Tuesday, May 12, 2015

THE CHINA QUESTION - Who's right, the late Lee Kuan Yew or Taiwanese?

This montage shows Chinese President Xi Jinping, left (Kyodo), former Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou.

There was a high-profile meeting in Beijing on May 4 between Xi Jinping, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and China's president, and Eric Chu, chairman of Taiwan's ruling Chinese Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang.

     The powwow marked the latest in a series of exchanges that the two political parties have held since 2005, when they ended many years of confrontation dating back to the civil war between Nationalists and Communists.

     Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore who died March 23, helped to lay the foundation for the closer ties Beijing and Taipei now have.

     On March 24, upon returning from a one-day trip to Singapore to pay tribute to the former leader, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou eulogized Lee as a great figure who made history.

     Ma's quick junket may have struck some as surprising, given that Singapore and Taiwan have never had diplomatic relations.

     Lee was an ethnic Chinese with a Chinese name. His great-grandfather was an immigrant from China's Guangdong Province. Lee was very interested in ethnic Chinese communities.

     He hit it off particularly well with Chiang Ching-kuo, who served as Taiwan's president in the 1970s and 1980s. Lee paid his first visit to Taiwan in 1973 -- while he was prime minister. By March 2011, he had made 25 trips to the island.

     Chiang decided to let Singapore hold military exercises in Taiwan. Ma had a strong desire to pay homage to Lee in Singapore; at one time, he was one of Chiang's secretaries and was in charge of exchanges between Chiang and Lee.

     Lee delayed establishing diplomatic relations with China until 1990 due to his concerns with communism. But he made his first visit to China in May 1976. Mao Zedong, who was elderly and infirm at the time, talked with Lee.

     Lee made 33 trips to China and had exchanges with leaders of all generations, including President Xi, who belongs to China's so-called fifth generation of leaders.

     China dispatched Vice President Li Yuanchao, not President Xi, to attend Lee's state funeral on March 29. China customarily emphasizes the communist bloc in diplomatic condolence visits.

     A Singaporean diplomatic source in Beijing said, however, that the selection of Vice President Li as China's representative at the state funeral showed Beijing's full respect for Lee, given China's political system.

     One of Lee's greatest achievements was the role he played in 1993 getting representatives from Taiwan and China to meet for the first time.

     Chinese nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949 following the civil war with the Communists. Until the 1993 meeting, they had rejected talks, with each side claiming to be China's legitimate regime.

     Lee used his political connections, took the pulse of Chinese and Taiwanese leaders, then invited the top official of the Straits Exchange Foundation, a Taiwanese organization promoting better relations with China, and the head of its Chinese counterpart, the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits, to Singapore.

     Taipei and Beijing have continued the dialogue that Lee helped to begin 22 years ago -- as exemplified a few days ago by the meeting in Beijing between the top leaders from the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang.

     The question here is: What were Lee's views on the future of cross-strait relations?

     Lee's book "One Man's View Of The World," a Chinese language-version of which was published in Taiwan last July, reflects what he really thought about China and Taiwan.

     The book portrays Lee as friendly toward China. For example, he wrote that for 5,000 years, the Chinese people have believed that the nation can only be secured by a strong central state.

     Lee first met Xi in November 2007, at Beijing's request. In the book, Lee praised Xi as a man of "great breadth," comparing the Chinese president to Nelson Mandela. Mandela, South Africa's first black president, spent many years in jail as a political prisoner; Xi was forced to work in a farming village during China's Cultural Revolution.

     In stark contrast, Lee was cool to Taiwan. He wrote in the book that Taiwan's reunification with China is only a matter of time and that Taiwan's future will be decided not by the will of Taiwanese but by Taiwan's strength in comparison to China's.

     Lee Teng-hui, a former Taiwanese president, is the only key figure on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait who raised questions about Lee Kuan Yew's achievements when the former Singaporean leader died.

     Lee Teng-hui said that his and Lee Kuan Yew's philosophies greatly differ. Lee Teng-hui, who realized Taiwan's first direct presidential election in 1996, said his belief in democracy is at odds with Lee Kuan Yew's belief in "Asian values," which Lee Teng-hui reportedly described as having their roots in China's dynastic system.

     And, certainly, Taiwanese themselves would take issue with Lee Kuan Yew's stance on reunification being only a matter of time. In November, voters dealt a crushing blow to Taiwan's pro-China Kuomintang in islandwide mayoral elections.

     And a presidential election is coming up in January. The pro-independence main opposition Democratic Progressive Party recently named Tsai Ing-wen, its chairwoman, as its candidate.

     When he was in office, Lee Teng-hui gave Tsai the important role of policy adviser. The Democratic Progressives will seek to return to power under Tsai, eight years after melting into the opposition.

     The Chinese economy, the world's second largest after the U.S. and a source of power that Beijing has been wielding on the international stage, is now clearly slowing. The passage of time will not necessarily favor China over Taiwan.

     It is true that Lee Kuan Yew was well-versed in cross-strait politics. But his matter-of-time prediction may prove to be a statement of Lee's days more than a foretelling of the future. SHUHEI YAMADA, Head of Nikkei's China Headquarters

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