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Lee Teng-hui and the Issue of Taiwan's Independence

In 2007, former President of the Republic of China (Taiwan) Lee Teng-hui (simplified Chinese 李登辉, traditional Chinese 李登輝, pinyin: Li Dēnghuī) astonished the Taiwanese public when he declared to Next Magazine that he did not support Taiwan's independence [1]. 

For many years, Lee had been considered one of the most influential supporters of Taiwan's independence. In the 1990s, he had repeatedly angered the People's Republic of China and was denounced by Beijing as a 'separatist' who was pushing for an independent Taiwan. His political stance made him enemies on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. In fact, both the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang) support eventual reunification and adhere to the "one China" principle.

In 2001, Lee was even expelled from the Guomindang, the party that he had led for 12 years. Although he had retired from active political life in 2000, during the election campaign he became the spiritual leader of the Taiwan Solidarity Union, which advocates independence [2]. 

Lee Teng-hui's understanding of Taiwan and the relationship between Taiwan and China has often been a topic of fierce controversy. The main reason is that his views are themselves so contradictory and volatile that it is hard to grasp them. However, if one reads some of his speeches, messages and interviews during his presidency (1988-2000), one realises that Lee Teng-hui was, at least for most of his tenure, way more conservative than the public has portrayed  him. 

At the same time, he was also an innovator: he openly talked about Taiwan, the Taiwanese identity, universal human values, and the heritage of the Japanese colonial era in a way that broke with the rhetoric of his predecessors Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo, who had been born and had grown up on the mainland and therefore identified themselves with China.

In this post I would like to examine some of the statements Lee Teng-hui made throughout his political career in order to show these contradictions and ambiguities. 

Lee Teng-hui and the Legacy of Chinese Nationalism

On March 8, 1991, Lee Teng-hui gave a speech at the Reception for the 1991 Symposium on County and City Affairs. He laid out the principles of his policy towards mainland China:

[M]ore than forty years of separation between the two sides of the Taiwan Straits and differences in our political systems have created tremendous gaps and a foundation of mutual distrust. Thus, the main intent of the Guidelines for National Unification is to gradually eliminate psychological, social, and economic differences between the two sides of the Straits through peaceful means, a rational attitude, and bilateral positive interaction: to build up mutual trust and cooperation, step by step, through reciprocity; and finally, to determine the nation's future constitutional regime and the entire populace's lifestyle on the basis of popular will. We believe that this is the most reasonable and feasible way to resolve the China problem. 
Despite the many forces of obstruction that remain, we must do our utmost to affect the situation as it now stands, as well as sway the views of the minority and win the hearts of our mainland compatriots, thereby to attain the goal of establishing one democratic, free, and equitably prosperous China (Lee Teng-hui: President Lee Teng-hui's Selected Addresses and Messages 1991. Taipei 1992, p. 10).

Exactly one month later, he addressed the Second Extraordinary Session of the First National Assembly (April 8, 1991). He stated:

I will abide by the Constitution, and devote myself to the fulfillment of my duties, to promoting the welfare of the people and seeking national unification and a new era for the Chinese nation ... 

It was ... agreed that we would enter a new stage in national unification by means of the termination of the Period of National Mobilization for Suppression of the Communist Rebellion ... 

A constitution is a country's fundamental law from which its sovereignty is derived, by which its government is organized, and through which the rights of its people are guaranteed. Therefore, upon the establishment of the Republic of China, Dr. Sun Yat-sen repeatedly advised the people, "Before the nation can develop along its future path, the Republic of China must have a good constitution." Chiang Kai-shek, the late president, also advised us that, "The Constitution is the legal code for the whole nation to abide by. On the other hand, it must be far-sighted, and, on the other, it must take into account the actual conditions of the country." 

[The adjustments made to the Constitution by the National Assembly] allowed the Republic of China in the little corner formed by the Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu areas to become the hope for the future reunification of China ... The Chinese people will eternally remember with gratitude such loyal patriotism (ibid., pp. 14-16).

As we can see, in Lee Teng-hui's statements during the first years of his presidency the ideology of the Guomindang appears completely intact. He does not mention the existence of a state or a nation called 'Taiwan'; he pledges to work for the reunification of Taiwan and the mainland; and he considers Taiwan and the islands of Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu "the little corner" that the Republic of China still holds. Moreover, Lee mentions Sun Yat-sen as the founding father of the Republic, and Chiang Kai-shek. He therefore inscribes his political agenda into the tradition and framework he inherited from the Guomindang and its Chinese nationalist ideology.

