Unsinkable Annette Lu

Being blasts her, the president disowns her, and the people sometimes jeer her, but Taiwan's gutsy vice president has never wilted from a fight. Feminist, lawyer, novelist, independence advocate and political prisoner, middle age hasn't mellowed Taiwan's top troublemaker. Beijing calls Lu the scum of a thousand years, but the first woman elected to high office in Chinese history is fiery, courageous and has the balls to challenge Beijing.

By Ron Gluckman /Taipei, Taoyuan and Nantou, ROC, and Beijing, PRC

TURBULENCE ROCKS THE PLANE and nail-biting tension rolls up the aisles. Amidst so much anxiety, a grandmotherly voice offers solace. "Don't be afraid," she counsels. "There's nothing to fear."

Still, the plane pitches up and down. Passengers clench armrests; knuckles turn ghastly white. It's a rough flight by prop plane through a tempestuous Taiwan typhoon. Another drop, and moans rebound. Once more, the kind voice soothes the on-board anguish. "Look, out the window. See those hills, that greenery. That's my hometown! Look!"

Annette Lu is pointing down to Taoyuan, the Taipei suburb where she was reared and where, a few years ago, she restarted her Cinderella-style political career. Much of Lu's life seems storybook. Feminist, lawyer, novelist - she's been all this and more. However, she's probably most famous as a political prisoner who faced possible execution. Paroled after five years, this undaunted democracy activist returned from overseas exile to win a seat in Taiwan's legislature.

When Taoyuan's magistrate was murdered, Lu stepped in to take charge in what might have been a fitting climax to her amazing career. At least, until a hundred days ago, when Annette Lu Hsiu-Lien, 56, became vice president of the same government that tried - and repeatedly failed - to silence her.

LuSmile.jpg (17595 bytes)The irony amuses Lu immensely; likewise the impact this lifelong troublemaker is having across the Taiwan Straits. Beijing urged voters to spurn her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) running mate, President Chen Shui-bian, but all along, Lu has attracted the real ire of the mainland. "Scum of a nation," and "betrayer of her ancestors" are just some of the insults flung at Lu, who merely laughs at the name calling. "They only make me famous," she jokes on the plane.

Lu has a wicked twinkle in her eyes as recalls her lifelong battles, with Beijing, with Taiwan's former ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT), and with diminished expectations for women. Not that Lu is downtrodden. Quite the contrary; the same mischievous look enlivens her face often during the July week in which I tag along on rounds made by this spunky vice president.

It's a busy time, for Lu, the new government and for Taiwan. Boxes litter Lu's office; she works both from Taoyuan and temporary quarters at Tapei presidential palace. Her new office is under renovation, but that only partially explains the turmoil. Changing governments is arduous anywhere; in Taiwan it's a revolutionary task.

A true change of government simply never happened before. Likewise, the other democratic peculiarities - multi-party politics, inaugurations and staff overhauls.

To say Taiwan, which is still shaking off the effects of almost four decades of marital law, is in the midst of an amazing transition is an understatement. And to find Lu in the thick of it, is equally unsurprising. She has always thrived upon - many say sought - adversity. She's certainly found it in heaps now.

Already, Lu has been accused of undermining Chen's authority and antagonizing China - and that was all on inauguration night, May 20. Not that Lu has smoothed any feathers since. Even as President Chen downplays calls for independence inscribed right in the DDP party charter, Lu continually prods Beijing with bold pronouncements of Taiwanese sovereignty.

"I really have no idea why Beijing is so angry with me," she says, eyes twinkling impishly. "I like China. But we're a part of the Chinese. Not China.

"It's all rather simple," adds Lu, adopting a matter-of-fact legal tone. "Taiwan is clearly an independent state. Before, we had what I call defacto independence. But now, its independence de joure. We've just elected a president. Only a sovereign state does that."

With finality, she concludes: "It's nonsense to deny reality."

Lu's curt dismissal of the mainland's sacred One China manifesto hasn't riled merely Beijing. Across this island, a precarious 100 miles from the mainland, many wonder whether Lu truly is a "lunatic," as Beijing rants. The eternal fear is war. Lu's brash stance may inspire, but few here are willing to risk the comfortable status quo. In mid-June, five dozen Taiwanese legislators signed petitions demanding Lu's recall.

Adrift in office

Even for someone who loves controversy, Lu seems in extremely turbulent territory. The election didn't deliver much of a mandate, and ever since, Lu has seemed adrift in high office.

