A Conversation with Lee Teng-hui

A Conversation with Lee Teng-hui
▪ 1997

      Encyclopædia Britannica was honoured to have the opportunity to speak with Lee Teng-hui, who in March 1996 won a landslide victory in the first direct presidential elections in the Republic of China (Taiwan). The interview, which because of space considerations is printed here in a slightly abridged version of the written responses by President Lee, took place in Taipei on Oct. 22, 1996, and was conducted by Frank B. Gibney, president of the Pacific Basin Institute, Santa Barbara, Calif., and vice-chairman of the Encyclopædia Britannica Board of Editors.

      "The President," a military aide announces in a parade-ground voice. The doors to the reception room open, and a large, rather commanding figure strides inside. He hardly needs the ringing introduction. Trim, tall (1.85 m—6 ft 1 in), and feisty at age 73, Lee Teng-hui has the kind of magnetism that makes people turn when he enters. He is enthusiastic and confident, as well he can be after some 40 years of academic lecturing, bureaucratic governance, and shrewd political management capped by his huge victory in the March 1996 presidential election. He is full of ideas. Once he is engaged in conversation, his words come rushing out—equally effective in Chinese, English, or Japanese. Lee reads widely in all three languages, and his conversation is peppered with an almost overpowering citation of statistics, as befits one of the Asia-Pacific region's leading agricultural economists.

      Lee was born on Jan. 15, 1923, near Tan-shui, Taiwan. He studied at Kyoto (Japan) Imperial University and National Taiwan University, Taipei (B.A., 1948), and then pursued degrees in agricultural economics at Iowa State University (M.A., 1953) and at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. (Ph.D., 1968). While teaching economics at National Taiwan and Chengchi universities from 1958 to 1978, he also served as a member of the Sino-American Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction. He held the posts of mayor of Taipei (1978-81) and governor of Taiwan (1981-84) before serving as Pres. Chiang Ching-kuo's vice president. When Chiang died in January 1988, Lee became the first Taiwanese-born president of the Republic of China.

      The 21 million people of the Republic of China—Taiwan—represent a united and prosperous democracy with a dazzling postwar economic success story. Taiwan's gross national product of $12,500 per capita is one of Asia's highest. "The Republic of China," the president has written, "is a sovereign state, with sovereign power in the hands of the people." Lee wants the world to recognize it as such, complete with restored membership in the UN, which it had to leave in 1971 when the "China seat" was given to the People's Republic of China (PRC).

      Beijing, however, sees Taiwan and Lee through a different set of lenses. To the PRC leadership, Taiwan is a renegade province that must be regarded as a part of the mainland Chinese state. Beijing wants reunification sooner rather than later, suspecting that Taiwan, with U.S. assistance, is heading for total independence from the mainland.

      Lee does not dispute the "one-China" policy, long regarded as an article of faith by both Beijing and Taipei. Over the past decade Taiwan's government has sanctioned the huge investments on the mainland made by its businesses, supported extensive people-to-people exchanges, and canceled the old anticommunist pronouncements of the Kuomintang (the Nationalist Party, founded by Sun Yat-sen and carried by Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan in 1949).

      Still, Lee wants to go slow on any actual reunification—particularly in view of Beijing's domestic antidemocratic stance and ominous signs of a political crackdown on Hong Kong after it reverts to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. His demands for the Republic of China's recognition as a nation and his equally forthright denunciation of Beijing's "hegemonic stance" are partly a reaction against Beijing's constant pressure to diminish Taiwan's independent standing in international organizations.

      For the moment, however, neither Lee nor his countrymen seem to be pushing hard either for complete independence or for immediate reunification with the mainland.

      In an ideal world Lee would be cooperating with his counterparts in Beijing in dealing with China's problems. The gulf of mutual suspicion dividing the two parts of China remains far wider than the Taiwan Strait, however. Realistically, the amount of independence Lee can realize for Taiwan is limited by the military power of the PRC, to whose leaders the very thought of an independent Taiwan is anathema. The best chance for all concerned lies in patience on all sides, continuing dialogue between the principals as well as with interested third parties such as the United States, and the hope that some of Lee's optimism and faith in democracy spreads across the strait. (FRANK B. GIBNEY)

      Encyclopædia Britannica.

