Former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui Dies Aged 97

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2020-07-30 HKT 20:33

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  • The death of former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui was reported by the island's official Central News Agency. File photo: Reuters

    The death of former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui was reported by the island's official Central News Agency. File photo: Reuters

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

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 Beijing in waters around Taiwan that were seen by many as an attempt to scare voters.

Those events brought the mainland 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 the mainland.

But Beijing branded him a "splittist" and said he should be tossed into the "dustbin of history".

Lee hoped for Taiwan to be "a country of democracy, freedom, human rights and dignity, where one does not have to be ruled by others and where everyone can say out loud 'I'm Taiwanese'," he told a 2012 election rally.

Lee was born on January 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 Two 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.

He became the Nationalist party chairman and Taiwan's president upon the 1988 death of Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek whose Nationalist forces founded the Republic of China in 1949.

Eight years after assuming the role, Lee's push for full democracy culminated with the island's first direct presidential vote.

The first president born on the island, Lee's tough language towards the mainland resonated with Taiwan's 23 million people. He once described Taiwan-mainland 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.

Lee 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. (Reuters)