She and Chen won less than 40 percent of the vote. From the start, there have been reports of a serious schism between them. The president's office has issued denials, but the wording has been far short of an endorsement.

"Before the vice president was mostly silent," says a spokesman for the president. "She's a different vice president," he sighs wearily. "She always says what she thinks. She keeps us very busy."

Lu has hardly been a calming influence in the palace. Even before moving in, Lu complained of a conspiracy to undercut her role. One early gripe - she was being cheated out of the prime minister's post.

"All along, it's always been given to the vice president," she says, rage replacing mischief in her eyes. "Because I'm a woman, they suddenly think that's not the case. It's plain chauvinism."

Sexism surely infests politics, and who better to point it out than Lu, who wrote the book on feminism here; her "Hsin-Nu-Hsing Chu-Yi" (New Feminism) is still considered the definitive text. Still, the charges fuel palace criticism - that Lu isn't a team player, and only pushes her own agenda.

"She's always dropping the card of sexism whenever she doesn't get her way," says a high-level critic.

Indeed, within a few days, Lu repeats the same charges, often outlandishly. It makes her seem petty, much more the palace outcast, as her critics charge, than a popularly-elected vice president. "The problem isn't her abilities," notes Antonio Chiang, publisher of the Taipei Times, who has known Lu and Chen for decades. "She's brilliant in her own right, but she only works for herself."

Chiang, who penned part of the president's inauguration speech, is particularly peeved at Lu's recent criticism of Chen. "It's a dangerous game she's playing and a real problem for the DPP. In the beginning, every time she opened her mouth, everyone held their breath. We had no idea what would come out.

"Chen never realized how difficult she is. He underestimated how difficult she can be. It's beyond most people's imagination. She's close to impossible."

Clearly, the transition to power has been a struggle, even for a woman who has pursued it her whole life. "I'm not power hungry," she insists. "I'm not a power hunter. Definitely not."Lu'Plane2.jpg (20799 bytes)

Still, she concedes a tough adjustment to her new role. "I'm not number one," she notes. "I'm not a decision maker. In Taoyuan, I was number one, so I don't have that kind of power now."

Then, peering out the window of the plane, Lu sets aside talk of power struggles and palace intrigue. Likewise, the name-calling by Beijing, even the harping within her own party. Focusing on the greenery below, she recalls joyful hikes, picnics in the hills.

For a few moments, this brash vice president is in the clouds, girlish, giddy. As she points out the sights, the turbulence subsides and the plane hits a smooth stride. If only politics could be so easy.

Larger than life

Lu is diminutive, barely five feet, yet her life has been large and diverse. It's also spawned huge myths, among them: she was abandoned as a child, an unwanted daughter who grew up to became a radical women's libber, a man-hater, a lesbian; Lu was wealthy, a princess who turned to protest as a lark in the 1960s; she was a folk singer.

Shreds of truth hang on these myths. Yet real events loom larger: Lu's mesmerizing speech at a rally and arrest afterwards; the novel written on toilet paper and smuggled from jail in a quilt cover; lawyer Lu arguing down her own death sentence; her battles with cancer; her many books; Lu pestering the UN with blimp and boat to push Taiwan's plea for recognition; confronting American presidents Carter and Clinton on the same cause.

Despite a life of struggle, Lu wasn't always a rebel with endless causes. She was born on D Day, June 7, 1944, third daughter and fourth child of shopkeepers in Taoyuan, 30 kilometers from Taiwan. Old friends call her a model schoolgirl who always tried to please authorities.

"She's not a radical, not in the least," says one. "She always had a great desire to be accepted by prim and proper society. She's the good little girl that likes to get good grades."

Lu was always top of her class, from grade school in Taoyuan to law studies at Harvard. She never played sports or games. Home life was also neatly structured and, she says, quite happy. It makes her lifelong activism all the more intriguing.

A series of defining events steered her on a confrontational course. The first was her alleged adoption. Lu's parents, according to widely-printed accounts, were dirt-poor and wanted to ditch their unwanted daughter. Great reading, for sure, and it adds to the Lu legend, but she dispels the fiction, describing a comfortable if hardly luxurious upbringing.

"My father ran a shop selling pig feed and fertilizer." There was no adoption. Not exactly. "It was common in those times for family friends or relatives to take in a child, if they had none, and the other family was so large," she explains.

