Former Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui dies aged 97

Former Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui dies aged 97

FILE PHOTO: Taiwanese former President Lee Teng-hui attends an event to campaign for Taiwan to be r
FILE PHOTO: Former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui attends an event to campaign for Taiwan to be recognised as a participant in the United Nations and World Health Organization, in Taipei, Taiwan Mar 10, 2018. (REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/File Photo)

TAIPEI: Former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui, dubbed "Mr Democracy" for burying autocratic rule in favour of freewheeling pluralism, died at the age of 97, the official Central News Agency reported on Thursday (Jul 30).

Lee became Taiwan's first democratically elected president in 1996, in a landslide victory that followed eight months of intimidating war games and missile tests by China in waters around Taiwan in an attempt to scare voters.

Those events brought China and Taiwan to the verge of conflict, prompting the United States to send a carrier task force to the area in a warning to the Beijing government.

Inaugurated that year, Lee offered to make a "journey of peace" to mainland China.

But Beijing branded him a "splittist" bent on turning Taiwan's self-governance into fully fledged independence, and said he should be tossed into the "dustbin of history".

TOUGH ON CHINA

The government of Taiwan, formally the Republic of China, was established in 1949 by Chiang Kai-shek, after his Nationalist forces lost control of the mainland to Mao Zedong's Communists and fled to the island, which lies some 180km across the Taiwan Strait off China's southeast coast.

Lee became the Nationalist party chairman and Taiwan's president upon the 1988 death of Chiang's son, Chiang Ching-kuo. Eight years after assuming the role, Lee's push for full democracy culminated with the island's first direct presidential vote.

FILE PHOTO: Former Taiwan President Lee speaks during news conference in Tokyo
FILE PHOTO: Former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui speaks during a news conference in Tokyo Jun 1, 2007. Lee received a prize in memory of Japanese colonial administrator Shinpei Goto by the Shinpei Goto Society. (REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao/File Photo)

The first president born on the island, Lee's tough language towards mainland China resonated with Taiwan's 23 million people. He once described Taiwan-China ties as a "special state-to-state relationship", infuriating Beijing. He also sought to snap cultural links in favour of a distinct Taiwanese identity.

Lee's term as democratically elected president ended in 2000. His Nationalists lost the election that year to the Democratic Progressive Party, with former human rights lawyer Chen Shui-bian becoming president.

Some in the party blamed Lee for the defeat, saying his decision not to back its favoured candidate, James Soong, led Soong to stand as an independent and split the vote. His subsequent public support for pro-independence party candidates led to the Nationalist party expelling him in 2001.

He was indicted in 2011 on charges of corruption during his time in office - a move his allies said was aimed at discrediting a pro-independence party he supported in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. He was later found not guilty.

CORNELL ALUMNUS

Lee was born on Jan 15, 1923, in a village in northern Taiwan where his family owned a small rice and tea farm.

His education under Japanese colonial rule before 1945 drew him to Japan's culture and he was a fluent Japanese speaker. He briefly served in the imperial Japanese army, staying on after its World War II surrender to study at university in Kyoto.

He later studied at the elite National Taiwan University and in the United States at the universities of Iowa State and Cornell, where he earned a doctorate in agricultural economics.

His June 1995 trip to a Cornell reunion angered Beijing into briefly downgrading ties with Washington and freezing what had been warming semi-official talks with Taipei.

Lee was a Presbyterian, and an accomplished violinist, golfer and Chinese chess player. He married childhood friend Tseng Wen-hui and had two daughters and a son, who died of cancer in 1982.

Source: Reuters/kv

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