Lee Teng-hui Ph.D. ’68, the former president of Taiwan who led the island’s transformation out of authoritarian rule and ushered in democracy, died Thursday in Taipei. He was 97.
Lee, who was the first president to be elected by popular vote and the first native Taiwanese president, received his Ph.D. in agricultural economics from Cornell before joining the Nationalist Party as its agricultural minister. From then, his political career took off — as he became mayor of Taipei, the capital, and the provincial governor of Taiwan.
He was appointed the vice president in 1984 by President Chiang Ching-kuo — a departure from the usual appointment of mainland Chinese people and a gesture toward the native Taiwanese. When Chiang Ching-kuo died in 1988 of a heart attack, Lee succeeded him.
Lee had first entered politics during the dictatorial Nationalist Party regimes of Chiang Ching-kuo and his father Chiang Kai-shek — a period of martial law and brutality. During the February 28 incident in 1947, when Chiang Kai-shek’s troops open-fired on street protesters and killed 28,000, Lee joined the protests.
He then renounced Marxism and joined the Nationalist Party, but as president he publicly rebuked the February 28 massacres and dismantled the dictatorship.
Throughout Lee’s 12-year tenure as president, he consistently angered the Beijing government, insisting on Taiwan’s sovereignty. The United States ended up torn by Lee’s stance, as it sought to improve relations with Beijing and deter China’s military presence on the island.
In 1992, The New York Times called Taiwan the “most democratic society in the Chinese-speaking world.” And in 1996, Taiwan held its first open presidential election and elected Lee outright.
Lee’s ties to the U.S. through two academic stays — a master’s degree in agricultural economics from Iowa State University and his Ph.D. at Cornell — also concerned the Beijing government.
In 1995, Lee visited the U.S. for a Cornell reunion, where he delivered the annual reunion Olin Lecture to an audience of about 3,000. During his speech, he spoke of reliving fond memories at Cornell, the prevailing American democracy, Taiwanese popular sovereignty and U.S.-Taiwan relations.
Lee’s visit, which the Beijing government openly opposed, led China to accuse the U.S. and Taiwan of collusion, resulting in a military demonstration that strained U.S.-China relations.
Lee remained involved with his alma mater. In 2001, he visited again to see his granddaughter, who was attending Cornell. Although his granddaughter’s name was not known to the public, she gave one interview to The Sun while at Cornell.
The 2001 visit was again a controversial one, marked by a Ho Plaza rally involving the Chinese Students and Scholars Association and hundreds of activists from as far away as Purdue University and Harvard University.
“History proved that Lee is most interested in taking advantage of Cornell University’s fame for the purpose of his political propaganda,” read a letter presented at the rally, intended to “protest Lee’s separatist ideas and efforts, as well as his visit to Cornell.”
“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,” Rony Chen grad, spokesperson for CSSA, told The Sun at the time.
During that visit, the University announced the establishment of the Lee Teng-hui Institute for scientific research. At the announcement, Lee said he hoped the research at the institute would “develop not only new, but ethical technologies, ones that benefit world peace and further human progress.”
The Lee Teng-hui Institute was to be located in the new Duffield Hall. In honor of Lee, a consortium of companies in Taiwan made a substantial financial contribution toward the construction of the facility and to support instructional and research programs of the college.
This was the second of Lee’s large donations to his alma mater: A 1994 donation of $2.5 million — presented anonymously by friends of Lee in Taiwan — endowed the Lee Teng-hui Professorship of World Affairs.
Lee is not the only Cornellian to ever hold Taiwan’s highest office: Current President Tsai Ing-wen LL.M. ’80 was elected in 2016.
Tsai, Taiwan’s first woman president, served as Lee’s national security adviser and participated in negotiations for Taiwan’s membership into the World Trade Organization in the 1990s. He supported her in her bid for president in 2012, when she ultimately lost to the Nationalists’ Ma Ying-jeou.
“The president believes that former President Lee’s contribution to Taiwan’s democratic journey is irreplaceable and his death is a great loss to the country,” Tsai’s office said in a statement.