      Taiwan (the Republic of China) captured the attention of the world with its recent democratic elections. How would you characterize democracy in Taiwan? How did it evolve?

      Pres. Lee Teng-hui.

      Western political theory defines democracy as a political system in which the principal policy maker is chosen by popular vote through regular, free, and open elections. Although the ROC [Republic of China] government began holding elections immediately after relocating to Taiwan in 1949, we must admit that prior to 1969 elections had been restricted to the local level. Elections were held between 1969 and 1989 to select central-level representatives, but they were limited to constituencies in the Taiwan area. The vast majority of members sitting in central parliamentary organs had been elected on the Chinese mainland and had never faced reelection. The constitutional amendments in 1990 and 1991, however, allowed for all members of these bodies to be elected directly by the people of the Taiwan area. Moreover, in 1994 the method of selecting the governor of Taiwan province and the mayors of the two special municipalities of Taipei and Kao-hsiung was changed from appointment to direct popular election. Finally, beginning this year the president of the ROC was also chosen directly by the entire electorate. In the short space of 10 years, democracy has developed in the ROC through a process that in some Western countries took centuries. This process—from restrictiveness to openness, from openness to diversity, from diversity to democracy—has infused our society with new vitality and earned us respect in the eyes of the world.

      After 30 years of economic development, our people understandably felt that the political system needed to be reformed as well. The ROC government, closely following popular opinion, moved step by step toward liberalization and openness. Herein lies the greatest difference between our democratization and that in other nations: the government did not adopt a stance in opposition to the will of the people. Nor did democratization in the ROC cause the social upheavals and bloody revolutions that have occurred in so many countries on the road to democracy. The ROC's successful experience, our "Quiet Revolution," has already become a new model for democratic development.

      We can proudly say that democracy has not disrupted stability. On the contrary, it has enabled us to value even more the expression of different opinions. It has implanted within us the new spirit of mutual tolerance and respect.

      EB. How do you view the political evolution of the Asia-Pacific region as a whole? Why are there so many succession crises? What is your view of arguments such as those advanced by Lee Kwan Yew, for example, that East Asian countries need their own form of government—what some Japanese critics have called "soft authoritarianism"—as opposed to those taken over from Western democratic processes?

      President Lee. The Asia-Pacific region has developed a renewing process since the end of World War II. Many countries were liberated from British or Japanese colonial rule. Still more had to struggle to rebuild themselves from the ashes of war. Over the past three decades, East Asia not only has recovered its prewar vitality but also has taken a giant leap forward. This region has become the most economically dynamic in the world. In particular, the economic miracle created by the 21.3 million people of the Republic of China on Taiwan has demonstrated to the world that equity and growth can in fact be achieved simultaneously.

      Even more gratifying is the epochal political change that followed economic development in the Asia-Pacific region. We have begun to move away from authoritarian rule and toward liberal democracy. A number of countries in the region, including the Republic of China, South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines, began undergoing this process of democratic transition in the 1980s, part of what Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington has called the "Third Wave" of democratization.

      There is no denying, however, that an alarming trend toward nationalism is gradually taking shape in some Asia-Pacific nations. This growing sense of nationalism can in some countries be attributed to economic achievement, while in others it is the result of a decade of certain rulers' fanning the flames of blind xenophobia after the collapse of their communist utopianism. No political leader can afford not to be cautious when handling a sentiment as difficult to control as nationalism, especially when it involves sensitive issues of multilateral significance.

      The succession crises within Leninist regimes are inevitable. The leaders of the surviving socialist societies still harbour the fantasy that they will be able to monopolize political power and ignore their citizens indefinitely. Clearly, no rational mechanisms exist in mainland China or North Korea to resolve political contests in a democratic manner. Until these societies begin moving toward democratic consultations, only raw military power will be able to settle the issue of political succession.

      The pace of economic development and the state of industrialization differ among countries, but that there is a general trend toward democracy is beyond doubt. Democracy is a way of life that embodies a set of common values. From its origins in ancient Greece, democracy has grown and flourished in modern Western countries. Democracy, however, responds to very common demands. It is something to which all people aspire. As such, differences between Eastern and Western culture do not affect the pursuit of democracy. While historical factors have led to a certain degree of variance in the actualization of democratic values, such common ideals as freedom and human rights must be guaranteed by the realization of representative politics and the rule of law.