As the youngest daughter, she was nearly dispatched to an aunt; her brother dissuaded their parents from this plan. Still, she admits, "I was hurt and humiliated when I heard about it later."

She was also left with a determination to please her father and a lifelong adulation - and rivalry - with her older brother. In her paper, "Barriers Overcome: A Hen Who Crows at Dawn," Lu wrote: "I worked very hard to identify myself with him. When he was at the top of his class, I felt the need to do the same. When he decided he wanted to be a doctor, I also wanted to be a doctor. As he grew older and decided law was the career he wished to pursue, I changed my focus as well."

Men played major roles throughout Lu's life, starting with her father, whom she idolized. Asked about role models, Lu names Americans George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and Chinese founding father Sun Yat-Sen - hardly conventional choices for a strident feminist.

At the vice president's new office there is a noticeable lack of woman staffers save for a sole female secretary. Yet Lu never was a "sisterhood-style feminist," notes a fellow activist. "She's a feminist, in the old-fashioned sense, like of European suffrage."

Still, it was America that inspired her feminism; she was swept up in the spirit of protest that energized youth of the late 1960s, when she attended University of Illinois. Yet, if Lu discovered feminism in America, she found her passion for politics - and more - on a summer holiday in Europe.

Lu has never married. And the media has rarely even hinted of romance in her life - remarkable, considering Taiwan's delight in scandal, even invented ones. And Lu has long been a headline item, but not on the gossip pages. She's never provided the right material.

"I don't drink, I don't smoke," she tells me one day. As to vices, all she will concede is a single cup of coffee each morning. Yet Lu concedes one meeting, long ago with "a remarkable man." A leader of the overseas democracy movement, this Taiwanese man turned 23-year-old Lu on - to activism.

It was the Summer of Love, 1967. Lu's depiction, though, is hardly torrid. "He educated me." Still, it was a seminal time, touring Europe with two university girlfriends. This inspired, nearly a decade later, her first novel, "These Three Women."

It was a feminist book about three college friends, 10 years after graduation; one married, one widowed and one single. Lu hopes to soon revisit the same characters in a new novel - now 30 years after graduation.

Relationships intrigue Lu - at a comfortable distance - and were the subject of a second novel, partly written in prison. "There was a time when I wanted to get married," she confides. "But that was before my imprisonment." Watching her cellmates suffer worry over children and spouses cured her of any regrets.

Besides, whatever love was lacking in life, could be filled by new causes, new fights. By the time she returned to Taiwan in 1971, Lu had experienced her great awakening and was full of fire. Good girl Lu was an activist now.

She had also become a brilliant legal expert who won a post screening proposed laws for the government. At night, she completed her landmark feminist treatise, then opened House of Pioneers, a coffee shop that served as a woman's center. It may not sound too revolutionary, but Lu insists the KMT sent spies to infiltrate.

"The women's movement was the first grassroots movement initiated by a Taiwanese native," she notes. "Of course they noticed." Her suffrage activities were curtailed in 1974, when Lu suffered a first bout of throat cancer; she spent a month in hospital. An articulate, engaging orator, Lu stutters sometimes, a legacy of a later operation. She also fancies strings of pearls to help hide the scars. They still burn.

"It was the stress of the time," she says, blaming her ailment on "government persecution." Undaunted, she founded Pioneer Press to publish women's books; all banned. Still, one fellow activist from this time observes: "Lu wasn't a radical, not in the least. Her background is caution, conservative." Lu admits: "I was never arrested. I stayed away from politics. I was cautious. I was focused on women's rights."

Turning to activism

That all changed in 1978, as increasingly bold demonstrations swept Taiwan, challenging the slow pace of democratization. The KMT, which kept an iron-grip on power since fleeing to the island after the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, suddenly announced elections. Lu was at Harvard, working on a PHD.

"I was torn," she recalls. Elated about the elections, Lu feared - correctly it turned out - that the US would soon recognize the People's Republic of China. She worried the aftermath could be catastrophic, like South Vietnam's collapse, just a few years before.

In turmoil, she turned to her American mentor, Asian scholar Jerome Cohen. "I asked, "What should I do, stay in school or return home?" she says. "He told me that I was nobody in America. 'Why not go home and work for your country?'"

Thus began Lu's transformation from woman's rights worker to internationally-known activist. The US recognized China; the KMT canceled elections. Protests escalated. Lu became a leader of dissident Mei Li Tao (Formosa Magazine). In late 1979, the stage was set for a showdown.

