Shortly after my arrival in Taipei in the fall of 1969, I received a phone call from a Columbia Graduate School of Journalism classmate who was visiting from Japan. Professors at his undergraduate alma mater, Cornell, had encouraged him to call on an impressive Taiwanese agricultural economist named Lee Teng-hui who had recently earned a Ph.D. at Cornell.
My classmate said Lee had invited him to his apartment the following evening. Would I be interested in coming along? New to town and happy to make any new acquaintances, I readily agreed.
The next night we had a two-hour conversation over tea and fruit with Lee – then a technocrat at what would later become the Council of Agriculture – and his wife. I had no reason to keep notes of our discussion, but I came away with a sense of the man that helped shape my understanding of him over the following decades. Lee had emphasized his “Taiwaneseness,” which included an appreciation of Japanese culture, and he showed himself to be a devout Christian whose religion imbued him with a deep commitment to social justice and welfare. He also identified himself as a political independent who had resisted repeated attempts to recruit him to join the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
A few years later, when Lee had accepted a Cabinet position and entered the ruling party, I asked him why he had changed his mind. The answer was a practical one. Most important public policies were set within the party, he said. If he wanted to have any influence over policy, he couldn’t wait until issues reached his desk in government.
Another memory is from 1986 when I was part of a Time magazine delegation that called on then-Vice President Lee. A key issue at the time was whether Taiwan could abandon martial law and fully embrace democracy. The day before we met Lee, another senior government official, Vice Premier Lin Yang-kang, had given us the official party line: martial law remained absolutely necessary to protect Taiwan’s security from the threat of Communist subversion.
Lee gave us an entirely different perspective. He had discussed the matter in depth with President Chiang Ching-kuo, he said, and both were convinced that maintenance of martial law was detrimental to domestic morale and Taiwan’s international image. Preparations were already under way to rescind the relevant statutes, he assured us.
In fact, it happened the next year, and when Lee succeeded Chiang to the presidency a few years after that, he led Taiwan steadily toward further democratic development.