Thursday, October 4, 2018

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

Taiwan's Statesman: Lee Teng-hui and Democracy in Asia
by Richard C. Kagan, 2007

This slim book (just 163 pages, not counting appendices) is an overview of the life and career of Lee Teng-hui, the man who was president of Taiwan from 1988 to 2000.

The man who climbed to the top of an authoritarian government, and retired as president of a democracy.

The man who headed the Republic of China, a political entity that he had no love for and would just as soon have seen abolished.

Lee Teng-hui is an immensely important figure in Taiwanese political history. It’s not too much to say that he is the most important and influential political figure ever to have been born and raised in Taiwan.

What is more, he is a fascinating personality to study. Either he dramatically shifted his political views and allegiances late in his career, or (as is more likely, and as Kagan believes) he concealed his fundamental beliefs for decades in order to rise to prominence in the ROC. Either way, I absolutely expect that for decades to come, historians for decades will study what made the man tick.

Richard C. Kagan, who interviewed Lee in person while researching this book, has done an excellent job explaining Lee’s importance to the reader. He has also clearly expressed his own great admiration for Lee. Unfortunately, I fear that this admiration has affected his ability to give a balanced portrayal of his subject. I learned a lot from Taiwan’s Statesman, but I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that I wasn’t getting the whole picture, and I wondered if there was material that could have been included but wasn’t because it showed Lee in a less flattering light.

Kagan’s book is a tough one to summarize. So I take a blank piece of paper and I draw two perpendicular lines on it, dividing it into quarters. I label the upper left quadrant “Small things I liked”, and then I label the other quadrants “Small things I didn’t like so much”, “Big things I wasn’t sure about”, and “Big things I liked”.

My review of Richard C. Kagan’s Taiwan’s Statesman: Lee Teng-hui and Democracy in Asia will follow this pattern. That means I’m going annoy everybody by burying the important stuff down in the second half of this post.

To begin with small things I liked, I learned many things about 20th century Taiwanese history that I had not known before.

But there’s one in particular that I’d like to mention here -- it’s not exactly a small thing, but it’s not directly connected to Lee Teng-hui, and it was news to me.

Apparently in 1971, amid the departure of the ROC from the United Nations, Vice Foreign Minister Yang Hsi-kun made a proposal to Chiang Kai-shek to rebrand the country as the “Chinese Republic of Taiwan”, with “Chinese” specifically said to be an ethnic/cultural term rather than a political one. Chiang was said to be receptive to this idea. Judging by a US State Department telegram by Ambassador Walter McConaughy (printed as Appendix A), the key obstacles were Chiang’s need for more assurances that US support would be forthcoming -- and the opposition of his wife and his wife’s family.

In other words, in 1971 Chiang Kai-shek was open to the idea of declaring an independent Taiwan. This was the first I’d heard about this incredibly interesting “what-if” scenario, and while it doesn’t make me re-think my impression of Chiang as a nasty dictator, it does suggest he may have had pragmatic depths that I hadn’t given him credit for.

Next, the small things I didn’t like so much. This is going to be nitpicky. Hold on tight.

Chapter 1 starts by describing the 1996 Presidential election, and on page three we have the remarkable sentence “It was the first democratic election in Taiwan since the country’s establishment in 1911”. I can think of two different ways that sentence could have been edited so as not to make readers familiar with Taiwan stop and stare for several seconds, then shake their heads and move on. An editor should have caught this.

In Chapter 2, Kagan gives a quick overview of Taiwan’s ethnic mix, and when discussing the Hakka, he says they are not Han Chinese, which is a questionable assertion but I’ll let it slide because “Han” is hardly a rigorously defined term. But then he says “their language was not related to the Sinitic language group”, which as far as I know is just plain incorrect -- Hakka is indisputably a Sinitic language just as much as, say, Spanish is a Romance language. (Note that I’m hardly an authority here -- if I’m clearly wrong, somebody say so please.)

Finally, I’m used to, shall we say, creative Romanization when it comes to Taiwanese names, but Kagan’s book still made me stumble. On page 61, he writes of Ng Yu-jin, apparently a very prominent Taiwanese emigre and critic of the regime in the 1960s. I think this is the same person as Ng Chiau-tong, but putting “Ng Yu-jin” into Google gets me nowhere, Kagan never gives us the Chinese characters for anyone’s name, and I’m frustrated that I’m still not sure one way or another.

Okay, now let’s get to the meat of this review. Here are the big things I wasn’t sure about. Let’s just put it this way: Kagan’s book inspired me to look up the pronunciation of “hagiography”, a word I had never had to say out loud before.

Look, my overall impression of Lee Teng-hui is generally positive. The man inherited an authoritarian government that, although it was becoming more free, still curtailed basic freedoms that we take for granted today. Twelve years later, he retired as leader of a free democracy. This is very impressive and I do not deny that Lee’s accomplishments are admirable.

But that doesn’t mean Lee should be treated as a saintly figure above any criticism. I found two points where Kagan makes tentative criticisms of Lee Teng-hui. On pages 78-79, he criticizes Lee’s keeping detailed dossiers on city council members when he was Mayor of Taipei from 1978 to 1981, and on page 112, he says Lee’s failure to hold the military and secret service accountable for attacks on dissidents “hampered reform efforts and policy innovations throughout his presidency”.

I found literally no other place this book is critical of him. Otherwise Lee is held up as this brilliant man who navigated his way through the ROC government, first as governor and then as vice president, because he saw that doing this was the best way to help his beloved country of Taiwan.