Of course, one may argue that he only paid lip service to Guomindang ideology in order to strengthen his position in the difficult years of transition from the dominance of the old mainland guard to the new, democratic, 'Taiwanised' Guomindang. However, the importance of Chinese nationalism in defining Lee Teng-hui's understanding of Taiwan can be observed throughout his tenure. In fact, he never argued that there was a state called Taiwan. 

In a message for The Asian Wall Street Journal from August 1, 1998, he explained:

[Taiwan] is not just Taiwan; it is the Republic of China. In addition to the island of Taiwan, the ROC's effective jurisdiction covers the Penghu Islands (the Pescadores), Kinmen (Quemoy), Matsu, the Tungsha (Pratas) Islands, and the Nansha (Spratly) Islands. In addition, the ROC has 87 years of continuous history and a Constitution that has been in effect for 52 years 

(Lee Teng-hui: President Lee Teng-hui's Selected Addresses and Messages 1998. Taipei 1999, pp. 133-134).

In an address at the Special Entertainment Show for Returning Overseas Chinese (October 9, 1998), he said:

It is very touching to see so many overseas Chinese returning to the Republic of China and gathering here on the eve of its National Day in celebration of the republic's 87th birthday ... [T]he successful constitutional reform during the last decade has realized the "popular governance" ideal of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, our founding father ...  
The goal being pursued by the Republic of China on Taiwan [is to] build a new China, which is prosperous, strong, democratic, and dignified and will contribute considerably to human culture and world peace. The significant achievement of the ROC on Taiwan in implementing democracy and free market economy has also served as a grand blueprint for the future development of the entire Chinese people (ibid., pp. 176-178).

On the following day, he gave the traditional National Day speech for the Double Ten celebration (October 10, 1998):

Today is the 1998 National Day of the Republic of China. We are gathered here, our hearts brimming with happiness, to celebrate the birth of our nation and, at the same time, solemnly take stock of the development of our country ... For 87 years, despite the incessant changes and tribulations on our national front, we have never failed to adhere to the ideals of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, our Founding Father ... 

We are committed to the ideal of democracy, freedom and equitable prosperity in pragmatically promoting cross-strait relations ... The two sides should promote mutual understanding ... and seek eventual reunification under democracy by a gradual approach (ibid., pp. 178-181).

We clearly see that Lee's political horizon does not fundamentally differ from that of the Chinese nationalist ideology he inherited from the Guomindang. What's more, Lee Teng-hui always refuted the PRC's allegation that he was trying to split China and Taiwan. 

So, if that is the case, why did so many controversies emerge during his presidency? What did he do to infuriate Beijing so much as to prompt the Communist regime to call him "the general representative of Taiwan's separatist forces, a saboteur of the stability of the Taiwan Straits, a stumbling-block preventing the development of relations between China and the United States, and a troublemaker for the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region" [3]? 

What appeared so unacceptable to the PRC that mainland media felt compelled to threaten and warn Taiwan? "If a grave turn of events occurs," wrote the Communist-controlled People's Daily, "leading to the separation of Taiwan from China in any name, or if Taiwan is invaded and occupied by foreign countries, or if the Taiwan authorities refuse, sine die, the peaceful settlement of cross-Straits reunification through negotiations, then the Chinese government will only be forced to adopt all drastic measures possible, including the use of force, to safeguard China's sovereignty and territorial integrity and fulfill the great cause of reunification" [ibid.]

China - A Divided Nation

What angered Beijing so much were basically two theories propounded by Lee Teng-hui: The first one was that the Republic of China was an independent sovereign state, and the second one was that China is a divided nation with two different governments. 

