Lee Teng-hui’s shift away from describing Taiwan as part of a common Chinese nation angered Beijing © Yuriko Nakao/Reuters

Lee Teng-hui, who became Taiwan’s first democratically elected president in 1996 as China launched missiles into the seas around the island, has died at the age of 97.

He was instrumental in the nation’s peaceful transition from autocratic rule to one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies. As the first Taiwanese-born person to rise to its top office, Lee also cemented Taiwan’s identity as distinct from China.

This found its clearest expression when Lee in 1999 described the relationship between China and Taiwan as a “special state-to-state relationship”.

The formula was a realistic description of cross-Strait relations that still holds true. But it marked a big departure from the traditional rhetoric of the Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese nationalist party that ruled Taiwan under martial law for more than 38 years prior to Lee’s election and insisted on describing it as part of a common Chinese nation.

Lee’s shift angered China, which claims sovereignty over the island and has threatened to invade it should Taiwan ever formally declare independence.

But, in combination with the transition to democracy, which he carefully orchestrated from within the KMT, Lee’s firm but pragmatic policies towards China helped Taiwan preserve the freedom and space it still enjoys, longtime associates of the late president said.

“He was very strategic — much more strategic than our politicians today. The democracy he gave us has acted as an additional protective layer for Taiwan,” said Chang Jung-feng, an aide and adviser to Lee for more than a decade, who worked on the “special state-to-state relationship” policy with Tsai Ing-wen, now Taiwan’s president.

“Just look at Hong Kong — they are helpless now. In Taiwan, with our democracy, a Hong Kong-style national security law would never be possible.”

Li Teng-hui, left, and his wife Tseng Wen-hui. Associates say the former president’s firm but pragmatic policies towards China helped Taiwan preserve the freedom it still enjoys © Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty

In his later years, Lee would become increasingly anti-China. In the 2012 presidential elections he campaigned against pro-China KMT president Ma Ying-jeou even though he was once a leading light of the same party himself. On the eve of the vote, the then 90-year-old Lee stood in front of tens of thousands of opposition supporters and delivered his final political speech.

“We all hope to establish a democratic, free, prosperous country that has human rights and dignities,” Lee said. “We don’t want to be bothered with unification, don’t want to be ruled by others and we’re proud to tell anyone we are Taiwanese. But that is not possible under the leadership of the current government.”

Lee’s life spanned Taiwan’s transition not only from dictatorship to democracy but also from a Japanese colony to a territory subject to a Chinese regime and then a country trying to defend its own identity.

Born in 1923 to a well-off family in a rural community just outside Taipei, Lee spoke Taiwanese at home and Japanese at school. He studied agricultural economics at Kyoto Imperial University in 1943 and subsequently pursued graduate studies at Iowa State and Cornell University in the US in the 1960s.

“Not many young people are so lucky. The troubled history of modern Taiwan has brought me this good fortune, so I feel I have an obligation to serve my society,” Lee wrote in his book, The Road to Democracy.

Former US president Jimmy Carter, right, with Lee Teng-hui. Washington became embroiled in the 1995 conflict between China and Taiwan © AP

Lee entered politics in 1972 as a minister without portfolio, to help then-president Chiang Ching-kuo, son of KMT strongman Chiang Kai-shek, develop Taiwan’s agricultural industry. He rose quickly through the party’s ranks, becoming Taipei mayor, then governor of Taiwan province before being appointed vice-president in 1984. When Chiang Ching-kuo died in 1988, Lee took over the presidency.

Lee’s push for democracy and reform in Taiwan culminated in the first island-wide vote for the presidency in 1996, where he easily defeated three other candidates to earn another four years in the post. It also set the stage, four years later, for opposition candidate Chen Shui-bian to win the presidency, leading to Taiwan’s first democratic transition of power.

“The door of democracy is now completely open,” Lee declared after his election victory.

But it was in the run-up to the vote that Lee faced the biggest challenge of his political career. China had become increasingly angered over Lee’s attempts to raise Taiwan’s international profile, which included visiting Cornell, his former university, in the US — the first trip to the country by any Taiwanese president since Washington cut diplomatic ties with the country in 1979.

In 1995, the People’s Liberation Army launched missiles into the sea near Taiwan, the closest the two sides have come to war since the 1950s. The conflict embroiled the US, as Washington acts as guarantor of Taiwan’s security. Bill Clinton, US president at the time, ordered the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier into the Taiwan Strait later that year.

Ironically, it was the threat of Chinese hostilities that helped Lee to secure a commanding electoral victory the following year, with polling at the time pointing to a subsequent upsurge in his support. Ms Tsai’s landslide election victory in January, following months of threats and military posturing by China, carried an echo of that historic moment.

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