      The ideal time for establishing democratic systems is not set in stone. Yet democracy is an irresistible tide that inevitably rises in the course of every human civilization's development. Of course, the people living on the Chinese mainland will not prove to be an exception.


      Many Asian economies, Taiwan included, achieved great progress under some form of authoritarian rule. Could this process be continued indefinitely, or is there a point at which a modern economy needs democratic institutions and a firm rule of law to prosper? Are there other alternative developmental models?

      President Lee.

      A number of factors have contributed to Taiwan's economic success, including a dynamic civil society, strong political leadership, a talented group of technocrats, and an excellent educational system. Combined with the work ethic of the people of Taiwan and government policies that ensured a stable environment for investment, these factors enabled us to lay down a solid foundation for economic growth. Of course, the booming global economy of the postwar period was also a beneficial international factor.

      Some social scientists have argued that some form of authoritarianism may be a necessary condition for economic development in newly industrializing countries. They often cite Taiwan, South Korea, Brazil, and Mexico as their examples. Based on my personal experience, however, I must say that this hypothesis is not valid.

      Just as economist Milton Friedman argued in his book Capitalism and Freedom, economic freedom leads to political freedom. Once a society steps onto the path toward economic development, no insightful political leader can impede the emergence of democratic institutions or refuse the demands of citizens for more open political participation. Continuous economic progress requires an open society built upon a political foundation of democratic institutions and the firm rule of law.

      A repressive regime may be able to achieve industrialization within a short period of time, but without democratic reforms and a free market, no country can sustain economic growth. Furthermore, in fiercely competitive global markets, a country must remain creative, flexible, and dynamic in order to build its international competitiveness. Only democracy is able to provide a suitable environment in which these traits may continue to flourish.


      Various forms of official corruption, cronyism, and nepotism have damaged democracy in Asia and fueled political opposition to governments holding power. Taiwan, too, has had its problems here. Are these problems endemic in Asian democracy?

      President Lee:

      Corrupt officials cause headaches in governments throughout the world, but clearly the problem is particularly serious in Asian countries. The main factor behind this corruption is the rapid pace of economic growth in Asia and the inability of legal systems to keep up with the pace of economic and social developments. An insufficiently comprehensive legal system coupled with executive power unrestrained by appropriate standards creates opportunities for backdoor deal making and influence peddling. This eventually harms the development of democracy.

      Asia's traditional cultural emphasis on personal relationships is also a major culprit. In order to foster a clean reputation for ROC officials, however, our government has adopted systematic and strict measures to prevent corruption. Laws already require that civil servants make a public declaration of their assets. We also restrict retired civil servants from assuming private-sector positions related to their previous service. We are moving to establish more detailed and comprehensive legal standards concerning matters such as legislative and administrative lobbying and civil service administrative ethics.


      How do you view Taiwan's relations with Japan and Korea?

      President Lee.

      Since severing diplomatic relations on Sept. 29, 1972, the ROC and Japan have continued to engage in exchanges as part of their substantive relations. Over the past 20 years trade, scientific and technological cooperation, cultural exchanges, and tourism between the ROC and Japan have expanded every year. In 1995 the total value of bilateral trade between the ROC and Japan reached $43,437,000,000, up more than 25-fold from the time of the diplomatic break in 1972.

      A continuously growing trade deficit, however, and several unsettled issues, such as compensation for Taiwanese "comfort women" and Taiwanese men who served in the Japanese army and the matter of sovereignty over the Tiaoyu Islands [Diao Yu or Senkaku Islands, an uninhabited group of islets northeast of Taiwan], have important implications for improving ROC-Japan relations. Other problems include the treatment accorded to ROC representatives stationed in Japan and the upgrading of official exchanges.

      The ROC's trade and other substantive relations with the Republic of Korea are also very close. At present, the ROC government does not maintain formal contacts with North Korea. In the interest of safeguarding the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region, however, the ROC is willing to develop cooperative relations with North Korea based on the principles of reciprocity and mutual benefits.


      What hope do you see for a Pacific community following the blueprints worked out in APEC, PECC, and similar organizations? What is the American role here?

      President Lee.

