Fri, May 19, 2000 - Page 13 News List

A master manipulator bows out

The Lee Teng-hui era ends tomorrow, an epochal period that saw the peaceful democratization of Taiwan, the boosting of its international profile and economic growth. But Lee will also be remembered for failing to curb "black gold" politics, his challenges to China and the KMT's implosion

By Christopher MaCdonald

Shakespeare's The Tempest begins with a party of fractious, scheming nobles shipwrecked upon an enchanted isle, a place about which they know nothing and for which they care little. Though bound at first by gratitude for the miracle of having escaped the storm with their lives intact, they descend rapidly into politicking and conspiracy, the habits of the Machiavellian realm they carry about with them. Nevertheless, by the end of the play conflicts have been resolved, rifts healed, historical scores settled and peace made, all having been meticulously stage-managed by the island's resident sorcerer, Prospero.

As the rightful Duke of Milan, Prospero hails from the same world of intrigue and realpolitik as the new arrivals. But for "12 year since," as he explains to his daughter Miranda, he has ruled this strange, spirit-filled island, refining his mastery of the magic arts for just such a day as this, the day that his plans are realized and justice prevails.

For 12 years Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) has governed Taiwan and dominated the KMT (a fractious, scheming party of shipwreck survivors if ever there was one), manipulating events so as to preserve the party's grip on power for long enough to engineer the island's peaceful democratization -- a process that would inevitably culminate in the dethroning of the KMT itself.

Along the way he has nurtured the political opposition and indigenized Taiwan's ruling establishment, surviving all-out assaults from the vested interests of the emigre regime and brushing off a succession of challenges from their champions, men such as Hau Pei-tsun (郝柏村), Lin Yang-kang (林洋港), Chen Li-an (陳履安) and James Soong (宋楚瑜).

Meanwhile, Lee has supervised a long-overdue revamping of the Constitution, dismantling the paralyzing fiction of the island's claim to sovereignty over China and erecting in its place a Taiwan-oriented framework that, while still evolving, is fully in keeping with the democratic norms of the age.

And as if that weren't enough, the country's economy has continued to hum along nicely, expanding at a rate that the rest of the developed world can only dream of.

Like Prospero in The Tempest, Lee appears to have played his role with supernatural skill. And like Prospero, his actions -- and perhaps his motives -- are open to a variety of interpretations. Critics and enemies have questioned his probity, his loyalties, his intelligence and his supposed political acumen. Even his allies note that he has a tendency to be stubborn and headstrong.

Yet now, with the KMT humbled and in disarray, with the political monopoly of the mainlander establishment at an end, and with Lee's adoptive heir Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) about to be inaugurated as president, it looks uncannily as if this is exactly how the old boy intended things to turn out -- as if the master manipulator planned it all along.

How can this be? To understand the complicated nature of the role that Lee has played, it is worth looking at his personal background as well as at the achievements and failures that have marked his years in office.

New Taiwanese

In many ways Lee embodies the contradictory, pluralist identity of the people of this island, standing as a prime example of the "New Taiwanese" ideal that he has striven to promote to his compatriots. In his own words he grew up Japanese, just like all educated Taiwanese during the colonial era, and Japanese is said to be his preferred language to this day.

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