Taiwan’s ‘Mr Democracy’ Lee Teng-hui dies at 97

Taiwan’s first native-born president, and first democratically-elected president, passed away in hospital this evening, July 30, after a long bout with illness.

Former President Lee, 97, was hospitalized February 8 after choking while drinking a glass of milk. Lee’s condition deteriorated after suffering a sudden heart-related event on February 17, after which doctors performed CPR and put Lee on a respirator.

After 174 days in hospital, Lee passed away at 7:24 this evening.

Taipei Veterans General Hospital held a press conference shortly afterwards and explained that due to Lee’s age and multiple chronic conditions, he had suffered from repeated infections during hospitalization and had died of septic shock and multiple organ failure.

Lee served as president from 1988 to 2000, when he oversaw reforms that took Taiwan from a period of martial law government to democratically elected government.

In 1996, Lee became the first democratically elected president, with 54% of the vote.

Condolences were expressed from all walks of life, including President Tsai Ing-wen, who praised former President Lee’s contribution to Taiwan’s democratization and called his death “a great loss to the country.”

President Tsai ordered the Presidential Office and relevant departments to assist Lee’s family and organize a state funeral.

In many ways, Lee Teng-hui’s life story personifies the modern history of Taiwan.

Born in 1923, Lee grew up during the Japanese colonial era and graduated from Kyoto Imperial University. Lee learned Kendo and bushido, was influenced by Japanese thinkers, and served in the Imperial Japanese Army in the final days of World War II.

After Japan’s defeat and the handover of Taiwan to the Republic of China’s KMT government, Lee returned to Taiwan and joined the Communist Party of China out of hatred for the KMT.

After studying in the USA then returning to Taiwan, Lee eventually joined the KMT in 1971 and was appointed as a cabinet minister. Lee then went on to serve in appointed positions including Mayor of Taipei, governor of Taiwan Province, and Vice President.

When Chiang Ching-kuo died in 1988, Lee succeeded him as president.

In 1990, when the Wild Lily student movement for democracy saw mass demonstrations in Taipei City, Lee responded by inviting student leaders to the Presidential Office, and expressed his support, pledging his commitment to full democracy in Taiwan.

President Lee proved to be a man of his word, and the next year saw the removal of laws put in place following the KMT’s arrival in Taiwan to suspend the democratic functions of government.

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