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Even in demise, Lee Teng-hui is helping shape Taiwan’s identity

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He oversaw the island’s democratisation and in demise is riling China once more


AS TAIWANESE CONTEMPLATED the momentous event, in March 1996, of having the ability to select their president for the primary time, China’s Communist Celebration launched a marketing campaign of intimidation. Its leaders snarled on tv. The armed forces simulated an invasion of Taiwan with beach-landing drills. And missiles landed in the seas across the island, in impact blockading it. The article of China’s fury: the incumbent president, Lee Teng-hui, whom they accused of wanting to separate the motherland by formally declaring Taiwan’s independence.

China’s actions backfired. Taiwanese refused to be intimidated. Election rallies had been big. Youngsters rode on dad and mom’ shoulders, air horns lent a carnival air and taxis raced across the capital, Taipei, flying candidates’ flags out of their home windows. By no means has Banyan witnessed such a boisterous election. Mr Lee’s stump speeches drew crowds to flatter a rock star. Tall and with a near-permanent toothy grin, he was the primary chief of the Kuomintang (KMT, or Nationalist) get together to handle individuals in their native Taiwanese somewhat than in Mandarin, the language that KMT carpetbaggers had introduced with them once they fled the mainland, defeated by the Communists in 1949. Taiwanese, he mentioned, shouldn’t concern China’s “state terrorism”. His victory was emphatic, with extra votes than the three different candidates mixed. Taxis had been nonetheless beeping the next day.

Mr Lee died on July 30th, aged 97. The arc of his exceptional life traced Taiwan’s personal trendy historical past. He was born below Japanese colonial rule, to a farming household. He studied in Kyoto and joined the Japanese imperial military, although he by no means noticed motion.

To Mr Lee, Japanese rule appeared delicate in contrast with that of the KMT below Chiang Kai-shek. The KMT existed to reclaim the mainland from the Communists (even right now, Taiwan’s official identify is the Republic of China). It brooked no dissent. Anti-government protests on February 28th 1947 led to greater than 20,000 Taiwanese—college students, artists, medical doctors, attorneys and intellectuals—being rounded up and shot. It was the beginning of a decades-long “White Terror”. Solely in 1987 did Chiang’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, lastly elevate martial legislation.

A younger Mr Lee dabbled with communism. A extra enduring inspiration was Zen Buddhism. It taught that there is no disgrace in bending like a reed, nor any knowledge in hurrying. In 1961 Mr Lee was baptised a Christian, and if his evangelism hinted at a messianic streak, it was additionally rooted in grassroots activism. As an agricultural economist, he was on the coronary heart of Taiwan’s growth. A leap in the output of the island’s farms kick-started an financial transformation which later led to requires political freedom.

For years Mr Lee saved his head down. Nonetheless, state goons saved a file on him, even filling it with titbits from KMT informers at Cornell College, the place he acquired a PhD. His appointment in 1972 to a ministerial portfolio below Chiang Ching-kuo was a unprecedented flip. Given mounting in style anger at rule by mainlanders, Chiang turned to Taiwan-born politicians to lend the regime legitimacy. Typically, Mr Lee later mentioned, of his resolution to affix the KMT, the most secure place “is probably the most harmful”.

Mr Lee, in the phrases of Richard Kagan, his biographer, was the “final Computer virus”. By 1978 he was mayor of Taipei and by 1984 Chiang’s vice-president. When Chiang died 4 years later, Mr Lee assumed the presidency, regardless of efforts by KMT hardliners to thwart him. After college students started calling for full-blown democracy in 1990, he promised to institute it, shelling out with the farcical notion that Taiwan dominated China in the method (China didn’t reciprocate). When he stepped down in 2000, his casual assist helped propel the independence-minded Chen Shui-bian to victory. Quickly after, the KMT kicked the Computer virus out.

China’s communists detest Mr Lee, a “deformed test-tube child cultivated in the political laboratory of hostile anti-China forces”, particularly for selling a definite Taiwanese identity, separate from that of China. However he, not they, received the battle for hearts and minds: two-thirds of the island’s residents establish as Taiwanese first; solely 3% as Chinese language first. He has additionally lengthy helped resist China’s efforts to isolate Taiwan diplomatically. America’s well being secretary, Alex Azar, who will this month grow to be probably the most senior American official to go to Taiwan in many years, could attend his funeral. Even on the way in which to his grave, Mr Lee has a knack for needling the bullies in Beijing.

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