It was a rather inauspicious beginning for a trip to Asia in 1996.
I was nearing departure time in 1996 for travel to Taiwan, South Korea and Japan as chair of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. I had an agenda of meetings with scholars, and government and academic officials from those countries, as well as officials from the United States working abroad.
My international itinerary was to begin in Houston, where I had been participating in a conference on public diplomacy, and proceed to Taipei, Taiwan, as my first Asian stop. However, a last-minute discovery put my travel plans in jeopardy. The State Department had assembled my travel documents, which included my U.S. diplomatic passport, but one key document was missing. Because the United States and Taiwan did not have official diplomatic relations, the passport on which I was traveling was not valid for travel to Taiwan. The passport to enter Taiwan must not have a stamp indicating that I had traveled to the People's Republic of China, but I had, indeed, visited the PRC. What I needed was a regular U.S. passport and I did not have mine with me. And I would need the official passport for the rest of my Asian travel.
So, instead of heading to the airport, I was informed by the State Department that I needed to go to the Passport Office in downtown Houston, sign official papers and be issued the new "regular" passport. All of this was taking place on a late afternoon in Houston, right in the middle of rush-hour traffic. When I arrived at the Passport Office, it was closed. However, the director of the office was standing in the doorway awaiting my arrival. He was obviously not happy about the flurry of last-minute activity. But it was a quick turn-around. Soon I was in a taxi on the way to the airport, arriving with about five minutes to spare.
All of this came to mind a few days ago when I learned of the death, at age 97, of former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui. It also brought to mind my meeting with Mr. Lee on that trip to Taiwan and the role that he played in helping to democratize the self-governed island – and its complicated, multi-dimensional relationship with the People's Republic of China, "mainland China" as some would have it. Indeed, names and labels have been important elements in that relationship. And, of course, there is China's central role in international relations and particularly its troubled ties with the United States, including China's disputed connection with the pandemic.
When Nixon made his historic visit to China in 1972, there was much talk of playing the "China card," exploiting the split in the communist world.
There are numerous sub-plots in this saga. Various players have sought to shuffle the deck. For many years, even after the communists took control of China (the People's Republic) in 1949, the United States maintained official diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (ROC), a government that had been formed by Chiang-Kai-shek and his Nationalist colleagues in Taiwan -- as it was increasingly known. Meanwhile, the PRC became a growing force in the international economy. The Cold War had provided a rationale for the charade suggesting that the Nationalists would one day return to the mainland. The PRC insisted that Taiwan was a part of China. And, the Nationalists were by no means democratic, with a heavy-handed authoritarian hold on politics and policy within Taiwan. It was the Carter administration in 1979 that officially recognized the PRC as the government of China. No wonder the passport shuffle was so confusing.
Mr. Lee had been rising through the government ranks and, following the death of Chiang Ching-kuo (son of Chiang kai-shek) in 1988, Mr. Lee became president and succeeded in leading Taiwan in a new direction. He was a major factor in Taiwan's peaceful transition from autocracy to democracy. He oversaw abolition of emergency laws that had been enacted by Chiang's administration, which had the effect of nullifying the Nationalists' long asserted goal of reclaiming control of the mainland. When I met with him in March 1996 he was in an expansive and exuberant mood after the democratic elections -- along with a thriving economy and standing up to the PRC in a "missile crisis." He told me there could some day be a merging or coming together of the two Chinas, but it would be the result of the PRC adopting the democratic principles of Taiwan.
The highest-ranking U.S. official delegation in 20 years is currently in Taiwan, definitely a sign of change.
An imposing, but amiable presence, Mr. Lee said his goal was to establish a democratic, free, prosperous Taiwan. He stressed the importance of maintaining good relations with the United States and participating in the Fulbright Exchange Program as Taiwan had done since 1957. He played the democracy card.
Lee worked to create a separate non-Chinese identity for Taiwan, a Taiwan-centric culture -- even though the PRC claims the island is part of its territory. Some historians consider Lee to be a true statesman. The Wall Street Journal recently quoted Henry Tsai, former University of Arkansas history and Asian studies professor, writing in his 2005 biography, "Lee has forged the consciousness of Taiwan as did Nelson Mandela for South Africa, created an identity for Taiwan as did Lee Kuan Yew for Singapore, and enabled the Taiwanese to imagine an independent state free of foreign control as did Jose Rizal for the Philippines in the 1890s."
At a time of leadership shortage in much of the world, Mr. Lee's role in democratizing Taiwan demonstrates how important leadership can be.