Lee remembered as initiator of 'quiet revolution' in Taiwan

07/31/2020 10:43 PM
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Lee Teng-hui (CNA file photo)
Lee Teng-hui (CNA file photo)

Taipei, July 31 (CNA) Former President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) is being remembered as an initiator of a "quiet revolution" during his 12-year presidency, carrying out six rounds of constitutional reforms that laid a solid foundation for Taiwan to peacefully transition from a dictatorship to a democracy.

Lee died aged 97 from septic shock and multiple organ failure at Taipei Veterans General Hospital at 7:24 p.m. Thursday, after being hospitalized for nearly six months.

The former leader of Taiwan is known for his role in guiding the country to democracy while serving as president of the Republic of China (ROC), the official name of Taiwan, from 1988 to 2000.

Addressing the opening of the 2020 Taiwan Capital Market Forum held in Taipei Friday, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) praised her predecessor for leading Taiwan through a "quiet revolution" to transform the country away from an authoritarian one in a turbulent time.

The "quiet revolution" Tsai was referring to was the six rounds of amendments to the ROC Constitution conducted during Lee's 12-year presidency.

According to Lee in his own book A Witness for God: Lee Teng-hui's Confession of Faith, after assuming the presidency in 1988 following the death of his predecessor Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), he was immediately faced with challenges from within his own then-ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party and from the then opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and the country could have fallen into political and social turmoil anytime.

Lee wrote that he believed the root of the problem for Taiwan was the fact that the ROC Constitution was written back when the KMT government was still based in Chinese Mainland and as a result, the constitution was not suitable for the country.

Therefore, amending the constitution was a must, he said in his book.

The proposed changes to the constitution, however, were met with strong challenges especially from within the KMT, given the fact that Lee, a native Taiwanese, was surrounded by KMT conservatives from mainland China.

With his clever political maneuvering, however, Lee was able to overcome these obstacles before ultimately solidifying his own power and exercising his leadership by taking advantage of the infighting within the KMT, former DPP chairman Hsu Hsin-liang (許信良) recently told CNA.

"Lee is almost like a political genius," Hsu praised.

Lee was also good at using public opinion as a tool to back his resolution to push for reforms, despite the strong objections from KMT conservatives.

During the fifth round of constitutional reforms in 1990, the National Assembly had amended the Temporary Provisions to extend the terms for their new members.

This had resulted in a week-long student-led pro-democracy demonstration called the "Wild Lily Movement" at Taipei's Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall Plaza.

The Wild Lily demonstrators sought direct elections of Taiwan's president and vice president and new popular elections for all representatives in the National Assembly.

Back then, Lee had just secured the National Assembly's approval for a full six-year term as president, but he decided to meet with student leaders of the "Wild Lily Movement" and hear their demands.

DPP Legislator Fan Yun (范雲), one of the student leaders that met with Lee at that time, told CNA that many student protesters were sympathetic towards Lee, as he was the first native Taiwanese to serve as ROC president and he was a minority in the ruling KMT.

"Such sympathy towards Lee was also shared by then opposition DPP members," Fan said.

Hsu recalled that after assuming office as DPP chair in July 1996, he had met with Lee at the latter's official residence to discuss how to proceed with constitutional amendments.

Hsu said he asked that the government give more subsidies to the DPP, a request promptly accepted by Lee who said he needed all the help from the DPP in order to push for the democratic reforms.

The successful talks laid the foundation for future KMT-DPP cooperation in constitutional amendments, Hsu noted.

With the help of the DPP and the general public as represented by the student protesters, Lee ultimately was able to push through these changes to the nation's constitution to make it a better fit for Taiwan, which also sped up the democratization process for the country.

The series of constitutional reforms beginning in 1990 included the termination of the Period of National Mobilization for Suppression of Communist Rebellion, complete re-election of the national legislature, institutionalization of local self-government, direct mayoral elections of Taiwan's two special municipalities of Taipei and Kaohsiung, among others.

During the third round of constitutional amendments in 1994, the National Assembly made an important decision that the next term of Taiwan's president would be popularly and directly elected for the first time.

On March 23, 1996, Lee was elected president in the ROC's first-ever direct presidential election.

Before stepping down from his presidency in 2000, Lee also saw the National Assembly pass the sixth round of constitutional amendment, which drastically reduced the assembly's powers and functions and shifted its responsibilities to the Legislative Yuan, marking another major step in Taiwan's democratization process.

Former lawmaker Lin Cho-shui (林濁水) told CNA that Lee is a "perfect combination of a romanticist and realist" and that was why he could win trust within the conservative KMT and gain true power within the party.

"Lee's contributions to Taiwan's democratization and localization will live forever," Lin concluded.

(By Joseph Yeh)

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