Taiwan’s Native-Son President Epitomizes Power Shift on Island : Asia: Lee Teng-hui appears to have a lock on nation’s first direct vote for its leader. The mainland elite are in decline.


Here is a sampling of views about President Lee Teng-hui from leaders in the opposition Democratic Progressive Party:

“He plays the violin. He knows his tempo. That’s why his political timing is so perfect.”

“Most Taiwanese like Lee Teng-hui. Frankly, I don’t see how he can lose.”

“He’s a decent guy.”


That last comment came from Peng Ming-min, one of Lee’s principal opponents for the presidency of Taiwan. And with political enemies like this, Lee hardly needs friends.

With 3 1/2 months still to go before Taiwan’s first direct presidential election, the 72-year-old Lee is favored to win handily. The March 23 presidential vote will cap a remarkable electoral process that will have brought the island nation from martial law to full democracy in less than eight years.

More than a mere democratic exercise, the series of popular elections here also marks a steady devolution of power from the mainland elite to native-born Taiwanese.

Lee’s Nationalist Party--the Kuomintang, or KMT, in Chinese--has been shriveled by defections and wounded by widespread allegations of corruption. The party fared poorly in Dec. 2 parliamentary elections, escaping with only a slim majority in Taiwan’s Yuan, or parliament.


But Lee’s broad personal popularity remains mostly intact. Polls taken after the parliamentary vote showed him with a 70% popularity rating, far outstripping his opponents from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party and the mainlander-dominated New Party.

“Lee is the first native-born president of Taiwan,” said presidential rival Peng, who was jailed by the KMT regime and spent 22 years in exile in the United States. “This alone is epoch making. Just for that fact alone, many Taiwanese feel they have to support him.”

About 85% of the island’s population are descendants of Chinese who migrated here from the mainland centuries ago after the fall of the Ming Dynasty. Most speak a dialect of Chinese similar to that spoken in Fujian province, across the Taiwan Strait in coastal China.

The remaining 15% are survivors and offspring of Nationalist armies that retreated to Taiwan after being defeated by Communist forces on the mainland in 1949; most speak the Mandarin dialect of northern China.

When the Nationalists first came to Taiwan at the end of World War II, Lee spoke only the Taiwanese dialect and Japanese, which he perfected as a university student in wartime Japan. He was on his way to a tutor in Taipei to study Mandarin, in February 1947, when he witnessed the infamous “228" massacre of Taiwanese students and intellectuals in which thousands died. Later, he was targeted by the Nationalist police as a “Communist sympathizer” and was briefly detained by the Taiwan Garrison Command.

Stil, Lee is now viewed by the Nationalists as their only hope to win the presidency and maintain power into the next century.

His controversial “private” visit to the United States in June to attend a reunion at Cornell University won political points at home despite provoking China--which considers Taiwan part of its territory--into a threat of military invasion. His image as a “secret independence supporter,” whispered by New Party activists, only enhances his standing among the Taiwanese ethnic majority.

Reported one Western observer after a recent tour of the interior provinces to check the political climate: “Everywhere we went, it was the same. People would complain for 15 minutes, talking about the corruption of the Nationalist Party and the taxes and the traffic. Then they would hastily add, ‘But I’m going to vote for Lee Teng-hui.’ ”


Lee’s political ascendancy is in many ways a remarkable tale of a native son overcoming great odds. Ten years ago, before the 1988 death of Taiwanese leader Chiang Ching-kuo, few could imagine that a native Taiwanese would someday head the political regime dominated by refugees from the defeated Nationalist armies in China.

But as Taiwan’s governor and then vice president, Lee--an agricultural economist who followed his studies in Japan with a stint at Iowa State University as well as Cornell--won the trust of Chiang, son of Gen. Chiang Kai-shek.

All the same, Lee was not Chiang’s first choice as successor. It took the stroke suffered by Y. S. Sun, Taiwan’s prime minister, and Chiang’s own unexpected death in 1988 to catapult Lee to power.

Once in office, Lee had to survive challenges from Nationalist Party elders who realized that a native Taiwanese with no family links to the mainland was running the show.

Lee speaks the Taiwanese dialect at home. He candidly admits that his Japanese, learned in colonial schools, is better than his spoken Mandarin.

Lee is a devout Christian. He is also an avid golfer.

Lee’s passion for golf, in fact, may give him some trouble in the upcoming presidential election. New Party members have produced a deed purportedly showing that his private villa at a Taipei golf club cost him only $200,000 although it is worth several million dollars.

China--where the theory that Lee has an agenda for Taiwan’s independence is strong in military circles--may also try to affect the vote by conducting military exercises off the coast, as it did before this year’s parliamentary vote.


But none of this is expected to stall Lee’s drive to become Taiwan’s first elected head of state.

“We know that many people in the Democratic Progressive Party like Lee Teng-hui,” said Parris Chang, a legislator who represents the opposition party in the Yuan. “They know that he is a native Taiwanese.

“To beat him, we have to overcome the Lee Teng-hui complex. With the help of the New Party and the People’s Republic of China, maybe we can. Problem is that every time the PRC attacks Lee Teng-hui, he becomes more popular here.”