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Taiwan’s Statesman: Lee Teng-hui and Democracy in Asia

Taiwan’s Statesman: Lee Teng-hui and Democracy in Asia by Richard C. Kagan. Naval Institute Press, 2014, 266 pp.


While the number of English-language biographies of Asian leaders is growing, they remain too few. This biography of Lee Teng-hui, the first directly elected president of Taiwan, by Richard C. Kagan, a self-avowed friend of Taiwan, is an important contribution to the study of Taiwan’s political development over the past 25 years. Kagan, a historian at Hamline University in Minnesota, is well positioned to write on this topic. His relationship to Taiwan dates from the mid 1960s when he attended the Stanford Center at National Taiwan University and befriended many of the intellectuals who are active in Taiwan’s politico-cultural life.

Lee Teng-hui occupied a unique position in the history of postwar Taiwan. A native Taiwanese who benefited from Japanese largesse in educating its subjects—Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945—Lee was able to develop a cosmopolitan view of the world at a time when prospects for most Taiwanese were dim. Subsequently, he attended Cornell University to pursue doctoral studies in agricultural economics. Upon his return to Taiwan, he was quickly noticed by the nationalist party, Kuomintang (KMT), which allowed him to progress gradually into its higher ranks until Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek, made him his vice president, a radical move in this mainland China–dominated government.

Kagan’s distinct contribution is in highlighting the various influences on Lee’s worldview, including Zen, Christianity, and, perhaps most of all, Japanese culture. Christianity appears to be an underreported phenomenon in the lives of Taiwanese. In addition to Lee, both Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo were Christians. While Christians are a relatively small minority, they often include prominent members of the community. Lee’s faith extended to providing sermons in the community throughout his life.

Still, Japanese culture appears to have overshadowed other influences in Lee’s heart, if not in his mind. His studies in Japan during the war put him in touch with Zen Buddhism as well as its prominent promoters, notably Nitobe Inazo (1862–1933) and D. T. Suzuki (1870–1966) through his readings. He credits them for shaping his antimilitarist views as well as the importance of maintaining one’s unique culture in a pluralist world. These ideas would later clash with Lee’s perceptions of Communist China’s aggressiveness toward Taiwan.

Kagan’s biography is less successful in explaining how these influences blended to shape Lee’s personality. How does Zen Buddhism cohabit with conservative Christianity? And how does one justify one’s love of Japanese culture in the eyes of compatriots who may have been victims—as many were—of Japanese colonialism?

Here is where Kagan’s case is least convincing. Readers may not be entirely convinced that Lee was a genuine Taiwanese nationalist. Neither are some of the other Taiwanese patriots, as reported by Kagan. Lee spent his early childhood under Japanese colonial rule and subsequently studied in Japan, thanks to a scholarship. His love of Japanese culture is not in question; he learned to speak and read Japanese fluently and had an extensive personal library of books in Japanese. Yet he developed a visceral dislike for the Chinese Communists as well as for the KMT nationalists. The 28 February 1947 massacre (when the Kuomintang army went on a rampage against the Taiwanese local elite) notwithstanding, was nationalist Chinese rule that much more ruthless? The answer is never fully articulated by Kagan. It seems the Japanese colonial government left a more positive impact on its protégé during his formative years than did the KMT government. Yet, the same KMT had enough trust in him to accept him into its ranks and let him occupy the highest office in the land. Was Lee so successful at hiding his true intentions that Chiang Ching-kuo never questioned his loyalty? If not, what were Chiang’s motives for grooming him? Kagan does not answer these questions.

As for Communist China, it was largely absent in Lee’s personal experience until he became vice president of the Republic of China on Taiwan. Kagan does mention that Lee toyed with Marxist thought during his studies in Japan and that he might have joined the local Communist Party. The evidence is inconclusive, and in any case, his interest did not last.

Kagan’s coverage of Lee’s presidency similarly leaves the reader in the dark as to how he managed to hide his inner feelings about the future of Taiwan in light of the KMT’s ambitions regarding recovery of the mainland. While Kagan provides many details of Lee’s personal life less well known to a Western audience, the effort did not extend to reconciling the apparent contradictions raised by his various beliefs and opinions. Nor are we taken through the internal debates Lee would have had to fight against a reluctant military and party dominated by the old mainland Chinese guard. Despite these inadequacies, Kagan’s contribution remains a positive and valuable one to the history of Taiwan’s march toward democracy.

Richard Desjardins

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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