In a 1998 interview with Bruce W. Nelab, Senior Editor of Time Magazine, Lee Teng-hui denied the allegations that he was trying to depart from the "one China" principle. However, the nature of his arguments threw Beijing into panic:

One could say that Peking's accusations that Taipei is straying from the "one China" principle completely ignore reality and are entirely politically motivated. The Republic of China has always been committed to the "one China" principle; however, our definition differs from that of the mainland. Our view is that prior to 1949, there existed only one China - the Republic of China. 
For the nearly 50 years since 1949, China has been under divided rule. The two political entities on the opposite sides of the Taiwan Strait rule only parts of China. Neither one has ever been able to exercise jurisdiction over the other's territory. Therefore, at the present stage, "one China" should refer to the historic, cultural, and geographic China rather than one defined by political, economic and social factors. As for the future, it is our earnest hope to see a free, democratic, and equitably prosperous "one China" emerge through a peaceful process.
We staunchly maintain that, as parts of China, Taiwan and the mainland must coexist peacefully and seek to create favorable conditions through exchange and dialogue for the ultimate peaceful unification of the nation. Therefore, in 1991 we promulgated the Guidelines for National Unification, which set the establishment of a democratic, free, and equitably prosperous China as the guiding principles of the ROC's mainland policy. Over the past few years, we have worked hard to promote cross-strait exchanges and institutionalized consultations in hopes of moving forward from a China now under divided rule to a future "one China". 

However, prior to unification, neither side can claim to represent the other side or all of China, nor can the mainland resort to force or other coercive measures to threaten Taiwan. To do so would be tantamount to verbally annexing Taiwan, which neither the government nor the people of the Republic of China will by any means accept (Lee 1999, pp. 81-82).

In August 1998, Lee again defined China as a divided nation and compared it to other countries separated by the Cold War: 

The path to a democratic China must begin with reality. And, that reality is a divided China, just as Germany and Vietnam were in the past and as Korea is today. Hence, there is no "one China" now. Perhaps in the future there will be, but at present not. Today, there is only a "one divided China," with Taiwan and the mainland each being a part of China. Because neither has jurisdiction over the other, neither can represent the other, much less all of China.

The "one China" as uttered by communist China means that "There is only one China; Taiwan is part of China." The first half of this statement defies reality. The latter half is only a half-truth. Furthermore, this whole idea is equivalent to a "verbal annexation" of Taiwan (ibid., p. 122). 

He further provoked Beijing by saying that the Republic of China didn't need to declare independence, because it was already an independent, sovereign state:

The Republic of China has been a sovereign state for the past 87 years. This status did not change as a result of the loss of governing power over the mainland area in 1949. Today, neither side of the Taiwan Strait is subordinate to the other, and China is thus under divided rule, just as East and West Germany were previously and as North and South Korea are at present. However, it remains our hope that China will be reunified in the future under a free, democratic, and equitably prosperous system ... 

[T]he Republic of China has long been a sovereign state and thus has no need to declare independence. In the past, most nations around the world shared formal diplomatic relations with the ROC ... It was a charter member of the United Nations and a full member until 1971 (ibid., pp. 128-133). 

Why was the PRC so hostile to such propositions which may appear obvious?The reason is that Beijing's position regarding Taiwan is categorically opposed to the idea that there are two sovereign states, one governing the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau, and another governing Taiwan and other smaller islands. The PRC argues that there is only one China, that the People's Republic of China is the sole legitimate government of China, and that therefore Taiwan must belong to the PRC. The position of the ROC and of the Guomindang is that there is only one China, and the ROC is the only legitimate government of China. 

However, the problem lies in the fact that most states of the world do not recognise the Republic of China as a sovereign state. In the 1970s, the United States, following a somewhat short-sighted and opportunistic policy aimed at isolating the Soviet Union by restoring friendly relations with mainland China, shifted diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, while continuing to profess their adherence to the "one China" principle. Shortly afterwards, most states of the world followed the example of the USA.

Ever since this momentous diplomatic success, Beijing has been able to play the card of the international recognition of the PRC to its own advantage. The Republic of China, despite de facto existing, is recognised only by a handful of countries, so its claim to be the sole legitimate government of China is neither convincing nor practicable. Accordingly, the PRC government can outsmart its opponents by claiming that the ROC has no legal right to consider itself the sole legitimate government of the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, and Macau (which is the official, albeit unpopular among Taiwanese, position of the Guomindang as to this day). 

