Lee exemplified new Taiwanese

  • By Chen Tsai-neng 陳財能

Former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), who died on Thursday last week, coined the phrase “new Taiwanese” and used it in some of his public speeches. The concept of “new Taiwanese” was an important link in the chain of his political thought.

Lee proposed the term in August 1998 on the eve of the anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. His intention was to consolidate a common understanding around the idea of “new Taiwanese,” and to embody the Taiwanese spirit of never giving up and not fearing hardship, and to create bright prospects for generations to come.

However, after central government power passed from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to the Democratic Progressive Party in 2000, the KMT still clung to the Chinese ideology of legitimate succession. The KMT still had a legislative majority, and it used that majority, along with the divided identities that persisted at a time when Taiwanese consciousness had not yet been fully awakened, to push Taiwan into a “democratic civil war.”

Lee responded by quitting the KMT in 2000, and in 2005 he formally proposed the concept of “Taiwanese of a new era” to replace the “new Taiwanese” formula that the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) had narrowed to comply with Chinese nationalism.

An understanding of historical facts shows that during Lee’s 12 years as president, he devoted himself to reversing and dismantling the millennia-old Chinese feudalistic ideology and sociopolitical system, so that people who originated from various parts of China could come together to form a vigorous living community in Taiwan and join hands to create a new historical starting point.

In April 1993, then-president Lee delivered a speech titled “This is a Historical Starting Point,” in which he said: “The 20 million Taiwanese compatriots have today formed a new community of life.”

This shows that from 1993 until the very end, Lee had been quietly applying a variety of specific policies and movements, including mental reform, total community development, direct presidential elections, getting to know Taiwan, and proposing the concepts of new Taiwanese, a special state-to-state relationship with China and new-era Taiwanese. All these things revolve around using “a democracy based on civic consciousness and community commons” to construct a consciousness and recognition that “Taiwan belongs to Taiwanese.”

In short, the core purpose of Lee’s practice was to construct the consciousness and mentality of a “new-era Taiwanese” identity and the practical ability to reach out to the world.

There are two central elements to the consciousness of identity: One was to establish Taiwanese consciousness and identity in the historical processes of migration, colonization and authoritarian rule; the other was to replace the old nationalistic mentality with democratic civic and community consciousness.

With respect to the mental attitude toward identity, there are two layers of meaning:

One was the awareness of Taiwanese national consciousness that could serve to consciously break free of the fiction set by others that portrayed Taiwan as dependent, so as to establish a self-affirmation with Taiwan as its subject.

The other was to create a new kind of society and a new kind of person. Geographically, to recognize that Taiwan stands at an intersection between continent and ocean. Historically, to recognize the transformations that Taiwan has undergone through colonization, dictatorship and democracy. Ethnologically, to recognize how migrants who arrived during different stages and from different places could blend together. These are all natural resources for identifying with Taiwan’s creation of a new society and a new kind of person.

Herein lie the roots of Lee’s “Taiwanese of a new era.”

Finally, with regard to the practical ability to reach out to the world, Lee always adhered to three directions:

First, to sincerely and naturally persist in breaking with the old and changing to the new, so as to establish a free country centered on democracy.

Second, to insist that “Taiwan belongs to the Taiwanese,” so as to build a civil society and community of life of democratic persons.

Third, with a mentality and philosophy of “am I my ‘me’?” to pursue a meaning of life that always answers “yes, I am.”

From the aspect of the history of humankind’s quest for a benevolent political civilization, Lee applied the idea that “sovereignty lies with the people” to move away from Chinese-style dictatorial rule. In the process, his achievements were much greater than Japan’s Meiji Restoration, which involved the restoration of imperial rule.

Regarding the question of who is the subject of reform, Lee chose the path of “making Taiwanese the subject” to fight against the “specter of Chinese authoritarianism.” This process of democratization — of “giving state power back to the Taiwanese people” — is in itself sufficient to be listed among the achievements of human civilization alongside the 18th-century French Revolution, in which the residents of Paris raised high the liberal ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity to dismantle the absolute monarchy and feudalism, as well as former US president Abraham Lincoln’s campaign in the 1860s to free black slaves.

Lee, who lived through two successive alien regimes, started out from the mentality that “it is a tragedy to be Taiwanese.” He put into practice all convertible values, converting them into actions that exemplify the idea that “it is a blessing to be Taiwanese,” thus constructing the mind and identity of Taiwanese of a new era.

In essence, Lee was a model of a new-era Taiwanese. Although his life has come to an end, his legacy for Taiwan of the mentality and consciousness of “new-era Taiwanese” and his legacy to world democratic civilization of a “quiet revolution” are without doubt values and models that will last long and improve with time, and whose influence is deep and far-reaching.

Chen Tsai-neng planned an oral history project about Lee Teng-hui and conducted interviews for the project.

Translated by Julian Clegg