A huge rally was banned, but defiantly went on. Lu delivered a mesmerizing 20-minute address. Afterwards, there were battles with police, and mass arrests. This was the Kaohsiung Incident, a major turning point not only for Lu, but Taiwan, too.

Within eight years, martial law would be lifted and the DDP launched. By then, Lu would be battling for her life, stricken with throat cancer. Yet it was a cathartic, transcending time.

"That speech changed Lu, it changed everything," recalls activist Linda Arrigo, then married to dissident and future DPP chairman Shih Ming-teh, and the last to see Lu before her arrest. "It was an amazing speech. I think it even surprised Lu."

Lu'Portrait.jpg (14229 bytes)The vice president concurs: "I was very provocative. It just came out of me. The KMT thought I was provocative. But the people cheered. They cried."

Lu and other leaders were charged with sedition, a capital crime. She expertly devised the defense in what the Asia Society describes as "the most spectacular dissident trial of the Postwar era." Her legal team included her brother and a young maritime lawyer with no court experience. For him, Chen Shui-Bian, it was also a life-changing experience. Twenty years to the day after the demonstration, he picked Lu as his running mate.

Lu, sentenced to 12 years, became a celebrated political prisoner, adopted by Amnesty International, which mustered worldwide pressure to force her release. Failing health provided a face-saving way out; Lu had thyroid cancer. Paroled in 1985, she returned to America for treatment.

Thus began another phase for Lu, as an international dignitary with sufficient cachet to push her main causes. She worked for women's rights globally, while advocating democracy in Taiwan and recognition of its right of existence abroad.

In many ways, the activist matured into a worldly stateswoman, who walked shoulder-to-shoulder with another former political prisoner Nelson Mandela on that future president's historic voting day in South Africa.

Still, for all the international accolades, in some ways, Lu was left behind where it mattered most. In Taiwan, the pace of reform escalated rapidly - faster than even advocates might have imagined. The DPP, known mainly for fistfights in the legislature, changed quickly from laughingstock to viable opposition.

Lu won a seat in the legislature in 1992, and became a policy advisor to Lee Teng-hui soon after his victory in Taiwan's first presidential election in 1996. But within her own party, she seemed forgotten, a figure from the past. Associates say Lu wanted the presidential nomination in 1996, but found little support in the DPP.

Instead, she retreated to her home base of Taoyuan, where she took over as magistrate in early 1997 after the gangland slaying of Liu Pang-you. Lu, elected to her own four-year term later that year, touts achievements like resolving a garbage dispute, yet critics deride outlandish schemes, such as a much-publicized plan to turn the town into - what else - another Asian Silicon Valley Cyberport wannabe.

"She did very little and was unpopular even in Taoyuan," says a local reporter. 'In the election she couldn't even carry Taoyuan for Chen Shui-Bian."

In fairness, neither did Chen win Taipei, where he had been mayor, nor any of northern Taiwan. Still, many are mystified by Chen's choice of Lu. "She has no real power base within the party," explains Chiang.

"She was a logical choice," counters Arrigo, a founder of the DPP who is now international affairs director of the Green Party. "She's a woman, she's articulate and she has international expertise. Chen isn't really a good speaker. It's a good balancing act."

Lu also bolstered the ticket with unwavering independence fervor, reassuring DDP diehards who felt Chen too compromising. Hence, the "good cop-bad cop" theory widely held by the public and press. Chen, it follows, can soothe Beijing with concessions, while Lu takes the flak for a tougher line.

"Perhaps that's what they are doing," comments Chiang, but if so, it's not by design, I can assure you of that. They just don't have that kind of trust." Arrigo, who worked with Lu on a biography until the pair had a falling out years ago, adds: "Her motivation is usually her own self-interest. She always tends to be a one-woman show."

On the road

Lu takes that show on the road in July, touring Nantou County, worst hit by the devastating quake last year. It's a chance for the new government to review relief operations. And an obvious attempt to focus Lu on domestic issues and away from meddling in the president's foreign policy. Or irritating China.

Soon after the plane lands, Lu is whisked off on an exhausting tour of landslips, shattered shopping areas and rebuilt roads. Along the way: charts, banquets and endless briefings with local officials.

Lu is a good listener. Some are fooled by her frail appearance. They suffer the vice president's explosive retorts; she's a crack attorney with a keen grasp of detail. And razor-sharp on cross-examination. When local officials carp about the new government's need to splash out more money, Lu grills them on past expenditures, then tells them: "Forget politics. The election is over. Get past it and get on with your job."

