AS TAIPEI SPRUCED UP FOR NEXT WEEK'S HISTORIC INAUGURATION, PRESIDENT Lee Teng-hui -- Taiwan's first democratically elected leader -- granted an exclusive interview to a NEWSWEEK team led by Editor Maynard Parker. Ebullient, chatty and combative, Lee met his visitors in Taipei's presidential palace. Speaking in English, and occasionally in Mandarin, Lee outlined a tough strategy toward mainland China, though he seemed surprisingly ready to cooperate with his Beijing counterpart, President Jiang Zemin. He also spoke of his personal philosophy, rejecting the idea that democracy is inherently un-Asian.
LEE: I can't say too much. One thing I can say: I declare that freedom and democracy are the most important things for the Republic of China on Taiwan -- and how to defend that freedom and democracy.
Take it easy. Don't be in a hurry. The Chinese question should be discussed slowly. Don't use weapons. Freedom and democracy are very important; Chinese people want them.
Jiang Zemin's eight-point plan [to peacefully reunite Taiwan and the mainland] was a breakthrough. He tried to be different [from ailing leader Deng Xiaoping]. But Taiwan policy became a very hot point in Beijing's power struggle. Jiang is chairman of the military commission, but he has no control of military people. He has to compromise. [But] it seems to me Jiang is quite reasonable compared with the others. I don't know his [political] position. We are waiting for the outcome of China's Communist Party Congress in September.
We have to see the outcome of the struggle after Deng Xiaoping dies. If Jiang Zemin survives, it may be a very good time for talking. Before that, it will be difficult.
Chinese leaders worry about face. Maybe inside they feel [defeat], but they don't speak out.
They still think Beijing is very strong. It's a big country, and Taiwan is small. So they don't [admit it] even if they are defeated, as they were in Vietnam. They lost so many soldiers, but not one person could say, ""We were defeated.'' If they said that, they would be destroyed in a power struggle.
Thank you very much for defending Taiwan at a very crucial time.
We haven't made this an arms race. We have 35-year-old warships. We need a more modern navy. And we cannot fly our F-104s and F-5Es because we've lost so many pilots [in crashes]. Without replacement planes we can't defend ourselves.
Not only Taiwan. China is expanding militarily so quickly because at present, their airplanes can fly over the islands they occupy for less than 10 minutes. They need long-range airplanes, and they want to build an aircraft carrier.
America won't let me go. I don't like to seek trouble from the State Department. Even if I was invited by Congress, I would say, please, not this time. Maybe later.
They use many, many ways [to intimidate us]. We are watching very carefully what measures they will adopt. We must defend ourselves. . . . Hong Kong is chaotic. We fear they are going to lose their freedom. You must pay attention. It is already beginning.
I think so. For a long, long time, the Chinese people suffered from power struggles. That's why I took the initiative to hold elections for a national leader. The Chinese people haven't had [democracy] for 2,000 years. That has been horrible, horrible for them.
[Chinese people] in the coastal areas can watch foreign TV. They are aware there has been an election in Taiwan to choose a leader. That's very interesting to them. The democracy and freedom shown in this election were a good example. It shows that a democratic system is suitable for China.
He doesn't know classical Chinese thinking: 2,500 years ago, during the Warring States period, Chinese people were very humanistic. Chinese thinking is humanistic, not just feudalistic as it was in the imperial era. Paternalism is very powerful: you must listen to your father, to the emperor. This is the biggest problem in China. This is not Confucianism. Confucianism has been distorted by politicians. Now Singapore has adopted this [distortion].
I studied Zen. But there was too much spiritualism. So I had no belief at all. I gradually came back to spiritualism and Christianity. Buddhism and Christianity are different ways of thinking, but the goals are the same. Christianity has love and Buddhism has humility. At their highest points they are the same. But Christianity is a freer way of thinking. The greatest part of Christianity is that you have faith in something you cannot see.
My life of 74 years has been changing time and again, with so many events and situations. I wanted to see people have democracy and freedom, just like Moses leading the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt.
There was very strong discrimination [under the Japanese occupation of Taiwan before World War II]. Society was very unfair. After the war, it was also difficult. There was not so much discrimination, but it was rule by yet another group of occupiers. I wanted freedom even during the Japanese period. I hated the colonial system. Human beings were not treated well. There were no human rights. I realized we had to find a democratic way.
There was chaos but still democracy. I realized you must use democracy to improve society. Despite the anti-Vietnam movement, the country kept its democratic system. The majority used the democratic system to improve the social order. American people, Asian people, African people all need human rights. Some talk of Asian values. I say Asian people have rights just like in the United States.