TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan's leaders and its people were paying their respects Saturday to former President Lee Teng-hui, who died this week at age 97 after bringing full democracy to Taiwan and incurring the wrath of China in the process.
A traditional funeral bier was set up at the Taipei Guest House, an ornate European-style building that was home to Japanese governors during Taiwan's 1895-1945 colonial period.
Among the visitors Saturday was current President Tsai Ing-wen, who wrote in a book of condolences, "You shall forever be watching over democratic Taiwan.”
Lee strove to create a separate, democratic 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 ushered in the island's first direct presidential elections in 1996 and other democratic changes to the self-governed island despite missile launches and other fierce saber-rattling by China.
Taipei Veterans General Hospital said Lee died on Thursday after suffering from infections, cardiac problems and organ failure since being hospitalized in February.
Lee studied in Japan, spoke fluent Japanese and strove to maintain traditional ties between Tokyo and its former colonial possession.
Along with Tsai and Premier Lai Ching-te, Japan's chief representative in Taiwan, Izumi Hiroyasu also paid his respects, reading in a statement that “Japan and Taiwan both lost a person that was very important to each other."
“He laid the foundation for this free and democratic Taiwan of today," Hiroyasu said.
Hsu, a woman from the central city of Taichung, said she came to “express my gratitude and respect."
“In our times, he witnessed the martial law and the lifting of it. I saw him lead Taiwan to become a democracy," Hsu said.
The memorial will remain until Aug. 16. No official word has been given on funeral arrangements.
China, which frequently hurled angry epithets at Lee over his promotion of Taiwan's' separate status, has largely ignored his passing.
Foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Friday responded only by saying "Taiwan independence is an impassable road. China’s national reunification and national rejuvenation is a major historical trend and cannot be stopped by anyone or any force."
Taiwanese sentiment opposing political unification with China has risen to historical highs and voters this year reelected Tsai by a wide margin over her China-friendly Nationalist opponent.