Personal Stories: Lee Teng-hui's story

Taiwan Leader Tried Many Churches Before Finding Faith, And Then Declared ‘The Greatest Word Is Love’

Steven Crook charts the rise of Taiwan’s Christian President

Lee Teng-hui

Although he has led Taiwan, or the Republic of China as it prefers to be known, for almost 10 years, it is only in the last two that President Lee Teng-hui has become widely known outside his native island.

His visit to the United States in June 1995 incurred the ire of the Chinese communists, but introduced him to a great many Americans. In March 1996, he became the first ever directly elected head of a state anywhere in the Chinese world. For this he was hailed by Time magazine as “Mr. Democracy”.

When Lee was born, on 15 January 1923, Taiwan was part of the Japanese empire. The Chinese imperial Government had been forced to cede the island after losing the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. Japanese rule was harsh and exploitative, but the brightest Taiwanese students were permitted to study in Japanese colleges.

Lee Teng-hui was one such student, and at the time of Japan’s surrender in l945, he was studying agriculture in Kyoto. Japanese is just one of five languages he can speak. He is also fluent in Mandarin (the Republic of China’s official language), the Hakka and Taiwanese dialects, and English, which he mastered while studying at Iowa State University in the early 1950s.

Fewer than a tenth of Taiwan’s 21 million people are Christian – the majority practise Buddhism, Taoism, folk religion, ancestor worship, or a mixture of all four. And yet President Lee’s ardent Christianity does not seem to diminish his electoral popularity.

In the 1996 presidential elections, he and his running mate, Lien Chan, won 54% of the vote – a remarkable achievement in a four-horse race, and a great improvement over what his KMT party had managed in legislative elections just a few months earlier.

Although President Lee attended Tamkang High School, a Protestant institution which celebrated its centenary in 1986, he did not become a Christian until he was almost 30. At the time he was teaching at National Taiwan University, the most prestigious college on the island.

In Love and Faith, a collection of his addresses, he says of the period before his baptism: “I started going to church five times a week. I went to almost every church in Taipei. However, after every sermon, I failed to feel the presence of God … The door to faith did not open easily for me.”

Professor Lee (as he then was), “was looking at spiritual questions from a biological perspective”. Eventually, he says, he was able to free himself from, “looking at metaphysical phenomena from a physical point of view”. He then asked to be baptised.

Throughout the l950s and 1960s, Lee Ten-hui taught, and spent time assisting, Taiwan’s farmers. He became a Minister Without Portfolio in 1972, and was appointed Mayor of Taipei, the ROC’s capital and largest city, in 1978. One of his reforms as President has been to turn that post into one directly elected by the city’s residents.

As Governor of Taiwan Province between 1981 and 1984, he was responsible for 90% of the ROC’s land area and three quarters of its population. 

During this period, his only son died of cancer. His Christian faith is said to have deepened further as a result, and for some years he held Bible reading sessions at his home each Thursday evening.

President Ch’iang Ching-kuo, son of Ch’iang Kai-shek and successor to his father as Chinese Nationalist leader, picked Governor Lee to be his vice-president in 1984.

On 13 January 1988 – two days before Lee’s sixty-fifth birthday – Ch’iang died and Lee Teng-hui became President of the Republic of China on Taiwan.

He has since spent a great deal of time endeavouring to raise Taiwan’s international profile, to win the state, as he puts it, “its own space in the international arena”. The Chinese Government has responded by redoubling its efforts to isolate Taiwan.

Despite the frustration this must bring him, President Lee is rarely seen to be angry or demagogic. Perhaps this is because of the strength his faith gives him. “In my understanding,” he has said more than once, “the greatest word in the Bible is love.”

By courtesy of the New Christian Herald

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