, but we can influence it with soft power. This is something that needs to be reinforced to the isolationist voices within.
Rebels of a Neon God was the directorial debut of Malaysian-Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang. It also supplies images of 1990s Taipei nightlife:
Nothing New Under the Sun with Steward Beckham is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.