For a critical twelve years, from January of 1988 to March of 2000, the presidency of the Republic of China on Taiwan was held by one of the twentieth century’s greatest statesmen, Lee Teng-hui, widely considered the father of Taiwan’s democracy. Lee fostered a transition from an authoritarian one-party state to a vibrant democracy in one of the world’s key technology economies. It’s a tribute to the power of Taiwan’s isolation and obscurity that Lee continues to be denied his rightful place in 20th century history alongside other heroes of democracy such as Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar. To rectify this error, I believe it is time for the global Taiwanese community to nominate and promote a Nobel Peace Prize for Lee Teng-hui.

Lee’s successful fostering of Taiwan democracy is all the more impressive when one considers that it was accomplished without violence and without the upheaval of a revolution that might have grievously harmed the nation’s government and society. Lee fended off authoritarian challenges to his power, oversaw the end of the savage national security laws that were martial law in all but name, and freed the last of the government’s political prisoners. He spearheaded a constitutional revolution as well, and began the long process of disentangling the Kuomintang and the State, a move foundational to the furtherance of democracy in Taiwan. Surely this peaceful transition to democracy, which, improperly handled, might have sparked a regional war, is deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize.

But beyond the recognition of Lee, a Nobel Peace Prize for Lee will have several other salutary effects. First, it will function as a global recognition of Taiwan’s vibrant democracy, now a key part of the Taiwanese identity. Second, it will give the global Taiwanese community a cause to rally around. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it will raise Taiwan’s profile, especially its profile as an independent entity. When the international media report on why Lee deserves a Nobel, it will have to report on the Taiwanese identity, on the years of martial law and authoritarianism, and on the existence of a majority-supported demand for independence, and on the link between political change, independence, and democracy, things it does not like reporting on.

A Nobel Peace Prize for Lee Teng-hui could be a powerful moment for Taiwan. Even a credible and serious nomination could be important. Global Taiwanese, make it happen!

(Feature photo by Caroline Chiohh)



Michael Turton

Michael Turton is a longtime resident of Taiwan. He blogs about Taiwan politics and cycling at The View from Taiwan (