Taiwan's former President Lee Teng-hui dies aged 97

Lee, who in 1996 became Taiwan's first democratically elected president after pushing for direct polls, died in Taipei.

    Lee served as Taiwan's first democratically elected president in 1996 [File: Yuriko Nakao/Reuters]
    Lee served as Taiwan's first democratically elected president in 1996 [File: Yuriko Nakao/Reuters]

    Former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui has died at the age of 97, the official Central News Agency said.

    Lee was diagnosed with pneumonia in February and had been intubated since then. Taipei Veterans General Hospital confirmed his death at 7:24pm local time (11:24 GMT) on Thursday.

    Lee served as Taiwan's first democratically elected president in 1996, after a landslide victory that followed eight months of intimidating war games and missile tests by China in waters around the self-governed island.

    The physically imposing and charismatic leader thrived on defying China's drive to absorb the island it regards as a wayward province and hoped for Taiwan to be "a country of democracy, freedom, human rights and dignity".

    "A leader must be tough and strong enough so he can put an end to disputes and chaotic situations," he wrote in his autobiography.

    The government of Taiwan, formally the Republic of China, was established in 1949 by Chiang Kai-shek, after his Nationalist forces lost control of the mainland to Mao Zedong's Communists and fled to the island, which lies some 180km (112 miles) across the Taiwan Strait off China's southeast coast.

    Lee became the Nationalist party chairman and Taiwan's president upon the 1988 death of Chiang's son, Chiang Ching-kuo. Eight years after assuming the role, Lee's push for full democracy culminated with the island's first direct presidential vote.

    Lee's tough language towards mainland China resonated with many of Taiwan's 23 million people. A native to the island, he once described Taiwan-China ties as a "special state-to-state relationship", infuriating Beijing. He also sought to snap cultural links in favour of a distinct Taiwanese identity.

    In 1996, Lee offered to make a "journey of peace" to mainland China. But Beijing branded him a "splittist" bent on turning Taiwan's self-governance into fully-fledged independence, and said he should be tossed into the "dustbin of history".

    Lee's term as democratically elected president ended in 2000. His Nationalists lost the election that year to the Democratic Progressive Party, with former human rights lawyer Chen Shui-bian becoming president.

    Illness in Lee's later years prompted him to largely withdraw from public life.

    Cornell Alumnus

    Lee was born on January 15, 1923, in a village in northern Taiwan where his family owned a small rice and tea farm.

    His education under Japanese colonial rule before 1945 drew him to Japan's culture and he was a fluent Japanese speaker. He briefly served in the imperial Japanese army, staying on after its World War II surrender to study at university in Kyoto.

    He later studied at the elite National Taiwan University and in the United States at the universities of Iowa State and Cornell, where he earned a doctorate in agricultural economics.

    His June 1995 trip to a Cornell reunion angered Beijing into briefly downgrading ties with Washington and freezing what had been warming semi-official talks with Taipei.

    Lee was a Presbyterian, and an accomplished violinist, golfer and Chinese chess player. He married childhood friend Tseng Wen-hui and had two daughters and a son, who died of cancer in 1982.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies