TAIPÉI, (CNA).- Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), who guided Taiwan through a rapid and peaceful transition to democracy while serving as Taiwan's president from 1988 to 2000, has died at the age of 97.
The former president had suffered from deteriorating health, which caused him to reduce the frequency of his public appearances.
On Feb. 8, he was hospitalized at Taipei Veterans General Hospital after choking while drinking milk. He was diagnosed with pneumonia and had been intubated for over five months when the hospital confirmed he died, from septic shock and multiple organ failure, at 7:24 p.m. Thursday.
Lee was born under Japanese colonial rule, educated in Japan and the United States, and cultivated as the successor to Kuomintang (KMT) President Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), and the life he led in many ways reflected the competing powers and influences that held sway in Taiwan over the course of the 20th century.
Later in life, he became a prominent advocate for Taiwanese identity and statehood, founding the Taiwan Solidarity Union -- an act for which he was expelled from the KMT -- and lending support to his one-time rivals in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Lee was born on Jan. 15, 1923, the son of a police officer, in what is now Sanzhi District of New Taipei City.
After graduating from Taipei High School in 1943, Lee received a scholarship to study agricultural economics at Kyoto Imperial University, but, with World War II raging, he volunteered for service in the Japanese Imperial Army the following year, and was assigned to an artillery unit in Kaohsiung.
Lee would later remember going with his older brother, Lee Teng-chin (李登欽), who was stationed at the nearby Zuoying Naval Base, to have "memorial portraits" made, as they awaited deployment in the war's Pacific theater.
While his brother would die in the Battle of Manila in 1945, Lee was sent to officer reserve training in Chiba Prefecture, outside Tokyo, where he survived intensive American aerial bombing in the conflict's final days.
After Japan's defeat, Lee returned to Taiwan, where in 1949 he graduated from National Taiwan University and married Tseng Wen-hui (曾文惠) in a union that would last 71 years and bring the couple three children.
In between periods of government service and university lecturing, Lee continued his education, earning a master's degree from the University of Iowa in 1953 and a doctorate from Cornell University in 1968, both in agricultural economics.
Upon returning to Taiwan, Lee joined the KMT in 1971 and, in 1972, was made a Cabinet member without portfolio responsible for agriculture by Premier Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國).
Chiang became president in 1978, and under his patronage, Lee was appointed Taipei mayor in 1978 and chairman of the Taiwan Provincial Government in 1981.
In 1984, Lee was nominated by Chiang to serve as vice president and he then became president in 1988 following Chiang's death.
Central to Lee's political thinking at the time was the notion of a "Taiwanese KMT," led by him, as the party's first major figure not to come from a mainland Chinese background.
That was complemented by a corresponding formulation of national identity, the "Republic of China in Taiwan," which he felt would allow the country to move beyond what he saw as a detrimental focus on the past.
In 1990, Lee secured the National Assembly's approval for a full six-year term as president. Just days before his March 21 inauguration, however, a student-led pro-democracy demonstration calling itself the "Wild Lily Movement" occupied Taipei's Memorial Hall Plaza.
With the previous year's ill-fated Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing still fresh in the public's memory, Lee invited a delegation of 50 student leaders to the Presidential Office for talks, and committed to initiate a range of democratic reforms beginning that summer.
In the months and years that followed, Lee succeeded in passing constitutional changes that are credited with laying the groundwork for Taiwan's current democracy, including the introduction of direct presidential elections, reform of the since-disbanded National Assembly, and the abolition of a set of emergency executive powers known as the "temporary provisions against the communist rebellion."
As he pursued domestic reforms, Lee also attempted to address the growing international isolation Taiwan suffered at the expense of a newly powerful China.
In 1989, he set a precedent by visiting a non-allied head of state in Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀), and in 1994, launched the "Go South" policy to strengthen Taiwan's investment and trade ties with Southeast Asia.
To secure meetings with regional leaders in the face of Chinese pressure, Lee found a novel solution in "vacation diplomacy," traveling in a personal capacity for talks with figures including the Philippines' Fidel Ramos, Indonesia's Suharto and the Thai King Bhumibol Abulyadej.
In June 1995, Lee attended an alumni event at Cornell University, where he delivered a speech on Taiwan's democratic reforms. The visit so angered Chinese leadership that within weeks, Beijing initiated a series of missile tests in the waters around Taiwan, which persisted through Taiwan's elections the following March.
While the tests, which are now known as the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, were intended to damage Lee politically, their effect on the electorate may have been the opposite -- Lee won re-election with a commanding 54 percent of the vote, while overall turnout exceeded 76 percent.
During his final, four-year term, Lee became more vocal in his support for Taiwan's statehood, characterizing the relationship with China as "state-to-state relations of a special nature."
After choosing not to run in the 2000 elections, Lee presided over Taiwan's first transfer of power, as the Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) took office, ending half a century of KMT rule.
In 2001, Lee helped to found the pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union, for which he was expelled from the KMT. In the years that followed, he often made statements in support of the DPP's presidential candidates, including an October 2019 endorsement of President Tsai Ing-wen's (蔡英文) re-election bid.
The final known photo of Lee Teng-hui (front right), his wife Tseng Wen-hui(front left) and President Tsai Ing-wen on Feb. 3, 2019.
While Lee's critics accused him of a pro-Japanese bias and the betrayal of his mentor, Chiang Ching-kuo, he was hailed by many in the DPP-aligned "green" camp as the father of Taiwanese democracy.
In one of his last major interviews, a talk with the BBC in 2014, Lee asserted that Taiwan is already independent, and that the country's unfinished task could be better characterized as political normalization.
Of his own historical legacy, Lee was more circumspect, saying he hoped people would remember that "life was good" during his tenure.
Lee Teng-hui in his presidential inauguration ceremony in 1996. (CNA file photo)
(By Elaine Hou, Yeh Su-ping and Matthew Mazzetta)