Unfortunately, I’m not knowledgeable enough to point out many ways in which Kagan should have treated Lee more critically. Someone better-informed about the period might be able to do a better job. But I do have one specific observation.

Cheng Nan-jung (also romanized as Nylon Deng, among several other ways) dramatically committed suicide on April 7, 1989, when facing imminent arrest for publishing banned political commentary. It’s easy to forget this now, but when Cheng killed himself, Lee Teng-hui had already been President for more than one year and two months.

There is no mention of this incident in Kagan’s book, even though it is very well-known and Cheng has become a widely recognized martyr for Taiwanese democracy. There are mentions of government repression and state-sponsored assassinations during the presidency of Chiang Ching-kuo, but not after Chiang’s death on January 13, 1988. But we do hear about Lee being magnanimous towards protestors in March 1990 (heavily contrasted with the Tiananmen Square protests of the previous year).

I don't think Lee is personally to blame for Cheng’s death, and this incident is not the moral equivalent to the government-approved killings that went on under the Chiang Ching-kuo regime. But it shows that the ROC government continued to act as a repressive authoritarian regime well into Lee’s presidency, and here Kagan’s book is largely silent, apart from the brief criticism (p 112) that I mentioned above.

This kind of whitewashing is a serious flaw in Kagan’s book. It’s not so much about omitting Cheng specifically, but rather the impression that we’re getting a very one-sided portrayal of Lee, where inconvenient facts and narratives are sidelined.

I understand that Kagan strongly respected Lee, whom he interviewed in person several times. But I don’t want to read about only the good things. Denny Roy’s 2003 book Taiwan: A Political History takes a much more cynical view of Lee’s time in power, but it isn’t even necessarily cynicism that I want; I would just like to see more balance.

The hagiographic treatment of Lee, the frequent mentions of Lee’s Christianity and the occasional comparisons of Taiwan to Israel, which, he writes, “also faces a dogmatic enemy that claims rights to the soil and lives of its population” (p. 16) made me wonder if Kagan’s target audience was politically conservative Americans (and those of similar political sympathies) with the intent to build up Lee Teng-hui as a great man that we should all look up to and respect, and put forward his vision of a free and democratic Taiwan as something we should all support.

But despite the sanitized portrayal of Lee Teng-hui, there are still some big things I liked about the book, apart from just picking up odd facts I didn’t know.

First, hagiography it may be, but Kagan still got to know Lee Teng-hui personally during the process of researching and writing, and so even if it’s incomplete, what we’re getting here is a vivid portrait of the man -- one side of him, at least. Kagan traces the development of Lee’s political views and beliefs and stresses the intellectual influences of both Zen Buddhism and Presbyterian Christianity -- for instance, he notes that Faust is one of Lee’s favorite books and then uses Faust as a metaphor for Lee’s relationship with the KMT (p. 85-86). Even if Kagan’s repeated references to Lee’s intellectual diet are a bit over-done (I'm not sure if I think so or not), the presumably authentic look inside Lee’s mind is still interesting.

Kagan can’t help but describe Lee in such colorful prose as: “If one painted his vision, it would not hang in a picture frame. It would be splashed all over the neighborhood with expressions of creativity, chaos, unpredictability, strings of relationships, and loose threads for future connections.” (p. 133)

Second, the closing chapters give us a vivid look at Lee’s conception of nationhood.

My wife Jenna took this picture in the National Museum of Taiwan History in Tainan. It says: People from all parts of the world who once visited Taiwan used different languages to name this island and its inhabitants. But how do those who live there regard themselves? Taiwan is composed of different ethnic groups with disparate languages and cultures. Thus the term "Taiwanese" is a form of self affirmation impossible to define with a particular language or ethnicity. All those who identify with and are concerned about Taiwan, who love and accept Taiwan, and who wish to live together in this land can declare with a loud voice "I am a Taiwanese." Contrast this with the racial basis of nationhood that you see in China, in Korea, in Japan. It also fits perfectly with Lee’s ideas, at least as interpreted by Kagan.

“For Lee”, Kagan writes, “Taiwanese identity arises from a natural ecological relationship among individuals from different ethnic, language, and immigrant groups who must try to benefit each other in order to survive and create a future for their descendents.” (p. 137)

Kagan goes on to write, “Lee is an islander who views his realm . . . as a place of exile for all the immigrants who have sought their own small place in a world apart from the chaos and exploitation of outsiders. This mentality stands in contradiction to the self-consciousness of the rulers of an empire, who see outsiders as a threat and a source of physical and cultural invasion. . . . the mentality of an islander, such as Lee, is to reject constructing the nation in terms of ethnic or national identity.” (p. 138)

This is obviously an ideal to strive towards, rather than a fact that exists on the ground today. Present-day Taiwan has a long way to go when it comes to reducing discrimination against foreigners -- and I’m not talking about white folks like me, I’m talking about the Southeast Asians who come to Taiwan seeking work opportunities and a better life and are often treated horribly by their employers.

I believe that Lee’s ideal, of a pluralistic society of people engaged in mutually beneficial relationships, is one worth striving for.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Cheng's suicide as protest was confronting KMT, while Lee TH at the time was a KMT protege who kept under wraps to achieve his ~only unwavering ultimate goal -- of nativizing Taiwan politics towards representative democracy (and direct rep on local levels). Cheng died in 1989 when DPP was still fledgling (while Lee had his hands full with KMT's old power) then his wife held top positions there in 2000-5.