      I strongly agree with the efforts of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation [APEC] and the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council [PECC] to strengthen regional trade and investment liberalization as well as economic and technological cooperation. The members of APEC and its related forums will, in accordance with the Osaka Action Agenda passed last year, formulate an action plan by the end of this year for implementation in 1997. This action plan will knit together more closely the economic development of the Asia-Pacific community. I am confident that such actions will promote a sense of community in the Asia-Pacific area.

      In the long run, the APEC agenda will inevitably go beyond the limits of the current economic discussion and enter the realms of politics and regional security. The past conflict in the South China Sea, the March 1996 crisis in the Taiwan Strait, and the recent tensions over the Tiaoyu Islands all clearly demonstrated that the ROC is an indispensable link in the Asia-Pacific political security system. There is a pressing need to establish effective channels for security dialogue and maintenance in the Asia-Pacific. If certain factors have prevented existing international organizations that deal with regional security from embracing all nations in the Asia-Pacific region, then APEC should consider including these issues in its agenda and developing its functions more fully.

      The U.S. position in the Pacific region has always been important. In April 1996 the U.S. and Japan reaffirmed their security accord. I believe these two nations' joint commitment is a basic guarantee of regional security and stability. In addition to this bilateral security league, I believe that the region must develop a multilateral security system that includes all Asian nations in order to consolidate the development of cooperative relations and economic prosperity.


      What are the best hopes for increased cooperation with mainland China?

      President Lee.

      I have stressed repeatedly that the two sides should work under the principle of reciprocity and "win-win" interaction as well as the spirit of "Chinese helping Chinese." Thus, we should emphasize constructive cultural, news, scientific, technological, trade, and economic exchanges; expand trade and economic relations; help improve agriculture and the standard of living on the mainland; and promote negotiations aimed at signing agreements to ensure the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait and enhance the peace and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region. Through such exchanges and cooperation, we hope we can gradually create the conditions for democratic, free, and mutually prosperous reunification.

      The restoration of Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997 symbolizes the end of over 150 years of British colonial rule in Hong Kong. We cannot deny, however, Great Britain's contribution in recent decades to building Hong Kong into a free-trade port and international financial centre. The mainland authorities have promised to follow policies of "one country, two systems" and a "high level of autonomy" with regard to Hong Kong, to allow "Hong Kong people to rule Hong Kong," and to "maintain the status quo for 50 years."

      I must add, however, that the Taiwan situation is completely different from that of Hong Kong. We are absolutely opposed to any attempt by the mainland authorities to apply the "one nation, two systems" formula to the Republic of China. Furthermore, we hope that Hong Kong's change of status in 1997 will not substantively affect the close relations that the ROC and Hong Kong have enjoyed for many years.

      The economic integration of the Asia-Pacific nations is in line with a world economic trend. It is natural that the Taiwan area of the ROC should become economically linked with the mainland and even with Southeast Asia so as to form a link in the chain of East Asian economic integration.

      It must be stressed, however, that, owing to past political antagonism between Taiwan and the mainland, the economic and trade exchanges between the people of the two sides were very limited prior to November 1987. At that time our government began allowing people in Taiwan to visit their relatives on the mainland. Subsequent to this change in policy, increased cross-strait person-to-person exchanges led to a rapid increase in economic and trade activities between the two sides. By the end of 1995, the accumulated total of cross-strait trade amounted to almost $90 billion, $22.5 billion of which was conducted last year alone. Investment in the mainland by Taiwan businesses has surpassed $10 billion. Thus, the two sides have developed very close economic and trade relations.

      We cannot overlook the fact that in the past year the mainland authorities have done everything they can to suppress and threaten Taiwan politically, diplomatically, and militarily. They have ignored the ROC government's friendly appeals and adopted many unfriendly measures against Taiwan, refusing to resume cross-strait negotiations. At the same time, the mainland authorities have sought to attract and win over Taiwan enterprises with such appealing slogans as "politics should not interfere with the economy" and "the separation of politics and economics," as well as the lure of short-term economic benefits. We cannot help but raise our political vigilance toward their tactics of "pulling the Taiwan authorities over by expanding cross-strait economic exchange and cooperation." Therefore, I recently called on the ROC people and our businesspeople to remain patient and avoid impulsive responses. This was with an eye toward alerting everyone to mainland China's current strategy and calling upon them to respond with caution.


