He is considered by many to be one of the most important modern Chinese essayists today, although critics have termed him an intellectual narcissist. His political inclinations are more controversial; he is a very vocal critic of both the Kuomintang and the Democratic Progressive Party and their many politicians, including Chiang Kai-shek, Ma Ying-jeou and Chen Shui-bian. Although he favors unification, especially under "One Country, Two Systems", Li refuses to call himself Pan-Blue due to its association with the KMT. He firmly believes in Chinese nationalism and, in Taiwan, is given much media exposure thanks to his popularity as a writer.
Throughout the 1970s, Li Ao received much international attention for his imprisonment. He was highlighted by Amnesty International as one of the three most important political prisoners in Taiwan in 1974.
After his release, Li Ao continued to publish magazines and newspapers, criticizing the government. Ninety-six of his books were banned in Taiwan before 1991. In the 1980s he also sponsored other numerous anti-Guomintang magazines.
His novel Mountaintop Love (《上山．上山．愛》), about a mother and daughter who fall in love with the same man, though several years apart, solidified Li's status as a serious novelist. His other novel, Martyrs' Shrine: The Story of the Reform Movement of 1898 in China (北京法源寺), is about the beginning and the failure of the Hundred Days' Reform. Li also published his autobiography in 2001, revealing more than ten of his romantic affairs in the book. The bulk of his work, however, is non-fiction, consisting mainly of essays and historical commentaries.
Li participated in the presidential election in 2000 as a candidate for the New Party. Li usually plays the role of a political gadfly, and his campaign was largely symbolic. He took the election as an opportunity to "educate" the people of Taiwan. Both he and his party publicly encouraged people to vote for James Soong to the point of stating during the presidential debates that he was not planning to vote for himself and that people should vote for Soong.
Since the 2000 presidential election, Li Ao has bitterly spoken out against pro-independence Nobel laureate Yuan T. Lee, who publicly supported Chen Shui-bian. He has also accused former President Lee Teng-hui of corruption. In October 2004 Li ran in the December 11 legislative election as a non-partisan candidate in the South Taipei constituency, for which he was subsequently elected in the last winning place. He took office as an independent legislator on February 1, 2005.
In February 2005, Li held a press conference, accusing PFP leader, James Soong of having changed his opposition towards military weapons purchase from the United States under the influence of people of Pro-American inclination, people with CIA backgrounds and arms traders who would receive kick-backs. Li threatened Soong that he will reveal the names of the people with CIA backgrounds, who were influencing Soong, to the general public unless Soong reverted to his previous opposition position. PFP legislators dismissed the accusation and responded that Li Ao should reveal his evidence to support his story.
Later that year, in June, Li claimed to the Taiwanese press that he had exclusive information from the CIA concerning the 3-19 shooting incident. He alleged that the real motive of the killer was to assassinate Vice-President Annette Lu in order to garner sympathy votes for Chen Shui-bian, and that the killer had been condoned by the governing party for ulterior political reasons. After flashing a series of supposedly CIA-endorsed documents to reporters, he mailed them to Annette Lu, claiming that she would need to know the full extent of truth about the assassination attempt.
On September 19, 2005, Li Ao returned to Mainland China for the first time in 56 years. He was invited to give speeches at Peking University, Tsinghua University and Fudan University where he was warmly received, and this trip is claimed to have had significant impact on observers of the China-Taiwan strait relations issue. His speech at Peking University was particularly noteworthy as Li publicly urged the Chinese Communist Party to protect the freedom of speech as laid down in the constitution of the PRC. But he also praised the achievement of the CCP in bringing economic progress and prosperity; at one point he even alluded to the Tiananmen Square massacre and take it as an example to sustain his point that freedom should be obtained through "cleverer" means, rather than mass revolutions that could result in numerous deaths.
Li Ao was a candidate for the 2006 Taipei Mayoral election.
Li is known for his quick wits and energetic vocal style. Although not primarily a novelist, he has released two novels to date.
Li has had many tempestuous love affairs. His eldest daughter by his first wife, Li Wen, is an Asian American who now teaches in Beijing. He had a very short-lived marriage to Taiwanese movie star Hu Yin-meng in 1980; they divorced after just 4 months, 22 days. His present wife, 29 years his junior, was accosted at the streets of Taipei. They have a son and daughter.
Li is interestingly known for generally appearing in public wearing a Fred Rogers-like cardigan sweater. He also has a habit of taking pictures of the audience at public events where the media is present since he believes that it is only fair to take pictures of the people who are taking pictures of him.
On October 24, 2006, Li sprayed tear gas and wielded a stun gun during a Legislative Yuan National Defense Committee meeting, forcing several members of parliament to flee. He was attempting to stop debate on purchasing attack submarines and patriot anti-aircraft missiles for $16 billion dollars from the U.S. He was also wearing the mask from V for Vendetta.
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