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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

In the Eye of the Storm

Taiwan's Lee Teng-hui not only became the first popularly elected Chinese leader, but also triggered Asia's biggest crisis of 1996


Throughout China's 4,000-year history, the Mandate of Heaven conferred upon aspirants to the throne the right to rule. In ancient times, emperors inherited it from their forebears. The exceptions came during times of turmoil, when it might be seized by an outsider after a bloody revolt. In more modern times, Chinese leaders, if they did not grab power themselves, have been chosen by tiny groups of the country's elite. Something entirely unprecedented happened on March 23. Eleven million Chinese on Taiwan went to the polls and conferred a fundamentally different kind of legitimacy on their president, Lee Teng-hui.

For Lee, 73, becoming the first-ever popularly elected Chinese leader would have been dramatic enough. But his triumph took place during the height of a confrontation with his government's Communist rivals on the mainland. Even as the four main candidates crisscrossed Taiwan campaigning, Beijing rained dummy missiles off the island's two largest ports of Keelung and Kaohsiung in a bid to influence the poll's outcome. The bombardment failed to prevent Lee from winning an unequivocal mandate with 54% of the vote.

Lee owes his ascendancy less to the masses than to one man -- the late president Chiang Ching-kuo. Chiang spotted the obscure government agronomist and began grooming him for leadership. In 1972, Chiang made Lee Taiwan's youngest minister. Later Lee became his mentor's vice-president. But Lee paved his own way to his encounter with history this year. When Chiang died suddenly in 1988, Lee succeeded him, becoming the first Taiwanese to hold the top job. The new president soon accelerated the island's transformation from autocracy to democracy, begun by Chiang.

In 1991, Lee urged aged Kuomintang legislators, many of whom had won their seats in 1948 on the mainland, to retire. They were replaced by winners of the first direct elections for the Legislative Yuan. In 1994, the mayors of the two largest cities, Taipei and Kaohsiung, were popularly elected for the first time. Such efforts to open up the government won the respect even of opposition figures. "If somebody else were president, I don't think Taiwan's democratic reforms could have been so peaceful," says chairman Hsu Hsin-liang of the Democratic Progressive Party.

Lee was no less active on the diplomatic front, pursuing new forms of international recognition for Taiwan. He obtained the island's membership in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and made unofficial trips to Southeast Asia as well as official visits to the handful of countries that still recognized Taipei. Of course, his most controversial outing was the one in June 1995 to his alma mater, Cornell University in the United States. It not only enraged Beijing and led to the missiles crisis in the Taiwan Strait, but also plunged U.S.-China relations to a nadir.

Lee's perceived push for Taiwan independence created rifts on the island itself. His own KMT was split into a pro-Lee "mainstream" faction and a "non-mainstream" group comprising traditionalists who backed eventual reunification with the mainland. Some stalwarts among the latter were so alienated that they bolted to form the New Party -- or ran against Lee in the presidential poll as independents. His post-election decision to have his vice-president, Lien Chan, serve concurrently as premier struck some as overreaching. "There is no Lien cabinet, only the Lee Teng-hui cabinet," says Chen Kuei-miao, chairman of the New Party.

In fact, things have gone downhill for Lee since his epic electoral win. His government seems increasingly mired in allegations of corruption and links to organized crime. The mainland leadership regards him as a closet secessionist and possibly too pro-Japanese (born during Japan's occupation of Taiwan, he speaks Japanese better than Mandarin). And Lee's efforts to win influence in the U.S. through aggressive lobbying as well as alleged political donations from the KMT have created a backlash, both from Washington and the American media. Last month, in a major blow to what critics call Lee's "money diplomacy," South Africa announced it would switch formal recognition from Taipei to Beijing.

Indeed, for Lee Teng-hui, the year is closing on a discouraging note. At home, he has not been able to turn his election mandate into fresh, effective policies. Unofficial talks with China are still in deep freeze, even as fears grow in Taiwan that warming Sino-U.S. ties will come at the island's expense. It remains to be seen if Lee can regain in 1997 the initiative he so clearly held just one year ago.

-- By Todd Crowell and Laurie Underwood / Taipei


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