The question of Taiwan’s independence from mainland China still remains unsolved. For centuries throughout its history, Taiwan has been occupied and oppressed by various colonial powers. In the 20th century Japan annexed and ruled it from 1895 and until the end of the Second World War in 1945, when Taiwan officially became a part of China. In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek, the most prominent opponent of Mao Zedong, and his Kuomintang-National Party took over and transformed Taiwan into a self-governing state. The conflict regarding Taiwan’s independence from mainland China led to the Taiwan Strait crisis in 1995-1996. Still, China consistently claims that it has the right to use force to prevent Taiwan from becoming an independent country. Lee Teng-hui, the president of Taiwan from 1988-2000, sought to achieve Taiwan’s independence.
Lee Teng-hui’s dream of having an independent Taiwan did not end in his ousting, with a victory for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the rising of a newly elected president, Chan Shiu-bian. Neither did it stop him from supporting Xie Changting of the DPP party in the 2008 presidential elections, nor opposing to the current president, Ma Ying-jeou – a member of the Kuomintang party (KMT) – who seems to be promoting reunification with mainland China again. Teng-hui’s influence in Taiwanese politics is sustained, but the question remains if he would be able to fulfill his dream of gaining independence for his country.
In his twelve years of ministry as the president of Taiwan, Lee Teng-hui not only reformed the Taiwanese constitution, established the first public presidential elections and entered democracy into Taiwan, but also forwarded the pending independence of his country by means of these endeavors. Born in Taiwan in 1923 and raised under Japanese ruling followed by that of the KMT party, Teng-hui has known times of constant fear and submission to authorities, which brought forth his desire to never see Taiwan oppressed again. Teng-hui gained his MA and PhD education in agricultural economics in the US, where he got to experience democracy. Upon his return to Taiwan; he was appointed by the 1972 president Chiang Ching kuo as a minister without portfolio, holding responsibilities mainly in overseeing the agricultural economies. In 1978-1981 he was appointed mayor of Taipei and in 1984 elected as vice-president by the National Assembly. Ultimately, with the death of Chiang Chingkuo in 1988 Teng-hui was his successor in presidency of the Republic of China (ROC/Taiwan), and chairman of the ruling Nationalist Party. Two years later he had gained enough support in his own party to be officially elected president of the ROC.
As part of Lee’s principles to reform the country which would eventually transform it into an independent democracy, the first free, democratic elections in Taiwan took place in 1996. He won 54 % of the votes and became the first elected president by the people. A further goal of Teng-hui was to improve diplomatic relations of the previously isolated Taiwan with other countries and to gain support in his vision, mainly from the US. Steps in that direction were for example the applications for the GATT and a bid for membership in the UN. The highlight of these was marked by Teng-hui’s unofficial visit to Cornell, when he held a speech in his old University. Thus he tried to gain the support of the US for his independence movement, at the same time provoking mainland China to conduct missile tests in the Taiwan Strait, which had previously been used in an attempt to change the outcome of the 1996 elections in Taiwan.
Another one of his salient principles was the Taiwanization, meaning not only to Taiwanize the personnel and policies of his party, but also give the people their own independent identity. Teng-hui encouraged the people to return to their native routes, encouraging the unique cultural identity, and utilizing the newly established democracy to separate Taiwan from mainland China. Finally, Teng-hui gained further attention when he announced in an 1999 interview with the German radio station, Deutsche Welle, that bilateral ties between Taipei and Beijing should be on a “special state-to-state” basis. Teng-hui seemed to be determined to gain recognition for Taiwan as an independent state. In 2001 he got expelled by his own party because he endorsed the rivalry DPP party and was forced to retire from his chairman position. At the same time he became a member and the spiritual head of the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) – a new Taiwanese political party. His political influence still remains high and he seeks support by visiting foreign countries (like Japan in 2004 and the US again in 2005) and giving interviews. In his speeches he addresses the topic of Taiwan’s independence and tries to give his people confidence to overcome internal disparity and create a national unity. In 2011 Teng-hui was accused of channeling US $7.8 million from secret diplomatic funds to the Taiwan Research Institute in 1994-1995. However, charges were unreliable and are now believed to have been falsely pinned by the current president, Ma Ying-jeou, in order to influence the upcoming elections and curtail Teng-hui’s political activities.
Teng-hui is a man of great charisma and a great visionary of setting his country free. What made him special was the methods he employed in making a quiet revolution: transforming Taiwan into a democracy; bringing about a secession from the mainland Chinese political system; and occupying the role of a spiritual leader; promoting a Taiwanese awareness of national identity to the people; and preventing diplomatic isolation. None of this would have been possible without him. Though Teng-hui has yet to reach his final goal, he has not given up hope. He still remains a figure of political importance and great influence in Taiwan and plays an important role in launching the widespread nationalism in contemporary Taiwan.