Lee Tenghui is dead. 97 years old. I won't wish he rest in peace, as his life was dedicated to making peace harder on earth. He was the man who single handedly prevented Taiwan from reuniting with China, thus prolonging the life of the American Empire in Asia for a good 3 decades. Of course I exaggerate, but only a little. The man really was a force of nature. Readers of historiography might now that there's a factional battle among historians, between the proponents of the "Great Man theory" which says historical change is driven by extraordinary men and their raw energy and ambition; and it's opposite, what you could call the "naturalist theory", that history is driven by larger forces such as modes of production or religion or whatnot, and individuals don't really matter that much.
Large ideological battles are of course always bullshit; they are driven by factionalism, status infighting inside the guild in order to capture monopoly rents and vanquish your factional enemies. I'm not an academic historian, hence not a member of the guild, so I won't give fuel to any faux dichotomy. Obviously history is both influenced by overarching forces and the actions of extraordinary man. The same way wars are generally determined by fundamental factors such as production and manpower, yet some decisive battles are very close and pretty much decided by random chance.
Well Lee Tenghui was a most extraordinary man, a man who for decades did what very few humans are capable of, and achieved what nobody thought possible. But also a very ordinary man, with hilariously petty motivations. Let me explain.
Let me first disclaim my attitude towards the guy. I wish no ill to the people of Taiwan; I've been there, it's a fine place. Not a huge fan myself, though, I have no special amity towards them either. If anything I feel a slight dislike towards a very weird, schizophrenic culture who doesn't really know what it is and what it wants. A place where people dress like Americans, talk like Americans, all entertainment is either copied from American or Japanese templates, etc. You know a culture is dead when a big portion of the population follows foreign religions, and there's loads of Christians in Taiwan. Again, not very good Christians, the whole thing is a sad LARP, focus on sad. It's just not a healthy culture. Japan is weird in many ways but at least they know who they are.
Another good example of that is how Taiwan has the most profoundly disorganised linguistic culture on earth. Taiwan is the only place where people will juggle two languages (Taiwanese Mandarin and South Fujianese) constantly, code-switching a dozen times per utterance. It's maddening. Taiwanese Mandarin is ugly enough (a very, very gay sounding mutilation of northern Chinese speech by Fujianese phonetics), but a big chunk of local Taiwanese won't even stick to it, switching back and forth to their native dialect (yeah technically a language but whatever) every few seconds. I like clean, well designed structures, both in the physical and the mental world. And the Taiwanese mental world as messy and tortuous as the room of a depressed teenage rebel chick. By comparison Hong Kong's retarded diglossia is a white marble ancient Greek temple.
But putting my aesthetic sensibilities aside, I am against Taiwan independence because I want China to be strong, because I believe the decline of civilization that this biog has been discussing for 9 years now is caused by American power. I want the American empire to be weak, so I want competitors to be strong, and China needs, absolutely needs Taiwan to be secure in its sovereignty. As of now China is militarily surrounded by hostile powers. Securing Taiwan would break the island-chain blockading China, giving its navy a free pass to the wider world. And it would also destroy two ideological problems: having a Western-aligned, democratic ethnic Chinese polity as some sort of political alternative, and also having an sub-ethnicity of the Han people as a sovereign country, serving as a precedent for potential separatism among other Chinese dialect groups. Han provincialism in China has never been much of an issue; separatism even among the Cantonese has always been an extremely minority taste, and to the credit of Xi Jinping's regime, the allure of western-style democracy in China has plummeted in recent years.
Still, getting back Taiwan would obliterate both issues for a very long time. So again, China may be more or less based (I'd say it's quite based), and more or less in a path to uphold technological civilization (demographics are concerning but I'd say they're doing OK), but what counts is that China is orders of magnitude more based and more orderly than any country in the West today, so I'm on their side on this one. And if you know anything about China you might guess that my aesthetic issues with Taiwan and HK go away in northern China. The Chinese know who they are. And Beijing Mandarin is clean. I like it there.
