Taiwan's Statesman: Lee Teng-hui and Democracy in Asia
Richard C. Kagan
Naval Institute Press, 2007, 231p
In an oft-quoted passage, the ancient Roman biographer, Plutarch once explained his philosophy thus: "in the most illustrious deeds there is not always a manifestation of virtue or vice, nay, a slight thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation of character than battles when thousands fall, or the greatest armaments, or sieges of cities." Richard Kagan's rich new work, Taiwan's Statesman: Lee Teng-hui and Democracy in Asia, which examines the life of one of the great statesmen of the 20th century, Taiwan's Lee Teng-hui, elevates Plutarch's approach to a entire framework for understanding the life and thought of Taiwan's first democratically elected President. Kagan illuminates Lee's often cryptic and elusive use of words, and supplies a robust account of the origins and development of his personal approach to life and politics.
Kagan opens with Lee's moment of triumph: the 1996 Presidential election, Taiwan's first direct presidential election. A native Taiwanese, Lee had successfully risen through the ranks of a Kuomingtang (KMT) party dominated by post-1949 exiles from China, out-maneuvered a rear-guard fight to preserve the authoritarian dominance of the KMT, and defeated the rising pro-democracy party at the polls. How did the son of a humble Taiwanese policeman accomplish these feats?
The answer, according to Kagan, lies in the experiences and values that have shaped Lee Teng-hui's personality: his sojourns in Japan and the US, his study of Zen, his conversion of Christianity in 1961, and his study of agricultural economics. These influences have created in Lee a character and understanding of great depth and flexibility. "If one painted Lee's idea of democracy, it would not hang in a picture frame," describes Kagan. "Rather, it would be splashed all over the neighborhood in expressions of creativity, chaos, and unpredictability with strings of entanglements and loose threads."
Kagan begins his discussion of Lee's education, dismissing the pro-China criticisms that Lee is half-Japanese for the far more elegant and fruitful exploration of what being Japanese means for Lee. This meant education in a Japanese high school at a time when few Taiwanese were permitted to enter Japanese educational institutions; then a year at Kyoto Technical School (later Kyoto University) before entering the Japanese Army in 1944. In Japan he was deeply influenced by the writings of Nitobe Inazo and Nishida Kitaro. Nitobe was a philosopher and statesman who was also an agricultural specialist – a career that "could be a template for Lee's own." Lee also found the Zen thinker D.T. Suzuki to be a refuge from the militarism that was then sweeping the empire. In addition to encountering Japanese thinkers, Lee read voluminously among western classics in translation, developing an especial fondness for Thomas Carlyle. According to Kagan, Carlyle put words to Lee's feeling that true heroism created a new world order, driven by the energetic, questing spirit. Finally, Lee's Christianity is also treated as an important shaper of Lee's social action (for years, whenever possible, he gave humble sermons in local churches on Sundays even as a high ranking politician). Kagan returns to these resources again and again in explaining Lee's cryptic, contradictory, utterances and his freewheeling, apparently aimless, yet purposeful behavior.
Thus, this is not a critical biography in the sense that it attempts to separate itself from the moral world of the subject it treats and to exhaustively examine what many might argue are key controversies or episodes in Lee's career. Kagan's reading of Lee's life is extremely sympathetic, and may be open to charges of hagiography. He is seldom directly critical of Lee's actions, often explaining what some might see mere political horse-trading as evidence of Lee's greatness. For example, Lee's support of mainlander Ma Ying-jeou for Taipei mayor in 1998 is presented as a demonstration of Lee's success in "breaking through the ethnic, geographical, and political division between mainlanders and Taiwanese" – yet Kagan never discusses Lee's controversial removal of that same Ma Ying-jeou from his post as Minister of Justice, a move that critics have slammed ever since as a sop to the political corruption on which they allege Lee depended (nor is the controversy over Lee's relationship to the KMT's alleged corruption treated at any great length). However, as Kagan points out, many of these controversies have been treated elsewhere in great detail.
Despite its weaknesses and its resolutely pro-Lee point of view –unlike many commentators on Lee Kagan is commendably up front in staking out his position on the historical importance of Lee's life and career – this is a rich, entertaining, and educational work. The sections on Lee's upbringing and early life are absolutely fascinating – Lee's service in the Japanese army took him to both Taiwan, where he fired anti-aircraft guns against US attackers, and to Japan, where he helped clean up after the horrific Tokyo firebombing of March, 1945. Kagan hits his stride in his portrayal of Lee's foreign and domestic policy in the 1990s, a period offering many of the same themes that we see today: the President of Taiwan being labeled "provocative" and "a troublemaker" for attempting to break out of the constrictions placed on Taiwan by the US and China. It was Lee himself carried out the first phases of the removal of the Chiang family cult from public life, a fact often lost in the current debates. Kagan also faithfully reconstructs both the headiness of the post martial law period, with its future full of promise, and its fragility, under threat by hardliners in the KMT bent on suppressing the rising democratic feeling. Finally, Kagan sheds much light on the combination of relationships, luck, and achievement that brought Lee safely through the ranks of the KMT to deliver him to the Presidency at a critical moment in the nation's history, and on his relationship with President Chiang Ching-kuo, who in certain respects was much like Lee.
Looking back on Lee's career, it seems incredible that Lee, who hung with a cabal of independence firebrands at Cornell, including Peter Huang, would-be assassin of Chiang Ching-kuo during his 1970 visit to the US, escaped imprisonment and execution. It also seems incredible, at least to this reader, that anyone who bothered to look into Lee's background could ever imagine that Lee would be an obedient servant of the KMT fantasy that Taiwan belongs to China. Yet during the early 1990s rumors swirled at home and abroad on precisely these points, a major tribute to the master politician that is Lee Teng-hui: Lee had sold out to black gold, Lee was a secret independence supporter, Lee was a Machiavellian power-monger, Lee was a KMT spy. As Kagan's biography of one of the greatest statesmen of the twentieth century so firmly demonstrates, they were all true, and they were not true at all.