      How strong is the independence movement in Taiwan? Why is Taiwan seeking United Nations membership, especially in view of the fact that mainland China wields veto power over new admissions?

      President Lee.

      Currently, though Taiwan and the Chinese mainland are ruled separately by two autonomous political entities, most Chinese in the Taiwan area still maintain that the two sides should expand their international space individually while adhering to the premise of one China and that eventually reunification should be achieved by gradually reducing the distance between the two sides and melding the two systems. Public opinion polls have repeatedly shown that advocates of independence for Taiwan have always been in the minority. Continued suppression of the ROC and deliberate obstruction of its international involvement by the mainland authorities will only feed this movement, however.

      The Republic of China's bid to be part of the United Nations is aimed at UN General Assembly Resolution 2758, which has seriously infringed upon the basic rights of our people. The ROC has put forth a proposal requesting that the General Assembly establish an ad hoc committee to study ways of resolving the problem. Through the reexamination of Resolution 2758 and the rectification of its shortcomings, the ROC will once more be allowed to be part of the UN. This proposal need not go through the UN Security Council but can be addressed directly by the General Assembly. Though the mainland authorities will likely try their best to thwart the ROC bid, they will have no opportunity to exercise their veto power.

      It should also be noted that the ROC's proposal aims only to ensure that the fundamental right to participation in world affairs of the 21.3 million people in the Taiwan area is safeguarded. We have no intention of challenging mainland China's current status in the UN. Thus, the proposal is reasonable and workable.


      What are your personal hopes for the future of Taiwan, the China relationship, and the Asia-Pacific community?

      President Lee.

      Over the past 40-plus years, Taiwan has overcome many hardships to achieve substantial democratization and economic liberalization. Given that achievement, I have high expectations and great confidence with regard to Taiwan's future. Our efforts are aimed at setting up a more orderly and civilized society with a more generalized sense of community as well as enabling the populace to truly enjoy the pleasures of family life—thus strengthening our democratic system. We will advocate resource conservation, plan the appropriate utilization of land, and step up environmental protection education; thus, our offspring will be able to enjoy the beauties of their homeland. We will invest more manpower and material resources to raise Taiwan's science and technology up to the standard of the advanced industrialized nations. To the people on the Chinese mainland, Taiwan's experience will remain a beacon, pointing the way to development, prosperity, freedom, and democracy.

      Our policy toward the Chinese mainland is carried out in accordance with the Guidelines for National Unification. It can be divided into three general phases: exchanges and reciprocity, mutual trust and cooperation, and consultation and reunification. Currently, cross-strait interaction is still in the first phase. There is no timetable, and the pace of progress depends entirely on how cross-strait relations develop.

      With this in mind, I made it very clear in my inaugural address on May 20 of this year that both sides should come to terms with the fact that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are ruled separately. The two sides need to establish a dialogue and, with the utmost sincerity and patience, resolve our differences and seek common ground. I also issued a solemn call for the two sides of the strait to deal squarely with the important issue of ending the enmity between us. Finally, I expressed my willingness to make a journey of peace to the Chinese mainland to meet and exchange views with the authorities there. It is my hope that the leaders in Peking [Beijing] will respond positively to these ideas and thus open the door to a new era of peaceful competition across the strait.

      The ROC has always played an active role in economic cooperation. We hope to cooperate with other Asia-Pacific nations in jointly creating a new Asia-Pacific age—an age in which the region will be more peaceful, open, and advanced and in which all countries will strive to settle disputes peacefully, seek reasonable solutions to their problems, and avoid senseless arms races or the use of military force. Moreover, these nations can further cooperate with each other to jointly develop the ocean's resources.

      When in the past I put forth the concept of collective Asia-Pacific security, it was with the hope that each country would consider Asia-Pacific security from the standpoint of the collective interest. A security dialogue could be established, with all the nations involved participating on equal footing and making a common contribution. In addition, an international cooperative enterprise could be founded to tap the resources of the South China Sea, with the profits going toward a program aimed at maintaining peace. I personally hope that the Asia-Pacific region can remain faithful to the principles of open regionalism and develop further in the direction of free trade.

* * *

Universalium. 2010.

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