President Lee Teng-hui’s Legacy: Democracy and Statehood

August 17, 2020
Taipei Times

 The last time I spoke with President Lee Teng-hui was thirteen years ago next week, on Friday morning, August 24, 2007.  We conversed for nearly two hours one-on-one, not surprisingly, about Taiwan’s nationhood and its international legal status, subjects on which he undoubtedly was the world’s foremost authority.  He had, after all, created almost single-handedly “Taiwan’s vibrant democracy,” something the American secretary of state calls  “an inspiration to the region and the world.”

That sunny morning at his Hung Hsi Shan Chuang residence in Taoyuan, President Lee was a gracious host with stimulating ideas.  Earlier that week, United Nations under-secretary-general for political affairs, B. Lynn Pascoe (a former director of the American Institute in Taiwan) had commented tepidly on Taiwan’s application to for membership in the U.N. under the name “Taiwan.”  It was a move President Lee thought premature and he was unhappy that the government had not prepared adequate groundwork to sustain the application. Taiwan’s petition to the U.N. served only to draw attention to Taiwan’s international isolation yet did little to reassure Taiwan’s people.  Taiwan, said Mr. Lee, needed committed partners and allies, most importantly the United States and Japan, before embarking on such a campaign.  

One had to pursue strategic goals in a systematic, staged way, Mr. Lee explained.  One cannot simply jump to action without first insuring that the necessary people are on-board and the resources are in place to guarantee success.  He alluded to own his role in the momentous constitutional changes that he had launched in 1990.  I mentioned that James Soong took credit for orchestrating this, or at least that's the way it seemed in the book “Lee Teng-hui's First Thousand Days” (李登輝的一千天).  

The former president took no offense.  He said Soong had indeed “been helpful”; one had to harness the party, and to harness the party, he had to capture the imagination of the youth factions.  (No doubt the nationwide “Wild Lilies Movement” of university students in 1990 and Tiananmen democracy movement of 1989 inspired the KMT’s youth wings to support Lee.)  He recalled how he assembled Party support for his bold constitutional coup.  The strategy of dismantling the “eternal Legislature,” was his.  This would be the cornerstone of Taiwan’s Post-Tiananmen, “Wild Lilies” legitimacy if Taiwan was to be accepted as a genuine democracy in the international community, and such acceptance was essential if Taiwan’s people were to establish their own sovereignty over their own land.  He, Lee Teng-hui, was the one who had seen the only solution was to disband the existing elective bodies (which hadn't been really elected since 1947 when they were 'elected' on the Mainland), and to reconstitute a new set of representative bodies in the 1990s, the Legislative Yuan, the National Assembly, and indeed the Presidency, elected solely by the people of Taiwan.

President Lee was proud of his accomplishment.  He noted that his 'revolution' was not a violent one that destroyed one constitutional system and replaced it without electoral due process, with another.  

Instead, it was an intra-constitutional revolution” which brought change in an orderly, open way from within the constitution itself.  In this sense, President Lee explained, Taiwan's government is a “successor” government.  The concept of Taiwan as a “successor state” rather than a rival regime to Beijing (or a “revolutionary” state that had overthrown the old authoritarian dictatorship), was one that President Lee elaborated upon.  

 He said the current row about Taiwan's entry into the United Nations was ill-conceived and poorly executed.  The main problem was that no one had bothered to describe the current legal status of Taiwan before delving into the UN membership issue.  They are still unclear on the concept. 


But President Lee was not.  He declared that Taiwan's current government is not a "revolutionary State" but rather a "successor state" (繼承國). 

As a “successor state”, Taiwan need not declare independence, but rather hold itself out as a new constitutional entity that assumed sovereignty from the old dictatorship in the 1990 reforms.  Moreover, the 1990 reforms, while not explicit in their constitutional language, had the legal effect of recognizing the legality of the PRC regime in China, allowing that the new ROC regime in Taiwan did not have any claim to authority in China, and asserting that the “successor” ROC regime under the new constitutional amendments, held electoral sovereignty over “Tai-Peng-Kin-Ma” (Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, Matsu).

Only if the current Taiwan state can settle its status as a “successor state” can it move forward to educating the rest of the world about its status.  (Later in the conversation, President Lee insisted that, if Taiwan really wants to enter the United Nations, it must realize that UN membership is a matter of a vote in the UN General Assembly, not a matter of a legal right.  Consequently, to gain membership, Taiwan must have “power” and it must have “friends.” 

“Power is the most important.”  Military power is extremely important.  He then digressed to the submarines, saying “the US State Department says submarines are ‘offensive.’  They're still thinking about Taiwan ‘retaking the Mainland,’ what are they thinking?!”  He asked, “Do they think we want to retake the Mainland?”  But the failure to pass a defense budget isn’t really a problem of the Legislative Yuan. Rather, it is one of “leadership on both sides” (presumably the DPP and KMT).  Taiwan’s closest “friends” must be the United States and Japan, and their concerns may not be ignored.  Then, looking at me, he added, “if you alienate people, you have a problem.”)   


Getting back to the idea of a “successor state,” I cautioned that the People's Republic was already the “successor” to the ROC, so it might be difficult to get international acceptance for the idea that the new ROC was the “successor” to the old ROC dictatorship. 

He suggested that today’s ROC regime is not a successor to the old one. Over a third of the amendments to the 1947 Constitution had been completely amended, and that if the other two-thirds could also be amended, then you would have a completely new constitutional entity without having to claim “independence.”  In temperament, President Lee said, Taiwan “ROC” is far more of a “successor state” to the Japanese colonial administration, which had modernized Taiwan than it is to the KMT’s post-War exile government.  President Lee said Japanese rule in Taiwan was strict but they brought order and process to the chaotic traditionalist Chinese culture on the Island pre-1895.  He praised Japanese colonial governor Gotō Shinpei (後籐新平) as the "Father of Taiwan's Modernization" in the 1920s.  Japan provided Taiwan with an infrastructure of civil society that endured through the KMT’s despotic martial law regime and it is Gotō’s spirit of civil society that now prevails. 

Beyond civil society, Taiwan’s Constitution still needs work; “The most important issue being article 4,” the constitutional definition of the nation’s territory: “gu youde jiangyu” (固有的疆域).  It is perfect because it doesn't really define anything.   It basically means “the territory which we have owned,” neither specifying what “territory” was owned nor how long “we have owned” it.   President Lee said the “gu youde jiangyu” of “post-Yuan” China “never included Taiwan.” (I interpreted his point about “post-Yuan” as that the “Yuan” were Mongolian; “Ming” China never claimed Taiwan; while “Qing,” which China did include Taiwan, was Manchu, not Chinese.)  Therefore, “China” is not a legal, geographic or historical concept, but rather a “cultural” one not amenable to political definitions. 


He continued that Taiwan must first get its legal status settled in such a way that it attracts broad national acceptance and consensus.  Then move to international status.  “Don't stir up trouble.”  

He then warned – apparently the Taiwan’s leadership – to be careful, because the US is at a crossroads.  It is defeated in the Middle East; it has military strength but not diplomatic strength (apparently meaning something like "soft power").   He concluded, “If Taiwan wants membership in the UN, it must prepare. Don't rush it!  It takes time.” Taiwan must have friends. 


 I am sure he rests in peace, content that Taiwan now has friends, but he uneasy that Taiwan still lacks the “power” to sustain his vision of a successor state.  


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