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Lee Ying-yuan: the dissident who became a diplomat

TURNING THE TABLES Lee Ying-yuan is a former dissident who advocated Taiwan's independence while in the US. Now he's Taiwan's deputy representative to Washington

By Monique Chu  /  STAFF REPORTER

Renowned American poet Emily Dickinson wrote: "Fame is a bee. It has a song. It has a sting. Ah, too, it has a wing."

Reminiscing about his life, 47-year-old DPP Legislator Lee Ying-yuan (李應元) said he couldn't agree more with the poet.

"Fame, like cars and watches, is merely a worldly possession that can evaporate at any time," said Lee, a follower of the Taoist belief that one should lead a simple life. "It takes a lot of personal experience, reflections on readings as well as societal observations to formulate such a life's philosophy," said Lee, one of the few legislators in Taiwan who prefer taking the MRT to work and dining in cafeterias.

But although Lee's new job as Taiwan's deputy representative to the US has earned him some fame, Lee himself declines to make a big fuss about it. "It is just a new role for me," he said. "And this transformation of roles -- which I share with many dissidents worldwide -- is simply a historic irony," Lee said.

A former dissident blacklisted by the KMT government for advocating Taiwan independence while in the US, Lee admitted that some might find his new role as a diplomat under Taiwan's new administration a bit strange.

Determined dissident

But such a transformation is merely a product of history, Lee claims. It was Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) victory in March's presidential election that ended the KMT's five-decade rule of Taiwan. Were it not for this transfer of power, Lee would not have been offered his current position, some have claimed.

"Where we once belonged to the opposition camp, we've now turned into members of the ruling team. It's indeed hard to describe in simple terms my feelings about this change," said Lee's wife Laura Huang (黃月桂), who heads the health care management department at Chang Gung University.

Lee and Huang have every reason to smile at the irony. The couple's original plan, like many Taiwanese students studying overseas, was to remain in an ivory tower by teaching after graduating from university.

But Lee's involvement, beginning in the early 1980s, in the World United Formosans for Independence (WUFI), then a US-based organization supporting Taiwan independence, led the couple down a rough road.

Born to a farmer's family in Taiwan in 1953, Lee earned his first degree in public health at National Taiwan University (NTU). He then found his way to Harvard University where he received his master's degree in health policy and management. In 1988, he earned his PhD in health economics from the University of North Carolina. Although NTU granted the couple letters of appointment in 1988 and 1989, the authorities in Taiwan shut the door to the young, promising academics.

"I'd applied 13 times during two years for permission to return to my homeland ... but to no avail," Lee recalled.

In 1990, Lee decided to return to Taiwan through illegal channels as part of the WUFI's plan to move its headquarters back to the island. During the following 14 months, Lee played hide-and-seek with intelligence agents around the island. He never visited a public place more than once and he used makeup to cover an obvious mole on his right cheek. To challenge the authorities, the leading independence advocate even took a picture of himself in front of the presidential office, his wife recalled. And Lee always carried a razor, a toothbrush and toothpaste with him in case he was imprisoned.

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