August 28, 2001

Lee Visit Stirs Controversy

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Accustomed to tranquility during the summer, Cornell attracted international attention and hundreds of demonstrators when former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui Ph.D ’68 visited his alma mater from June 26-28.

During Lee’s visit, which was originally scheduled to take place in May but postponed twice due to health reasons, he met with his granddaughter, faculty and members of the Taiwan community.

Lee’s last visit to the University came in 1995, when he addressed a large reunion weekend audience and hoards of international press.

“[Lee has] maintained close contact with Cornell,” said Henrik N. Dullea ’61, vice president for University relations. “We were pleased to have him visit in 1995 and we’re pleased again here.”

However, the University did receive a letter from the Chinese ambassador expressing opposition from the Chinese government to Lee’s visit, due to his controversial efforts throughout his career to further Taiwan’s independence and democracy.

“We acknowledged and received that letter,” Dullea said, noting that the letter contained no veiled threats to Cornell and that there were no repercussions from China when Lee visited Cornell for the 1995 Reunion Weekend. “We have a lot of programs with China, and many [Chinese international] students … none of that was affected after the last visit.”

During a private luncheon hosted by University President Hunter R. Rawlings III, the University announced the establishment of the Lee Teng-hui Institute for scientific research, which will be located in Duffield Hall. The nanofabrication research facility, scheduled for completion in 2004, will be built on the Engineering Quad and received financial support from a consortium of Taiwanese companies in honor of Lee.

Noting the importance of technology in maintaining the excellence of the University, Lee said he hoped the research at the Lee Teng-hui Institute would “develop not only new, but ethical technologies, ones that benefit world peace and further human progress.”

The previous day, hundreds of cheering supporters varying in age and coming from several states lined the tarmac to welcome Lee at Ithaca- Tompkins County Airport. After being greeted at the airport by a small party led by Rawlings and a brief stop at the Statler Hotel, the group moved to a reception at the Clarion Hotel, which was attended by hundreds of Lee supporters and advocates for Taiwan’s independence from China. Lee also spoke (in Taiwanese) at the event.

“Cornell has taught me to be more virtuous, to help Taiwan … so that Taiwan is not ruled by someone else and so that society is more fair,” Lee said, according to translator Victor Yang ’03.

Lee said, “I have emphasized listening to the people to understand what they want,” adding that “how they rule in China does not work in Taiwan [and] people in Taiwan will always be loyal to what is right — to democracy.”

Though Lee’s visit was characterized as a “non-governmental, low-key event,” Dullea said that “when you speak to a Taiwanese audience it’s not surprising to speak about politics.”

Several student groups that believe Taiwan to be part of China have voiced objections to Lee’s visit and to his efforts advocating Taiwan’s sovereignty.

The Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) distributed literature at an afternoon rally held on Ho Plaza on June 27. Hundreds of activists from as far away as Purdue University and Harvard University converged on Ithaca for the rally.

In an open letter read aloud during the event, the organization stated, “Mr. Lee-Teng-hui has taken deliberate steps to divide the Chinese territory and sovereignty in an attempt to separate Taiwan from China.”

The letter went on to criticize what the group saw as an abuse of Cornell: “History proved that Lee is most interested in taking advantage of Cornell University’s fame for the purpose of his political propaganda.”

The purpose of CSSA’s rally was to “protest Lee’s separatist ideas and efforts, as well as his visit to Cornell,” said Rony Chen grad, spokesperson for CSSA.

“We don’t believe this is a private visit because after Lee’s retirement he has still tried to promote separatist ideas wherever he is,” Chen said.

Still, other groups, both before and during the visit, have shown their support for Lee and the independence of Taiwan.

“We can see that people really love Taiwan here,” said Tom Lee, a junior this fall at Yale University. “I came out here mainly as a patriotic thing because it’s good to support the country as a whole.”

Lee Teng-hui earned his Cornell Ph.D. from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, in the field of agricultural economics. He served as president of Taiwan from 1988 until 2000, though the United States has not recognized Taiwan as an independent country since diplomatic relations with China were re-established in the 1970s.

Archived article by Peter Lin