Lu'Rept.jpg (22222 bytes)Despite a prima donna reputation, Lu doesn't play to the media tagging along. Her no-nonsense view? They're just more workers to be mobilized. When a local engineer talks about lingering erosion problems, she turns to the press and implores: "Please write about this. Tell people. Do your job!"

Lu can be abnoxious, abrasive, downright rude. She's also impulsive, with little patience for staff. At one point, the vice president startles security staff with an unscheduled stop, to stroll a row of hardware shops. Blacksmiths rub ash from their fingers and shake her hand.

Lu has an extraordinary ability to connect with people at all levels, but it never seems quite natural. "She's cold," notes Arrigo, who watched Lu learn to use charm when needed. However, friends and foes alike agree she hasn't ever changed in one respect - she's as stubborn as ever.

"I think she's more flexible nowadays," argues Dr. Ching Kuo, an engineer who returned home from the US in the mid-90s to help build the Taipei subway and now spearheads some quake repairs in Nantou. He's known Lu for a quarter century. "She has different ways to approach things."

As to that iron-will, he shakes his head at suggestions of stubbornness. "Persistence," he prefers.

Whatever the term, Lu's greatest strength is the source of so much trouble now. She's always been a fighter, but Lu now faces the biggest one of her life: fitting in. It's a tough task for a lifelong loner, especially one who has always been boss.

"For her, it's an embarrassing position," says Arrigo. "She's Number 2, and she doesn't know how to do that." Chiang adds: "I think she's learning to adjust, but it's clearly a difficult process. You can see it in her face."

The struggle is apparent in our last meeting, illuminating as well as unexpected. My flight is hours away. Aides left messages summoning me from the hotel, but I replied with a simple farewell. Then, the phone rings again. "I was expecting you today," Lu barks.

Soon, I'm slurping noodles from simple styrofoam bowls with the vice president. She has brought some things from home: knitting and rolled-up toilet paper, those scraps of prison paper that became a book. The knitting is likewise a part of Taiwanese lore - one sweater knitted in jail was sold for $6,000 in an election fundraiser.

Lu has packed in other items from her personal archive: tapes of traditional folk songs she released at a time when Taiwanese songs were banned, and copies of messages sent to two American presidents, demanding an apology from Carter for abandoning Taiwan to recognize the PRC, and admonishing Clinton for appeasing Beijing with his infamous "Three Nos."

There are news clippings of a campaign she financed to push UN membership for Taiwan. Critics term them self-serving attempts to raise her profile, but Lu scores points with well-reasoned logic. Can anyone argue that the UN, devoted to world peace, would be less effective by embracing all parties in a conflict, like the straits?

Mainly though, Lu has called me in "because I wanted to make sure you understood my views." She starts with the major points, calm and precise, more vice presidential than the glib, mischief maker of previous meetings. But her rage rises to the surface instanntly. The topic, as always, is China's treatment of Taiwan.

"We accept that there is only one China, just like there is only one Taiwan. But we don't believe that Taiwan is a part of China. That's the problem."

Angry at world's kowtowing to Beijing on this point, she adds: "We've had a half century of this nonsense and I'm sick of it. It's like that story, the king has no clothes. The PRC fools the world for so long that it owns Taiwan. It's nonsense."

Such talk worries many, but that's not surprising. Lu's big mouth has gotten her into trouble in the past, and not only with Beijing. One joke making the rounds recently, as President Chen prepared for a tour of Central America, concerned a possible accident. Then the bodyguards of Lu should do their duty for Taiwan, the punchline goes - and shoot her.

Aide Edward Kuo provides a different perspective on the schism. "She and Chen are very different, but that's the new style of the DPP. That's democracy. All the different voices speaking out."

Indeed, Lu may be a pain to many, but courage and conviction are qualities she doesn't lack. "I think the controversy is overrated and will die down. Anyway, it's healthy," says Kuo. "You have to remember, we've been repressed in Taiwan for too long."

Not Lu. She may be a blast from the past, but she still hasn't run out of steam.

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who is based in Hong Kong, but who roams around Asia for a number of publications, such as Asiaweek, which ran a shorter version of this story in August, 2000. 

The pictures are by Cheryl Sheridan, an American photographer based in Taiwan. Her work can be viewed at her site, www.asiavisuals.com

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