- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2008


By Richard C. Kagan

Naval Institute Press, $30, 240 pages


When I lived in Toucheng, a town in northeastern Taiwan, in the early 1980s, a bronze statue of Chiang Kai-shek stood in front of the railway station. A decade later, when I returned, the statue was gone. What happened to the statue, I asked the local police chief, who like all of his kind was a Kuomintang man. “A crowd came and pulled it down,” he replied ruefully.

“Did you try and stop them?”

“No,” he said. “It didn’t seem worth the effort.”

The world has seen a lot of statues toppled in recent years, usually in the aftermath of wars and revolutions, and often following much bloodshed. But in Taiwan the statues came down quietly and bloodlessly, thanks to the remarkable man who was president of the Republic of China from 1988 to 2000, Lee Teng-hui. Or, as he is commonly referred to by his fellow Taiwanese, Mr. Democracy.

Mr. Lee’s success in transforming Taiwan from a one-party dictatorship to a fully functioning democracy is all the more remarkable because it was accomplished under the constant threat of invasion. Each step towards self-determination that the Taiwanese people took under his tutelage was met with rage from Beijing, whose military exercises have include the firing of live missiles off of Taiwan’s coast, and the organization of huge expeditionary forces practicing mock landings.

Mr. Lee himself has been the subject of vicious attacks by the PRC propaganda machine. He has been called everything from the “Number One scum in the nation,” to the following mouthful: “a deformed test tube baby cultivated in the political laboratory of hostile anti-China forces.” Yet, as a result of Mr. Lee’s leadership, and at the cost of not one Taiwanese, Chinese or American life, Taiwan today enjoys popular sovereignty.

Fearful of China’s reaction, the world in general, and the Bush administration in particular, has been unwilling to give Lee Teng-hui the honor he rightly deserves for this accomplishment. That is why Richard Kagan’s new book, “Taiwan’s Statesman,” is such a welcome tribute to this remarkable leader.

Taiwan is perched along the Pacific Rim, and has been influenced over the centuries by not only China, but Japan and the West as well. So, too, Lee Teng-hui himself, who was born of Taiwanese parents, educated in Japanese schools during the years that the island was a colony of Japan, and earned his Ph.D. in agricultural economics from Cornell University in the United States.

Moreover, he became a Christian in 1961 at the age of 38, and thereafter, as Mr. Kagan recounts, “moonlighted as an evangelist” throughout his political career. Weaving these various strands of experience together, Mr. Lee not only brought democracy to Taiwan, he also created a new identity for Taiwan and the Taiwanese.

His political journey began in 1972, when Chiang Kai-shek’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, appointed Lee minister without portfolio to manage Taiwan’s agricultural development. Ching-kuo wanted to include Taiwanese in the upper echelons of the KMT. A Christian himself, he may also have been impressed by the quality of Mr. Lee’s faith. Hardliners in his own party were suspicious of Mr. Lee’s ties to the Taiwan independence movement, Mr. Kagan reports, but Ching-kuo overruled them.

In any event, Mr. Lee did well in his new position. Both agriculture and industry boomed, and Taiwan’s economic miracle was born. Pleased, Ching-kuo went on to select him as the mayor of Taipei in 1978, as the governor of Taiwan in 1981 and then, in 1984, as his vice presidential candidate.

The election itself, by aging National Assembly members who had been elected on the Mainland decades before, was both formality and farce. Mr. Kagan ably details the tightrope that Mr. Lee had to walk in those early years, hiding his true sympathies from the secret police, relying on Ching-kuo’s protection.

Then, following Ching-kuo’s death 1988, Mr. Lee managed to convince other members of the KMT elite that he should be allowed to finish Ching-kuo’s term. In 1996 Lee was elected president of Taiwan in his own right. Now he could work openly to build Taiwan’s separate identity at home and abroad, and he made it clear that, as a democratic country, it would be the Taiwanese themselves who would determine their future, not the dictators of Beijing.

All the while, a mere 90 miles away, China’s leaders ranted on about separatism and splittism. They understood all too well that the citizens of a now-democratic Taiwan would never vote to voluntarily give up their hard-earned freedoms.

But they were also afraid of the precedent that Lee Teng-hui had set, for Mr. Lee had demonstrated to the Chinese people at large — not just to the Taiwanese — that it is not their fate to be ruled indefinitely by one-party dictatorships. He had proven that they are capable of governing themselves. It is for this apostasy from China’s autocratic traditions that Mr. Lee continues to be savaged by Beijing’s propaganda machine to the present day.

I, for one, would have welcomed a deeper reflection on the contribution that Mr. Lee’s Christianity made to his democratizing mission. The virtue of humility surely helped him to avoid the cult of personality — the emperor syndrome — that tends to grow up around Chinese leaders. Being accountable to God for his actions — as every Christian feels himself to be — would have made him more accountable to his fellow Taiwanese, as every democratic leader should be.

Mr. Lee obviously lived his faith very deeply. So deeply, in fact, that he became a preacher. We now have in the United States a Republican presidential candidate who began his professional life as a pastor. Mr. Lee traveled in the opposite direction. After he entered politics he became a preacher, spending his Sundays traveling around Taiwan preaching a message of love and forgiveness.

Mr. Kagan calls these sermons “simple messages of faith, devoid of politics,” but I suspect that, in their effect, they were rather more than that. Mr. Lee’s preaching was the perfect antidote to the spirit of revenge that gripped so many in Taiwan who had seen grandfathers or uncles imprisoned or even killed in the KMT’s White Terror. It was a practical application of the Gospel message to forgive one’s neighbor, enabling the democratic reforms to move forward without violence.

Mr. Kagan ends his book by suggesting that Lee Teng-hui be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his accomplishments. This is an idea that President Bush, who has made the promotion of democracy the centerpiece of his presidency, should eagerly embrace. Of course, it will have to overcome the anxious lobbying of a State Department ever fearful of offending China.

Failing that, there is always the U.S. Congress. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher suggests, in a well-written forward to the book, that President Lee receive the next Congressional Gold Medal. Of course, China would probably denounce this action as interference in its internal affairs.

What Lee Teng-hui really deserves, of course, is the Nobel Peace Prize. But the awards committee would probably shy away from offending China.

It is the story of Lee Teng-hui’s life.

Steven W. Mosher is president of the Population Research Institute and the author of “Hegemon: China’s Plan to Dominate Asia.”

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