By Rob Howe
April 08, 1996 12:00 PM

ACCORDING TO AN OLD CHINESE saying, there can be “no two suns in one sky.” But Lee Teng-hui, elected president of Taiwan on March 23 in the island’s first popular presidential vote, seems intent on proving that adage wrong. “The door of democracy is now completely open,” Lee, 73, boasted after his win, snubbing the Communist leaders from mainland China who claim the “renegade province” 115 miles across the Taiwan Strait as their own.

Lee, however, says he seeks just respect, not independence, for Taiwan. In a presidential campaign against three rivals, the savvy politician who sometimes hit the stump in sneakers (casting himself as a man of the people) touted the advances he has overseen since he was first appointed president in 1988 by the previous one-party government. In what he describes as a “quiet revolution,” Lee paved the way for multi-party democracy (earning a 1996 Nobel Peace Prize nomination in the process), backed policies to encourage industrial growth and expand trade, and increased Taiwan’s international profile by touring more foreign lands than any previous president.

For now, he seems to have gotten Beijing’s attention: Two days after the election (which China tried to disrupt by staging war games off Taiwan’s coast, drawing the concerned presence of ships from the U.S. Pacific fleet), mainland China made a call for an unprecedented meeting between President Jiang Zemin and Lee. “The door is open,” said one Beijing official.

By his very nature, Lee is a ground-breaker. He is the first native to become president of Taiwan since the island was occupied by Chiang Kai-shek and 2 million Nationalist followers, who fled the mainland to escape Mao Zedong’s Communist forces in 1949. Although he had learned Japanese during the latter half of Japan’s 50-year occupation of Taiwan (ending in 1945) and then the Mandarin dialect imposed by the Nationalists, Lee delights in speaking Taiwanese in public—as he does at home with his wife of 47 years, Tseng Wen-hui, 69, and daughters An-na and An-ni. (A son, Hsien-wen, died of cancer in 1983.) Lee, who laces his speeches with references to the Bible, is also a Presbyterian in a largely Taoist and Buddhist culture.

The son of a rice and tea farmer, Lee grew up in the hamlet of Puping, outside Taipei, the island’s capital. Graduating with honors from high school (where he developed a taste for fencing, violin and chess), he became one of a select group of Taiwanese students to attend Kyoto Imperial University in Japan until he returned home after World War II. After completing his degree in agricultural economics in 1948 at the National Taiwan University, he started teaching and a year later married Tseng, an art and literature student from his home village. Like many Taiwanese, Lee went to the U.S. for graduate studies, earning a master’s in 1953 at Iowa State University and a Ph.D. from Cornell in 1968.

While he was at Cornell, Vietnam war protests raged. The middle-aged Lee was impressed. “Although he was much older than us, he appreciated the passion and idealism of the antiwar people,” recalls David Tsai, 46, who attended Cornell with Lee and is now president of the nonprofit Center for Taiwan International Relations in Washington. “Lee felt that the ideas and energy of youth were what made this country tick.” It was also at Cornell that Lee’s wife, who joined her husband after one semester, taught him to play golf. “He said it was a great way to chum with world leaders,” says Linda Grace-Kobas, a Cornell official. Now a member of seven golf clubs, Lee can break 80 on a good day and has played (and whipped) such dignitaries as George Bush.

In the early 1970s, Lee began his public service career in a series of appointed posts under the tutelage of Chiang Ching-kuo, Chiang Kai-shek’s son. In 1984, several years after Chiang had become president, he chose Lee as his vice president. Says James Lilley, U.S. Ambassador to China from 1989 to 1991: “Lee was supposed to be under the shadow of Chiang, but this was a man and a politician in his own right.” When Chiang died four years later, Lee succeeded him, and in 1990, in a vote by party leaders, he was chosen president.

Lee eagerly backed political and economic reforms that he hoped would reclaim the stature Taiwan lost in the 1970s when mainland China opened diplomatic ties to the West and Taiwan lost its seat at the United Nations. With a population of only 21.5 million, Taiwan has become the world’s 14th largest exporter, shipping $93 billion worth of goods annually—three-quarters as much as mainland China, with its 1.2 billion people.

Lee regained symbolic ground last year when he was invited to speak at Cornell (which had received a $2.5 million gift from Lee supporters in Taiwan). Over China’s protests that the June visit implied the U.S. was recognizing Taiwan as an independent nation, Lee was granted a limited visa to give his talk. “This time, instead of discussing economics, like typical grandfathers we chatted about our grandchildren,” says Dr. Kenneth Robinson, one of Lee’s former professors. Lee hinted after the election that he would soon make another historic visit. Maybe to China?

Lee credits his gains to what is often considered a Western skill. “I am,” he says, “a most superb salesman.”

ANDREA PAWLYNA in Taipei, BARBARA SLAVIN in Washington and RON ARIAS in New York City