February 15, 2001

Ex-Taiwanese President Could Visit U.S., Cornell

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Stakes are high as reports continue to circulate that Former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui Ph.D ’68 will make a U.S. visit sometime this spring.

The event, which could have profound international implications, presents a personal stake for Cornell as well, as Lee has expressed interest in returning to his alma mater, according to recent reports from a Japanese newspaper.

The George W. Bush Administration has agreed to grant Lee an entry permit, the paper also said, thereby indicating that Lee’s visit is almost certain.

One U.S. State Department official, however, denied knowledge of any plans for Lee to visit the country.

He did not elaborate further except to say that “there are occasionally instances when high-level [Taiwanese] officials travel to the United States.”

Generally though, the United States “maintains unofficial relations with Taiwan” and the new Bush Administration “has not indicated any changes in its One-China policy,” the official added.

The One-China policy recognizes the mainland People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the sole legal Chinese government and leaves Taiwan without diplomatic relations with the United States.

Despite these disclaimers, spreading rumors sufficed in spurring Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhu Bangzao to warn the United States against allowing a visit by Lee, who Zhu said was not an ordinary citizen but a “full-time separatist activist,” according to Reuters news service.

“China strongly opposes Lee Teng-hui visiting the United States under any pretext, in any capacity and in any name,” Zhu said in a news conference last week.

China is expected to send its top foreign policy official, Vice Premier Qian Qichen, to Washington next month to jump-start Beijing’s ties with Bush and to caution Americans against filling a hi-tech weapons shopping list that Taiwan has presented, according to Reuters.

“We’ve made no official announcements to Washington about Qian Qichen visiting the country,” according to the U.S. State Department’s spokesperson.

The reports of Lee’s travel plans and fresh denials come just three months after an account last October that Lee was planning a trip to Cornell in December.

Lee canceled the trip after he underwent minor heart surgery in November, according to the Taipei Times.

The former president’s last trip to the United States was in 1995, during which time he made a private visit to Cornell to attend an alumni reunion.

The event caused a firestorm in U.S.-Sino relations, and an infuriated Beijing interpreted the visit as a disguised attempt to promote Taiwan’s independence. In retaliation, Beijing then staged threatening live-fire military exercises and test-fired missiles on the Taiwan Strait between 1995 and 1996.

An outspoken critic of Beijing’s diplomatic embargo against Taiwan, Lee further enraged mainland China in 1999 when he declared that relations across the Taiwan Strait should be conducted on a “special state-to-state” basis.

Although Lee left office last May and is now a private citizen and subject to different visa rules, Beijing still aims to block Lee’s travel plans, according to Reuters.

Speaking from a University viewpoint, Linda Grace-Kobas, director of Cornell News Service, said, “We’ve heard rumors that have been circulating for a while, but we’ve made no specific plans for a visit at this point.”

Nonetheless, Lee might pop up unexpectedly if his last visit is any indication, according to Ju-Ping Tseng grad and former president of the Cornell Taiwanese Student Association.

Lee came to Cornell in 1995 on a mere two weeks notice after President Clinton reversed his decision to let Lee into the country in response to pressure from Congress and numerous petitions from students at Cornell and other universities.

“I heard it’s pretty for sure that he’s coming to Cornell in April or May,” Tseng said.

“People all know that he likes Cornell a lot,” Tseng added, mentioning that Lee appeared on TV wearing his Cornell sweatshirt and speaks fondly of his alma mater.

Samson Yao ’02, president of the Cornell Taiwanese American Society, agreed that there is a high possibility that Lee is coming, but nothing is confirmed. Yao recalled President Bush’s statement that there is no reason why the United States government cannot issue Lee a visa.

“Officially, Lee Teng-hui has a standing invitation to visit Cornell anytime he likes, because he is an alumnus,” said Vivienne Shue, F&R Rhodes professor of Chinese government and director of the East Asian Studies Program.

Lee made low-profile visits to Britain and the Czech Republic last year, much to the annoyance of the Chinese government.

The Sankei Shumbun quoted diplomatic sources in Tokyo as saying that if Lee can smoothly visit the United States again this spring, the Japanese government is likely to follow suit and grant him an entry permit, according to Central News Agency in Taiwan.

Zhu called Lee an “out-and-out troublemaker” and said that “his proposal to visit the United States clearly comes from sinister political motives intended to sabotage cross-Strait and China-U.S. relations.”

Lee was the ROC’s first popularly elected president. During his 12-year tenure, he made far-reaching efforts to upgrade Taiwan’s international profile.

If Teng-hui does indeed apply for a visa and Beijing reacts strongly against it, the incident would present a very early test of the Bush administration’s policy toward mainland China, Taiwan and cross-strait issues.

“I don’t think it’s so political,” Tseng said in regard to the possibility of Lee’s coming to Cornell. “I would rather see it as being more academic. He may just want to come and leave quietly.”

Archived article by Jennifer Roberts