(BBC) — Former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, considered the “father of Taiwan’s democracy”, has died at the age of 97.
He served as president of Taiwan, from 1988 to 2000.
Lee was credited with ending autocratic rule in favour of pluralism and democracy – but was also a controversial figure.
His attempts to delink the island from China sparked tensions with Beijing, which sees Taiwan as part of its territory to be reunited one day.
Lee died on Thursday from septic shock and multiple organ failure in Taipei, after being in hospital for nearly six months.
During his time in office he led constitutional changes towards a more democratic political layout, including direct presidential elections.
Current President Tsai Ing-wen said “he laid the foundation of a democracy built on pride and our own identity”.
Lee thrived on defying China’s drive to absorb the island and hoped for Taiwan to be “a country of democracy, freedom, human rights and dignity.”
He became president in 1988 after the death of predecessor, Chiang Ching-kuo.
In 1996 – the first direct presidential election in Taiwan – he was democratically elected for a second term with a landslide victory.
Ahead of the vote, mainland China conducted months of intimidating war games and missiles tests around the water to influence the election against him.
Since a civil war in the 1940s, China sees Taiwan as a breakaway province that will eventually be part of the country again. But many Taiwanese see the island as a de-facto independent nation, although surveys show most people do not want formal independence, preferring to maintain the status quo.
Taiwan’s current President Tsai Ing-wen is considered Lee’s protege and appears to follow in his footsteps – distancing Taiwan from the mainland while garnering US backing, with tensions reaching a new high in recent years.
If the situation were to escalate, some fear the US could potentially join Taiwan against China in a war that neither Washington, nor Beijing really wants to fight.
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office on Friday said it had noticed the news and that “Taiwan independence is a dead end”.
Mainland state media Global Times meanwhile called him the “Godfather of Taiwan secessionism”.
“Lee’s death is definitely not sad news to most people in the Chinese mainland,” an article on the newspaper’s website said.
After his presidency, Lee was indicted on charges of embezzling public funds, but was acquitted.
And later in life, he was criticised for his pro-Japanese colonial views, which were considered outdated.
He visited Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine, which honours World War Two war criminals, and rejected as lies Japan’s wartime atrocities – the Nanjing Massacre and use of so-called comfort women as sex slaves.
He also upset many Taiwanese by saying the Taiwan-claimed Diaoyutai Islands belonged to Japan.