Anyway, back to Lee Tenghui. The man was born in Taihoku in 1923. Taihoku? That's what the Japanese called what is today Taipei, as Lee was born a Japanese subject. Taiwan belonged to Japan from 1895 to 1945. The Japanese run a rather efficient colonial administration in the island; developed its infrastructure, educated the natives, both Chinese and aboriginal (Taiwan has a bunch of native hill tribes, who happen to be ancestral to all Malay-Polynesian peoples), and run things pretty well. Of course Japanese were privileged above the natives, but as it happens in colonial regimes, a small minority of natives who are particularly friendly to the overlord can also attain very high status. We often call those 'compradors'. Compradors in fact have a better time than colonial overlords. Colonials have to move to a foreign, hot, musty, barbaric place, surrounded by (to their mind) dumb and dirty natives. Yeah you get called sahib and have lots of servants, but eventually you go home anyway, and while you're away you lose access to your social networks back home, which is usually bad for your career There's still much to hate about the whole deal. Native collaborators though have the best of both worlds. They get to live at home, comfortably among their own people, and get to lord over their own Dunbar neighbors. Status is relative, the point is not being rich or poor, the point is being richer than the people you know, your cousins, your school classmates. Seeing people worse off than yourself releases shitloads of dopamine, it's science. Colonial lords often don't get laid much as there's taboos about bedding the natives, but compradors are basically gigachad. It's a great deal.
Lee Tenghui was getting that deal. His own father was a police officer in Taiwan, and he and his brothers got access to the Japanese cursus honorum. As the wiki says:
Lee—one of only four Taiwanese students in Taipei College-preparatory School class—graduated with honors and was given a scholarship to Japan's Kyoto Imperial University. (…) In 1944 he too volunteered for service in the Imperial Japanese Army and became a second lieutenant, in command of an anti-aircraft gun in Taiwan. He was ordered back to Japan in 1945 and participated in the clean-up after the great Tokyo firebombing of March 1945. Lee stayed in Japan after the surrender and graduated from Kyoto Imperial University in 1946.
Lee Tenghui went to college in Japan! A massive honour for a dirty colonial. He naturally spoke fluent Japanese. He even got a Japanese name (and surname), Iwasato Masao. He had a bright, bright future ahead of him, had not Japan lost WW2. Oh, feels bad man. Really bad. This top comprador in the whole damn island, this guy who was projected to get probably the best gig in Taiwan, lost it everything in 1945, when Taiwan was given back to China, to Chiang Kai Shek's Kuomintang. The guy didn't even go back! He wasn't a Japanese subject anymore yet he stayed in firebombed, double-nuked, literally-starving 1945 Japan for a whole year until he went home. The guy didn't want to admit reality; his comprador career was over, for good. Fuck.
But he had to go home, and so he did. And what did he do in now Kuomintang, nationalist China dominated Taiwan? He enrols in the Chinese Communist Party! Lol. You can't make this stuff up. He resented the death of his sweet comprador gig career at the hand of the KMT so much that he joined whatever he thought would piss them off. The enemy of your enemy thing. But God was no kind to poor Tenghui. He didn't like being a commie too much. Compared to LARPing as a Samurai doing Kendo in Kyoto University, being a Chinese Communist was surely a joyless gig. But what's most fucked up is that even though the Communists did beat the Kuomintang in China, the KMT not just kept ruling Taiwan, the whole thing moved there, making it its headquarters. If he hated the KMT, now he had the whole fucking thing at home, there in Taipei.
Oh man. Why can't a guy get a break? Well Lee Tenghui needed a break, so he got the fuck out. He moved to America, where he got a masters. Then he moved back to Taiwan where he taught agronomy at a middling university. In the 60s he move back to America and gets a PhD. Tenghui wasn't the most handsome guy (his brother got all the good genes there), but he had a tall, imposing physique, and he was very smart. Off the charts. And he was also disciplined, and driven. Good genes all around, although I guess he credited his Japanese education for that. The man was bright and in America he became a rather popular figure among the American political establishment regarding Taiwan. He became… if I may say so, a comprador for the Americans. Because of course. People don't change. And he was good at that. In America he converted to Protestant Christianity, because again. He was that kinda guy.
