'Two-state' theory considered Lee Teng-hui's main political legacy

07/31/2020 05:58 PM
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Late President Lee Teng-hui (left) greets Deutsche Welle
Late President Lee Teng-hui (left) greets Deutsche Welle's Günter Knabe. CNA file photo

Taipei, July 31 (CNA) The "two-state" theory proposed by former President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) in 1999, which characterized the Republic of China (Taiwan) and China as two different jurisdictions, is considered one of his major political legacies as it emphasized Taiwan's national identity.

Lee, who died on July 30 at the age of 97, was an advocate of "Taiwanization" during the democratization process and the first president of the country elected by direct election in 1996.

As Beijing continued to squeeze Taiwan's space on the international stage, the "two-state" theory proposed by Lee during an interview with Deutsche Welle radio caused political uproar at the time.

Asked by Deutsche Welle how he coped with the permanent pressure from Beijing, which considered Taiwan a "renegade province," Lee said Beijing "ignores the very fact that the two sides are two different jurisdictions."

"The historical fact is that since the establishment of the Chinese communist regime in 1949, it has never ruled Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu -- the territories under our jurisdiction," he said.

Moreover, Lee said, amendments to the Constitution in 1991 designated cross-Taiwan Strait relations as a special state-to-state relationship.

"The resolution of cross-strait issues hinges on the issue of different systems," he said. "We cannot look at issues related to the two sides simply from the perspective of unification or independence."

The statement won 65.5 percent of public support in Taiwan, according to a Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) survey conducted at the time, although it was blasted by both Beijing and Washington.

In Lee's memoir published in 2016, he recalled that he was trying to get the jump on Beijing, which intended to position Taiwan as Hong Kong later that year when it marked the 50th anniversary of People's Republic of China.

According to Lee, Beijing was planning to announce a plan to unite both Taiwan and Hong Kong under its "one country, two systems" formula.

"One country, two systems" refers to a constitutional principle formulated by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) during the early 1980s, which says there is only one China, but distinct regions such as Hong Kong and Macau can provisionally retain their own economic and administrative systems.

If Beijing did so, Taiwan would lose its power to influence, which was why it had to make the first move, hence the characterization of the relationship with China as "state-to-state relations of a special nature," Lee said.

Günter Knabe, who fronted the Deutsche Welle interview, told CNA that looking back, Lee deliberately sent his message through the German media as Germany had a similar experience in handling split statehood.

At the same time, not making the statement through U.S. media could also avoid provoking Washington, Knabe said.

Commenting on Lee's death, the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council in Beijing said only it was "aware of the news," stressing that the Taiwan independence movement leads only to a dead end.

During his 12-year tenure as president, Lee made several remarks that angered Beijing. In June 1995, he attended an alumni event at Cornell University, where he delivered a speech on Taiwan's democratic reforms.

In the speech best known for his quote: "Whatever I have done as president of my nation, I have done with the people in my heart," Lee is believed to have laid the cornerstone for the "Republic of China on Taiwan."

The visit angered the Chinese leadership so much that within weeks, Beijing initiated a series of missile tests in the waters around Taiwan, which persisted through Taiwan's elections the following March.

However, the missile crisis also mapped a clearer path for cross-strait relations, as Beijing recognized that its military strength lagged far behind that of the U.S., making unification by force impractical.

Beijing's agenda also became clearer to the Taiwanese people, who gradually embraced Taiwanese identity and statehood through direct presidential elections.

(By Lin Ke-lun, Lin Yu-li and Lee Hsin-Yin)

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