23 February 2019
Beijing sees Lee Teng-Hui as a traitor for taking actions that have pushed Taiwan away from reunification with the mainland. Photo: Bloomberg
Beijing sees Lee Teng-Hui as a traitor for taking actions that have pushed Taiwan away from reunification with the mainland. Photo: Bloomberg

The Lee Teng-hui factor in Hong Kong politics

Beijing is not willing to give a free vote to Hong Kong people for the chief executive election. One of the principal reasons has to do with Lee Teng-hui, who had been the president of Taiwan between 1988 and 2000.

Beijing regards Lee as a national traitor, almost on a par with Wang Jing-wei and other leaders who served in a pro-Japanese government during World War Two.

One reason is that he advocates the independence of Taiwan from China. The other – an equally serious historical crime, from China’s perspective – is that he put into the hands of Taiwan’s 23 million people the power to choose their future. This has greatly — perhaps fatally — hindered reunification between the two sides.

For the first 43 years after World War Two, Taiwan was ruled by President Chiang Kai-shek and his son Ching-kuo. They concentrated power in their hands and that of other leaders of the Kuomintang party, the majority of whom had come to the island with them in 1949. Mainlanders accounted for 15 per cent of the island’s population.

While the Chiangs were strongly anti-Communist, they had deep feelings for the country they had left behind and to which they wanted to return. So did most of those who fled with them. The concentration of power meant that, if it was to negotiate with the rulers of Taiwan, Beijing only had to deal with a small group of people.

Six months after lifting the martial law in force on the island since 1949, President Chiang Ching-kuo died in January 1988. He was succeeded by Lee Teng-hui, whom Ching-kuo had chosen as his successor and the first Taiwan-born person to head the country.

A devout Presbyterian and specialist in agriculture, Lee was considered by many to be a transitional figure: without a strong power base in the Kuomintang, he was expected to hand the presidency over to a member of the ruling elite at the end of his term.

When he took office, mainlanders controlled the four most important centers of power – the government, the army, the police and the Taiwan Garrison Command (TGC), the secret police.

But Lee did not follow the script. Overcoming the opposition of conservatives in the party who did not trust him, he secured the chairmanship and in July 1988 named 31 members of its Central Committee, of whom 16 were Taiwanese; it was the first time a majority was Taiwan-born.

He repeated this in all departments of the government, including the military. Many believe that, enraged at these changes, leaders of the army planned a coup d’etat against him; but he was tipped off in advance and prevented it.

After demonstrations by more than 300,000 students in Taipei in March 1990, Lee agreed to implement direct elections for the presidency, vice-presidency and national legislature. In December 1991, he forced the legislators who had been elected to represent seats in China in 1948, to resign.

By the time he stepped down in May 2000, he had set in place democratic elections for all major posts in the government, from the president to city and county chief. He abolished the TGC and oversaw the birth of one of the freest and noisiest media in Asia, with more than 80 television channels broadcasting in every language spoken in Taiwan.

Among its people, opinion about him is sharply divided. Many members of the Kuomintang regard him as a fraud who took power under false pretences and betrayed the party. Those on the other side of the political divide consider him the ‘father of democracy’ who turned Taiwan from a one-party state into a free and democratic country.

Beijing shares the first opinion. Its view is that a democratic system is completely unsuitable for China; the country is too large, with enormous variations in wealth, lifestyle and educational levels, and many sources of instability.

Thailand and the countries which went through the Arab Spring show the chaos and instability that result from this ‘western democracy’. Beijing sees its legitimacy as coming from its military victory in 1949 and the remarkable success in building the economy since 1978.

So Beijing sees the Taiwan model as misleading and useless for the mainland. Alas, the Taiwan people have, like Eve in the Garden of Eden, eaten the forbidden apple of democracy and will not give it up. Unless Beijing is prepared to conquer Taiwan by force, its people will have to give their agreement to reunification through a national vote.

This is the precedent that Hong Kong cannot be allowed to follow.

Lee’s other ‘crime’ is his deep sympathy for Japan. He speaks fluent Japanese, better than Mandarin, and retains close ties with friends and members of the Diet there. Beijing sees this in the same way as it regards the ties of Hong Kong democrats to the United States and Britain; it makes them disloyal and, therefore, unfit to rule.

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Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker

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