China's 'bogeyman' Lee takes poll test

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The Independent Online


Lee Teng-hui is the new face in the pantheon of bogeymen whom Peking regularly likes to consign to its so-called "dustbin of history". But unlike the exiled Tibetan Dalai Lama and Chris Patten, Governor of Hong Kong, the latest man to be demonised by the Chinese government is little known in the West. Indeed, because he is persona non grata in countries which recognise Peking, the Taiwanese president is, in diplomatic terms, probably the most isolated champion of democracy in the world.

Mr Lee, 73, can take much of the credit for why an island of 21 million people is this weekend set to disprove the notion that democracy sits ill with the "Asian values" of the fast- growing economies of East Asia. Taiwan, the second most densely populated nation on earth, will after Saturday's presidential elections be able to boast not only an average per capita income of US$12,000, (pounds 8,000) but also its first democratically elected head of state.

Among the native Taiwanese, who make up 85 per cent of the island's population, the fact that Mr Lee is Taiwan born and bred has always been central to his appeal; his rallying calls at the hustings are delivered in the colloquial Taiwanese dialect. However, Mr Lee is also a product of the old regime. Not one to court prison or political exile, he quietly prospered for decades within Taiwan's former authoritarian, one-party system. "[Lee] was very timid . . . Everybody underestimated him," said Antonio Chiang, publisher of the Journalist.

Mr Lee still sees no contradiction in using the enormous financial and operational clout of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party in order to achieve his goal of democracy for Taiwan. Festooned from buildings around Taipei, his toothy smile beams out from election posters up to seven storeys in length; the Lee advertising budget is said to be as high as US$25m. Taiwan's three main television channels are still under KMT control, and coverage of Mr Lee has been fulsome. At the same time he refuses to take part in televised debates with the three other candidates.

In background, more than any leader in Peking, Mr Lee fits the classical Chinese concept of the scholar-official. Born in 1923 in a farming suburb of Taipei, he grew up during the Japanese occupation. Mandarin Chinese was his third language, after Taiwanese and Japanese, as Peking regularly points out, accusing him of being more Japanese than Chinese.

Against all the odds, the young Lee passed the highly competitive examination for high school, and went on to university in Kyoto, Japan. In the official biography, a fellow student described Mr Lee's fencing tactics: "He never acted without first gaining control of the situation." He returned to Taiwan in 1946, a year after the vanquished Japanese army had ceded sovereignty of Taiwan to General Chiang Kai-Shek's Kuomintang nationalist party. Now specialising in agricultural economics, Mr Lee alternated periods of research at home with further studies in the US. "He is very Taiwanese in his heart, Japanese in his temperament, and Western in his head," said Antonio Chiang. He is also a devout Christian.

Mr Lee was established as a successful academic when, in 1971, a report on farming problems impressed General Chiang Kai-shek's son and Mr Lee was appointed Taiwan's youngest minister of state. His subsequent rise was unprecedented for a native Taiwanese: mayor of Taipei City in 1978, and Governor of Taiwan in 1981, the third highest position in the island state.

After General Chiang died in 1975, his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, unexpectedly turned out to be a reformer. Mr Lee was his protege. Crucially, in 1984 Mr Lee was appointed vice- president, though at that stage it seemed far-fetched that a native Taiwanese would ever become president. But Taiwan was changing; in 1987, martial law was finally lifted, street protests were permitted, and press freedom was improved.

In 1988, the younger Chiang suddenly died, and Mr Lee took over as President and head of KMT. Later that year, he appointed a team of reformers to key top posts. For the first time the party's standing committee was elected by party members, and opposition parties were soon legalised.

As far back as 1990, at his delayed inauguration as president, Mr Lee charted a path that would inevitably bring him into conflict with the mainland. Peking's offer of "One country, two systems" for peaceful reunification was rejected. Private foreign visits by Taiwanese leaders appeared quietly on the agenda.

Mr Lee set about cleaning up Taiwan's anachronistic political system. He got rid of the KMT old guard, General Chiang's entourage from the mainland who had sat in parliament under the 1946 constitution with permanent seats, often asleep or senile. Direct elections were introduced. However, critics complain that he failed to confront extensive money and mafia influence in local and national politics - the biggest test for him if he is elected.

Modesty is not one of Mr Lee's strong points, and Taiwanese often attack him for being arrogant and reluctant to take criticism. But he has been campaigning furiously to secure his benchmark of 50 per cent of the votes. The act of voting was an expression of Taiwan's democracy, he thundered at a rally last week, adding: "I urge people to elect someone who has experience and has guts."