Lee Teng-hui, who as president of Taiwan led its transformation from an island in the grip of authoritarian rule to one of Asia’s most vibrant and prosperous democracies, died Thursday in Taipei, the capital. He was 97.
The office of Taiwan’s president announced the death, at Taipei Veterans Hospital. News reports said the cause was septic shock and multiple organ failure.
Mr. Lee’s insistence that Taiwan be treated as a sovereign state angered the Chinese government in Beijing, which considered Taiwan part of its territory and pushed for its unification with the mainland under Communist rule. His stance posed a political quandary for the United States as it sought to improve relations with Beijing while dissuading it from taking military action to press its claims over the island.
As president from 1988 to 2000, Mr. Lee never backed down from disputes with the mainland, and he continued to be a thorn it its side well into his later years. In 2018 he called, unsuccessfully, for a referendum on declaring the country’s name to be Taiwan, not the Republic of China, as it is formally known — a move that would have paved the way for sovereignty.
“China’s goal regarding Taiwan has never changed,” he said in a rare interview, with The New York Times, amid efforts by the Chinese government to further isolate the island from the international community. “That goal is to swallow up Taiwan’s sovereignty, exterminate Taiwanese democracy, and achieve ultimate unification.”
The office of Taiwan’s current president, Tsai Ing-wen, praised Mr. Lee’s achievements, saying in a statement, “The president believes that former President Lee’s contribution to Taiwan’s democratic journey is irreplaceable, and his death is a great loss to the country.”
Mr. Lee entered Taiwan’s politics during the dictatorial Nationalist Party regimes of Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo, who assumed power after his father’s death in 1975. The Nationalists ruled with brutality, which reached a peak in 1947 with what became known as the February 28 incident, in which up to 28,000 Taiwanese were massacred by Chiang Kai-shek’s troops in response to street protests. The Nationalists imposed martial law two years later, and it was not lifted until 1987 by Chiang Ching-kuo.
Born in Taiwan, Mr. Lee joined the Nationalist Party, known as the Kuomintang or KMT, in 1971 and became an agricultural minister. He was later mayor of Taipei and governor of Taiwan Province before being tapped as vice president in 1984.
When Chiang Ching-kuo died of a heart attack in 1988, Mr. Lee succeeded him, becoming the first native Taiwanese president.
Mr. Lee dismantled the dictatorship and worked to end the animosity between those born on the mainland and the native Taiwanese. He pushed the concept of “New Taiwanese,” a term suggesting that the islanders, no matter their backgrounds, were forging a common identity based on a democratic political system and growing prosperity.
He pursued a deliberately ambiguous policy with mainland China, shifting between rigid hostility, tentative conciliation, and defiant independence. His attempts to demonstrate Taiwan’s international sovereignty sometimes provoked the mainland into saber-rattling military exercises.
One such episode occurred after a trip by Mr. Lee to the United States in 1995, ostensibly to visit Cornell University, his alma mater. China accused the United States and Taiwan of colluding to raise the island’s diplomatic status. In a demonstration of Beijing’s ire, Chinese military forces fired test missiles into the Taiwan Strait, which separates the island from the mainland. Washington countered by positioning warships off the Taiwan coast. The affair strained relations between Washington and Beijing for months.
Lee Teng-hui was born on Jan. 15, 1923, in Sanzhi, a rural village on the outskirts of Taipei. His father was a police detective in the employ of the Japanese authorities that ruled Taiwan as a colony between 1895 and 1945. Mr. Lee studied agronomy in Japan at the Kyoto Imperial University and served as a second lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II, but he never saw action.
After the war, he returned to Taiwan and secretly joined the Communist Party of China while completing his undergraduate work at the National Taiwan University.
“I read everything I could get my hands on by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels,” he wrote in his 1999 memoirs, “The Road to Democracy.”
In 1947, he joined protests in the February 28 incident. But Mr. Lee soon renounced Marxism and joined the KMT, which destroyed his Communist Party records when he became politically prominent.
In 1949, he married Tseng Wen-fui, the daughter of a prosperous landholding family, and both became devoted Presbyterians. They had two daughters, Anna and Annie; their only son, Hsien-wen, died of cancer. In addition to his wife and daughters, he leaves a granddaughter, and a grandson.
Taiwan’s existence as a separate political entity came about after the civil war in China gave power to Mao’s Communists, forcing the defeated government of Chiang to flee to the island, some 100 miles off the mainland coast, in 1949.
For the next 30 years, Taiwan, with US support, maintained the fiction that it was the seat in exile of China’s legitimate government. In 1979, Washington finally recognized the Communist government in Beijing. But it continued to guarantee Taiwan’s security against a mainland invasion and backed long-term negotiations between both sides.