After getting his PhD he moves back to Taiwan, 1968. It's been a long time, but Chiang Kai Shek is still running things. Lee Tenghui is appointed professor of agronomy at the top university there, and in 1971 he… joins the KMT. Hey wait. No way? Didn't he hate them? He actually did, he confessed to that many times later in his life. But a guy's gotta eat, and this guy was ambitious. He wanted a political career, and to get a political career in Taiwan while the Chiangs lived you needed to join the Kuomintang. Single party regime and all that.
It wasn't easy to join the KMT, they did background checks and all. This guy had been a Japanese collaborator, a hanjian. The KMT used to shoot those in China. Not in Taiwan, there were (understandably) far too many of those. But they sure didn't get to join the KMT. Hell, it was hard enough for any native Taiwanese to join the KMT, let alone an ex-comprador. And this guy had even been a communist!! There's a few theories about why that could happen at all. Apparently Chiang Chingkuo, crown prince and de-facto ruler at the time, had made a point of getting native Taiwanese into the party in order to win hearts and minds, and Lee Tenghui indeed a brilliant and distinguished native Taiwanese scholar. He had also American backing which I'm sure helped. So either the KMT internal spies by 1971 had gone old, soft, senile, fucked up and couldn't do their jobs properly; or Chiang Jr. just liked the guy and got him in, ignoring all standard procedure. Or the CIA called Taiwan and said this is our guy you get him in, pronto. Who knows.
As it happens 1971 was also when Nixon betrayed Chiang Kaishek and basically canceled his country, expelled his Republic of China from the United Nations, and let the commies, with Mao Zedong still kicking, to replace him. Bad, bad year for the Kuomintang.
Anyway, Lee Tenghui after joining the Kuomintang showed himself to be a very capable politician, and a very loyal one at that. At every chance he got he would crackdown on any Taiwan localism, any democratic activism, anyone who would even slightly show any displeasure against Chiang Kaishek and his dynasty. In 1978 he was appointed mayor of Taipei. That's the capital of the realm! A guy with a very dubious history and who had just joined the party a mere 7 years ago! Madness, madness. But again, smart guy, did a great job as mayor. Chiang Chingkuo, by then ruler of Taiwan after the old Chiang Kaishek died in 75, was very happy about his controversial choice. He had had his doubts himself. At some point he made a habit of going to Lee Tenghui's house every day to check up on the guy. He (the ruler of the country!) would show up at Lee's house in the early afternoon, knowing he wasn't home yet, and just sit there or look around his house. Checking up the house furniture, how expensive it was, if he had some jewelry stashed somewhere. Looking if he was corrupt or not.
Chiang Chingkuo and family
And he was apparently satisfied, as in 1981 Lee Tenghui was appointed governor of Taiwan province. The Kuomintang since the very beginning in the 1910s in China had been riddled with wild factionalism, it was very hard to rein on all those. Chiang Chingkuo had dynastic legitimacy but he must have lacked his own team of loyalists, people he could trust to implement his policies and not use state resources to benefit their own clan on the side. Lee Tenghui was a great choice there. He had no faction in the KMT, he was an outsider, a native with no political clout, a guy with absolutely no leverage against the king. The equivalent of a commoner bureaucrat, much easier to use than some landed aristocrat. Lee Tenghui didn't even have a family! No sons. This is underappreciated, but many a great leader was chosen because he had no sons, and so was trusted to not have ambitions of building his own political dynasty. Putin is another good example.
