SCMP Saturday, May 20, 2000

Lee sets stage for Chen takeover

JASON BLATT in Taipei


Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui yesterday spent his final day in office welcoming foreign heads of state who had come to attend this morning's inauguration of president-elect Chen Shui-bian.

Together with his wife, Tseng Wen-hui, Mr Lee presided over four separate welcoming ceremonies at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in central Taipei.

Guests of honour included the presidents of Nauru, Nicaragua and Palau as well as the king of Swaziland. All four countries were among the 29 who recognise Taiwan's Republic of China Government instead of the mainland's People's Republic of China.

There were fewer heads of state this time than in 1996, when nine foreign leaders were on hand to witness Mr Lee, now 77, sworn in as the country's first directly elected president.

While the official guest list remained small, hundreds of VIPs from dozens of countries that do not maintain formal ties with Taipei were in town. The list included Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, whose remarks have repeatedly stirred controversy in the region, as well as former Polish president Lech Walesa.

Chinese dissidents including Wang Dan and Wei Jingsheng were reported to be in Taiwan for the historic event. Burmese democracy movement leader Aung San Suu Kyi declined an invitation to attend the inauguration, apparently fearing she would not be let back into Burma if she left.

A delegation from Washington, headed by Laura Tyson, a confidante of President Bill Clinton and his former chief economic adviser, also arrived. The American delegation included Richard Bush, Washington's chief unofficial envoy to the island.

Mr Chen received Ms Tyson's delegation at his Taipei office yesterday. During the conversation, broadcast live on local television, Ms Tyson congratulated Mr Chen on his March 18 election victory and expressed confidence that he would be able to handle future cross-strait relations.

"We have been very impressed by your efforts," Ms Tyson said. Mr Chen said he hoped Washington would continue to send cabinet-level officials to the ROC-USA Economic Conference, due to be held in Taiwan later this year.

Meanwhile, at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Mr Lee appeared to be in good spirits, despite having to hand over power after 12 years in office. The soon-to-be former president, who has already resigned as chairman of the Kuomintang, was set to be named honorary chairman of the Taiwan Research Institute, a private KMT-funded think-tank.

Liu Tai-ying, outgoing KMT finance chief and head of the think-tank, confirmed Mr Lee was planning to travel abroad after leaving office. Mr Lee, who began his public service career in 1957, was due to hand over his seal of office this morning.