Taiwan - The 'Better China'

How did Lee Teng-hui view the relationship between the ROC and the PRC? His concept of the role of the ROC in the international community and in the Chinese-speaking world seems to have been that of a 'better China'. He perpetuated the old idea that Taiwan and the other islands controlled by the ROC are 'free China' as opposed to Communist oppression. But whereas this idea appeared grotesque under the brutal military regime of Chiang Kai-shek, Lee Teng-hui gave this claim substance: he democratised the ROC and pushed for social reforms such as the creation of a National Health Care system. Lee saw the ROC as an example for mainland China to follow, both economically and politically:

The economic miracle of Taiwan demonstrates to the people on the mainland that they can have a better life with a market economy. Similarly, the democratization of Taiwan proves that traditional Chinese culture is compatible with democracy, freedom, and human rights. 

In recent times, communist China and some people from the West have frequently accused the Republic of China of carrying on a campaign for "Taiwan independence" or "two Chinas", or "one China, one Taiwan." This is a total distortion of the truth. 

What we on Taiwan have done all along is to safeguard, for China, a piece of land that is free from communist rule. We have developed the economy and have promoted democratization, becoming the model for a future China reunified under democracy (ibid., p. 111).

Lee propagated the image of the ROC as a responsible, righteous and peaceful player on the world stage, while he dismissed the PRC as a backward dictatorship and a troublemaker: 

Peking is basically a negative power; its strength lies in its extensive ability to cause problems in the international community. Its system and institutions, nuclear weapons, and trade behavior, as well as the uncertainties regarding its national development, are all major concerns for the rest of the world. 
The ROC, on the other hand, is a positive power. The world is witness to our success in achieving freedom and democracy. We have a pluralistic society and a liberalized, globalized and market-oriented economy. In the international community, the ROC plays an active and contributing role (ibid., p. 130).

When asked by Time Magazine how he wanted history to remember him, Lee replied:

I hope  that history will remember me as "a pioneer who created the first democratic entity in the Chinese world." I'd also like history to affirm that in my tenure I accomplished two major breakthroughs: first, the transformation of Taiwan into a full-fledged democratic entity, and second, a rapprochement between Taipei and Peking to lay a solid foundation for China's eventual reunification based on freedom, democracy, and rule of law (ibid., p. 134).

The "New Taiwanese" and the Beginning of a Taiwanese Identity

Despite his adherence to Chinese nationalism and the "one China" principle, it was obvious that Lee Teng-hui's stance towards Taiwan and the Taiwanese was not free of contradictions. While Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo had been born and had lived on the mainland, and while they identified themselves and their government with the destiny of China, Lee was a Taiwanese-born politician who had never lived on the mainland and who had spent only a few years of his life in a unified China (1945-1949). In Lee's vocabulary 'Taiwan' and 'Republic of China' became blurred, ambiguous terms. In his language, a difference seems to emerge between the 'Republic of China' as an entity still ideologically attached to mainland China, and the 'Taiwanese people' as a separate, distinct community of people. He did not refer to the people living in Taiwan as 'Chinese', but as 'Taiwanese'.  

On the eve of Taiwan's Retrocession Day (October 25, 1945) he stated: 

All of us who grow and live on this soil today are Taiwanese people, whether we be aborigines or descendants of the immigrants from the mainland who came over either centuries or decades ago ... My dear fellow countrymen: Taiwan is our common homeland. Here we live and work, here lies our future. Only by continuing to build the consensus of the "new Taiwanese people," and by rekindling the determined and fearless "Taiwan spirit", can we ... open up a brighter future for our descendants (ibid., pp. 188-189).

However, Lee never became an advocate of Taiwanese nationalism, at least not during his presidency. Just a few days after his Retrocession speech, he addressed a message to the Mainland Affairs Meeting (November 2, 1998) in which he reiterated the basic principles of Chinese nationalism: 

Not only will the development of cross-straits relations have immediate influence on the 21.8 million people in the Taiwan area, but it will also decide the well-being and future of the entire Chinese people (ibid. 191).


Hailed as the champion of Taiwanese independence for more than a decade, Lee Teng-hui's political views during his presidency do not suggest in any way that he strayed from the core of Guomindang Chinese nationalist ideology. Although he defined China as a divided nation and regarded the PRC and the ROC as two different government exercising de facto jurisdiction over different parts of China, he did not advocate a distinct Taiwanese national identity or the proclamation of a Republic of Taiwan. 


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