In 1981 Lee Tenghui is appointed governor of Taiwan province. "Taiwan province" is a funny one, as the Republic of China since 1949 has only had (besides the few offshore islands) control over one province, Taiwan. But of course abolishing the provincial system meant recognising they'd never get China back, so the Kuomintang could never do that, and kept the Taiwan province administration as a thing. It was a pretty big deal, having an outsider as governor of Taiwan province; but not a huge deal. Plenty of powerful people above him. But then in 1984 Chiang Chingkuo choose Lee Tenghui has his vicepresident! Now that's a big deal. People in the party were livid Just how good is this guy at licking ass?. He's his eunuch! But worry not. He won't get any further than that. Once the old man is dead, Lee Tenghui goes away with him. Most importantly, Chiang Chingkuo had sons of his own (hapa sons, children of his Soviet wife as it happened), so Lee Tenghui had reached the pinnacle of his political career. He couldn't possibly get any further while Chiang Hsiaowu and the old clique was around.
Oh boy. They didn't see it coming. In 1984 soon after Lee Tenghui became vice-president, a Taiwanese journalist in the US who had been critical of the KMT, Henry Liu, was murdered. As it happens he was an FBI informant, so the American government took that case seriously, and they found that all pointed towards Chiang Hsiaowu, second son of the president, had ordered the hit. USG was not pleased and they mobilised everything they got against the guy. Chiang Chingkuo had no choice but to throw him under the bus. He started talking about democracy, how he had never thought of continuing the dynasty, oh no. Poor guy. Yet another Redgov ally destroyed by Bluegov.
Utterly destroyed by the way. Chiang Chingkuo died unexpectedly in January 1988, and his three sons, every single one of them, died within a few years. Funny how that worked.
Anyway, Chiang Chingkuo died quite suddenly, leaving no will and no successor. His son was out of the picture, so the fight was between all the big shots in the party and government. The vice-president, the chairman of the KMT, the president of parliament, you get the picture. Lots of good claimants. Everybody raising troops and trying to make a run for the throne. Lee Tenghui wasn't a leading candidate, given his lack of pedigree and factional affiliation. And yet… as if often happens, it's those outsiders who end up coming on top. Lee was skillful, played the field well, leaked stuff (he had legendary dossiers about everyone) against his top competitors, bribed some key factional leaders, and against what had been almost universal opposition by the Kuomintang elite… came out on top.,
Picture this, Chiang Kai Shek ruled the whole of China from 1928, then moved to Taiwan after losing the civil war in 1949. He ruled Taiwan until his death in 1975, after which his son Chiang Chingkuo took over. This was still the Republic of China and the Kuomintang, a single-party dictatorial polity which officially still claimed the whole of China (and Mongolia!) and had actual plans of reunification. Then upon the death of Chiang Kaishek's son, the helm passes to… Lee Tenghui? A Christian, childless native Taiwanese wannabe samurai with an American PhD? What the hell? And not through a popular election, no, he actually went through the internal standard procedures of the Kuomintang. What the fuck happened?
So thought a lot of people, but what can you do. The guy was smooth. Very smooth. On assuming power he, slowly but steadily, started the controlled demolition of the Kuomintang and the Republic of China edifice. He started harbouring Taiwanese separatists, speaking in the local dialect, changing the school textbooks, praising Japan, basically making Taiwan what it's today: a country which feels little connection to China. People think the Taiwanese have always opposed reunification but in 1990 a big majority of the locals still thought unification would happen, and on their terms. Yeah, kinda funny, I know. Lee Tenghui slowly disabused them of the notion.
That's a guy who for 20 long years had worked inside the regime, made speeches on how proud he was of being Chinese, on how reunification is his dream, on how he loves and respected the Chiang dynasty, etc. I've talked before on how East Asians like to grind, have a patience and dedication which is hard to fathom for most Whites. But this guy, he's beyond the charts. 20 years he took all amount of shit until he rose to the top and he could take his vengeance. Again, I disagree with everything he stood for. But I can't help admiring the guy. He was a fine, genius-tier politician.
