Lee Teng-hui was born in Sanchih, near Taipei, Taiwan when the island was still a colony of Japan. Growing up under Japanese occupation, he developed an affinity for Japan. Lee—one of only four Taiwanese students in his high school class—graduated with honors and was given a scholarship to Japan's prestigious Kyoto Imperial University.
After WWII, and with Taiwan under KMT control, Lee enrolled in the National Taiwan University, where in 1948, he earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural science. In 1953, Lee received a master's degree in agricultural economics from the Iowa State University in the United States.
Lee subsequently returned to Taiwan as an economist with the Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction (JCRR), an institution sponsored by the US and aimed at modernizing Taiwan's agricultural system and at land reform.
Shortly after returning to Taiwan, Lee joined the cabinet as minister without portfolio with special responsibility for agriculture.
In 1978 Lee was appointed mayor of Taipei, where he solved water shortages and improved the city's irrigation problems. In 1981, he became governor of Taiwan Province and made further irrigation improvements.
As a skilled technocrat, Lee soon caught the eye of President Chiang Ching-kuo as a strong candidate to serve as Vice President.
As part of his efforts to hand more authority to the bensheng ren (or native Taiwanese), Chiang Ching-kuo nominated Lee to become his Vice President. Lee was formally elected by the National Assembly in 1984.
In January 1988, Chiang Ching-kuo died, and Lee succeeded him as President. The hardline faction of the KMT, headed by General Hau Pei-tsun, deeply distrustful of Lee, threatened a coup. With the help of James Soong, who quieted the hardliners, Lee was allowed to ascend to the presidency unobstructed. Lee solidified his power by skillfully speaking of defending the party line, while emphasizing the global trends of reform. Lee and his allies in the government used the pressure from the hardliners as a tool to work for developing the underlying Taiwanese localization movement. Lee used methods under the veil of "pragmatism" to sideline Hou and his backers in the face of the opposition DPP.
In May 1991 Lee spearheaded a drive to eliminate the Temporary Articles, laws put in place following the KMT arrival in 1949 that suspended the democratic functions of the government. In December 1991 the original members of the Legislative Yuan, elected to represent mainland constituencies in 1947, were forced to resign and new elections were held to apportion more seats to the bensheng ren. The elections forced Hau Pei-tsun from the premiership, a position he was given in exchange for his tacit support of Lee.
Taiwan localization movement
Lee Teng-hui, during his term as president, supported the Taiwanese localization movement. The Taiwanese localisation movement has its roots in the home rule groups founded during the Japanese era and sought to put emphasis on Taiwan as the center of people's lives as opposed Mainland China or Japan. During the Chiang regime, China was promoted as the center of an ideology that would build a Chinese national outlook in a people who had once considered themselves Japanese subjects. Under this ideology, Taiwan was seen as a place for mainlanders to resent as they waited for the re-conquest of the Maoist mainland. Taiwan was often relegated to a backwater province of China in the KMT-supported history books. People were discouraged from studying Taiwan and old customs were to be replaced by "Chinese" customs. Lee, conversely, sought to turn Taiwan into a center rather than an appendage.
Lee presided over the democratization of Taiwanese society and government in the late-1980s and early-1990s. During his presidency, Lee was followed by persistent suspicions that he secretly supported Taiwan independence. These suspicions were were proven true by Lee's behavior after his Presidency, which led to his expulsion from the Kuomintang and subsequently becoming the spiritual leader of the strongly pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union. Since leaving the Presidency, Lee has actively campaigned on behalf of pan-green coalition candidates and has actively opposed candidates of his former party. In addition, Lee has publicly stated that he supports changing the name of the country from the Republic of China to the Republic of Taiwan and opposes increased economic ties with mainland China.