Former president who brought direct elections to Taiwan dies

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FILE - In this May 28, 2008, file photo, Taiwan's former President Lee Teng-hui speaks during an exclusive interview with The Associated Press at his home in Taipei, Taiwan. Local media are reporting that ex-Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, who oversaw the islands transition to full democracy, has died. Lee was 97 and had largely dropped out of public life in his later years. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying, File)

TAIPEI – Former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, who brought direct elections and other democratic changes to the self-governed island despite missile launches and other fierce saber-rattling by China, has died. He was 97.

Taipei Veterans General Hospital said Lee died Thursday evening after suffering from infections, cardiac problems and organ failure since being hospitalized in February.

Lee strove to create a separate, non-Chinese identity for Taiwan, angering not only China, which considers the island part of its territory, but also members of his Nationalist Party who hoped to return victorious to the mainland.

Lee later openly endorsed formal independence for the island but illness in his later years prompted him to largely withdraw from public life.

“President Lee’s contribution to Taiwan’s democratic journey was irreplaceable and his death is a great loss for the country," current President Tsai Ing-wen said in a statement.

Tsai's predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalists, who earlier served in Lee's Cabinet, said Lee's contribution to Taiwan's democratization “deserves recognition from the people."

“Although former President Lee’s political philosophy has undergone tremendous changes after his resignation, former President Ma is still grateful for his dedication to the country and believes that history will have a fair and objective evaluation," a statement from Ma's office said.

Physically imposing and charismatic, Lee spanned Taiwan’s modern history and was native to the island, unlike many who arrived with Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, at the end of the Chinese civil war.