Lee Tenghui dismantled the single-party regime, allowed other political parties and instituted free elections. Changed the constitution, all that. The first elections were in 1996, and he won, fair and square, but he of course had good reasons to be popular. Then he went on pissing off China, building the grounds for Taiwanese independence. And by the 2000 elections, which he couldn't compete because of term limits, he pretty much openly helped the opposition! The president of the KMT, campaigning against his own team! His, again, genius-tier machinations, surgical strike of leaks and other manoeuvres made it so Chen Shuibian, the leader of Taiwanese separatists, won the election with 39% of the vote.
Lee Tenghui was still the head of the Kuomintang, the party of the Chinese army that flew to Taiwan only after losing the civil war in 1949. He might have manoeuvred his way into the committee by skillfully playing elite politics but the vast majority of the party supporters were people who had actually been fought in the Chinese Civil War, and their families. On losing the 2000 election the KMT masses surrounded the party HQs and were pretty close to grabbing the guy and quartering him on the street. Things didn't get that violent but he was forced to resign the party leadership and soon after he was outright expelled. After that he founded his own, openly separatist party, and I don't believe he has ever been seen speaking Mandarin again.
He has been seen speaking Japanese quite a few times though. He raised quite the ruckus when he visited Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, which he felt so strongly he visibly cried while praying there. Of course the guy is a rockstar among right-wingers in Japan; the man openly defended Japanese imperialism. A guy who used to run the Kuomintang, the party which bitterly fought Japan for 15 long years. You can't make this stuff up.
We wuz samurai,
Why would he do that? The guy owned the place, he was by far the most powerful man in Taiwan. Why did he throw everything away, why did he go out of his way to destroy his own party? Because he hated them, he hated the Chinese transplants of the Kuomintang and everything they represented. The guy had been a privileged comprador elite, doing Kendo with his imperial master in Kyoto. He felt so damn good there, knowing he had access to stuff that 99.9% of people in Taiwan would never get. Then Japan lost the war and his family lost everything they had. The other way around, as former collaborators they were very likely the target of all manner of harassment.
The guy then eventually became even more elite, even more privileged, but the feelings of youth don't go away so easily. He gave it all away to hang out with his old Kendo buddies in Japan, and spite the old Kuomintang clique who he had suffered for 20 long years in Taiwan. Lee gave dozens of interviews and wrote a bunch of books basically shitting on the Kuomintang. That must have felt good. But that also shows what ideology is most often about. Feeling good.
I'm not just deducing this, you should have seen the guy, before and after he achieved power and started pushing for Taiwanese independence. The guy was happy, funny, talkative, a joy to watch. Nothing like the stiff, old-school politicians out there, or his former self in the old Chiang days. You could really tell he was enjoying every minute of his destruction of the party that made him president.
Now the man is dead, but his legacy lives on. Taiwan is not only de-facto independent, it now has, very much due to him alone, an independent, if somewhat confused, identity. A large majority of Taiwanese don't call themselves Chinese anymore, and shiver at the thought of reunification. Separatists have run the country for 12 out of 20 years since Lee left power, and will likely do so indefinitely until China actually sends troops. China hasn't been idle either, it has bought off a big chunk of the local media, is by far the biggest factor in the economy, and has infiltrated so much of the Taiwanese military the the joke is China might have enough ships to transport its troops to invade Taiwan but it doesn't have enough to exfiltrate all the spies it has in the island.
Xi Jinping has hinted that reunification will happen in his watch, and that he'll invade he has to. So I'd predict Taiwan will fall during this decade. Unless America intervenes, after first sight of PLA fighter jets I expect the Taiwanese to surrender before you can say "bubble tea". But America may very well intervene, and if so there will be much blood and destruction. Also more closure, and a more meaningful geopolitical outcome. Lee Tenghui won't be there to see it, but the bunch of childless, gaymarried anime cosplayed cat ladies he left leading the country will be there.