Friday, March 2, 2018

Chicago shaped a Taiwanese leader

Annette Lu

     As Chinese president Xi Jinping cements his perpetual hold on power, the world's most populous nation searches for ways to exert its growing strength, and its attention falls, as always, upon neighbor Taiwan. I was fortunate enough to visit Taiwan almost 15 years ago. An associate asked to read a profile I wrote about the vice president of Taiwan, so I'm posting it here for that purpose. But feel free to read it as well.

     Annette Lu does not look like a woman who could open her mouth and start World War III. Petite, soft-spoken, she has a fondness for knitting, and keeps a bag of afghans made during her years in prison tucked away in her enormous office.
     Indeed, most of the time, the University of Illinois graduate and vice president of the Republic of China speaks with the measured formality typical of Asian politics.
     "On behalf of the people of Taiwan, we really appreciate President Bush's goodwill and assistance," she says, relaxing in a lacquered chair in a reception room in the Presidential Palace.
     But as with so much in political life here, appearances deceive. Amid her tendency toward Chinese aphorisms and 1970s-era feminist rhetoric lies a blunt message that—more than Islamic terrorism, more than the hot-button issues of the Middle East—holds the potential to draw the United States into the next global war.
     "Taiwan remains as separate and independent as any other sovereign state no matter what," she says. "Under the name of Republic of China, or Taiwan. Recognized or unrecognized . . . we exist."
     To understand the daring of those words, the knife blade that Taiwan—and with it the United States—balances on, some background is necessary. Communist China considers Taiwan a renegade province, a breakaway state destined to return to the fold, and has committed itself to use military force, if necessary, to keep Taiwan from declaring independence. Lu's words draw right up to a line that many think would provoke an immediate, military response. In the meantime, Beijing heaps scorn on her far beyond the usual rhetoric, with the state-controlled press referring to Lu, at times, as a "lunatic" and "scum of the nation."
     Nor do they limit their reaction to words. The election of Lu and president Chen Shui-bian—whose platform leaned toward independence—was enough to send the communists lobbing missiles into the Straits of Taiwan,one of the "tests" that are in fact expressions of official unhappiness and demonstrations of military might.
     The United States, in turn, has announced it would meet any communist attack against Taiwan with a strong military reply, setting up a dynamic where armed conflict between the superpowers is somewhere between inevitable and unthinkable.
     Nestled in the shadows of the two superpowers stand 23 million Taiwanese, living in a wealthy, Westernized democracy, but a young one, only a decade removed from its first true, two-party election, a transit from authoritarianism aided significantly by Annette Lu. Her life, extraordinary as it is, running through an amazing series of contrasts—Illinois farm town and Chicago; Harvard and a solitary confinement cell; feminist activism and the male world of high elected office—also presents a handy primer for the complex history of modern Taiwan.
     She was born Hsiu-lien Annette Lu (it is common for Taiwanese to assume English first names) in Taoyuan, about an hour from the capital, in 1944, when Taiwan was under Japanese occupation.
     Then as now, female babies were not highly prized in Chinese culture, and Lu's parents—middle class business people—tried to sell her, twice. Both deals fell through.
     At the end of World War II, Taiwan was returned to the Chinese Nationalists who—as the Japanese had—used Taiwan as a colony to be exploited, siphoning off funds to battle Mao Zedong's Communist rebellion. In 1949, the Communists defeated General Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists, and the Nationalist army and government fled to Taiwan along with several million supporters. For the next 20 years, the Nationalists—through their party, the KMT—claimed sovereignty over all China, awaiting the popular rebellion they expected to return them to power. It never came.
     By the late 1960s, however, China, pushed to the brink of ruin by its Cultural Revolution, began to take a different approach toward the West. About this time Lu, an outstanding student, graduated from the National Taiwan University and headed to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for a master's in political science. She chose the U. of I., she says, because it was one of the few American schools with any significant population of Taiwanese students.
     She was disappointed, she says, with the bleakness of Urbana. Chicago, however, was another matter.
     "Chicago was very attractive to me," she says. One of the attractions of Chicago was public protest—which had been brutally suppressed back home.
     Lu, who rose to national prominence in Taiwan as an outspoken feminist, credits the tumultuous women's movement she discovered in Chicago for putting her on the path to political power.
     "There was a national convention of women organizers held in Chicago to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the suffrage of American women," Lu says. "My feminism was enlightened in Chicago in the summer of 1970, and I began to speak up."
     Returning to Taiwan, Lu spent the next six years working for the government and becoming increasingly outraged at the role of women there.
     "When I got home I was shocked there were debates over how to prevent women from attending university," Lu says. "The authorities thought it was a waste for women to attend college. I decided to take up the issue. "
     She began agitating to bring American-style freedoms to Taiwanese women. She didn't get far.
     "I was totally frustrated," she recalls. "So I went to Harvard."
     While Lu was studying the Constitution, Richard Nixon was opening the West to the People's Republic of China. The PRC was willing to thaw relations, but demanded derecognition of Taiwan as its price. In 1971, Taiwan was booted out of the United Nations, and the next year communist China took her place. The "Shanghai Communique" of 1972 turned the established order on its head—instead of there being one China, with Taipei as its legitimate head, there was now one China with what was still called Peking as its theoretical authority.
     "Before 1971 was the myth that the Republic of China represented the whole China," Lu says. "And after that another myth was created that the PRC represented Taiwan."
     As Taiwan was being frozen out by the Western nations which, one by one, chose huge markets over democratic freedoms, its own authoritarian regime was shifting. Chiang Kai-shek—who died in 1975—had, in the last years of his life, begun turning power over to his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, who was much more willing to permit reforms than the aging generalissimo had been.
     In early summer of 1978, Lu was working toward her fellowship at Harvard Law. But she couldn't concentrate on her studies.
     "I worried that the United States would derecognize Taiwan soon. From my research I knew it would happen," Lu says. "However nobody at home was aware of that because there was no freedom of the press at all, so nobody at home knew of that."
     She consulted with her faculty adviser.
     "I consulted my professor, and said, 'Do you agree if I gave up my fellowship?" remembers Lu. "He said, 'You're nobody here. But perhaps you'll be somebody at home. Why not go home?' "
     She did, but soon discovered she wasn't in America anymore.
     "The spirit of the First Amendment educated me that I should have the right to criticize the government," Lu says. "So I criticized it. I was charged with sedition."
     In 1979, Lu was found guilty for a 20-minute speech she delivered—on "Human Rights Day" ironically enough—as part of a famous protest known as the "Kaohsiung Incident." A group of activists had, in delivering their addresses, touched off a riot.
     Lu first was kept in a military prison and then, after her conviction—she received a 12-year sentence—at the ironically named Benevolent Rehabilitation Center.
     "It was certainly not as bad as the Gulag, however it was nothing comfortable," Lu says of her 5 1/2 years in prison. "The first stage was totally incommunicado. That was horrible. No one else to speak with, to talk to, with the exception of interrogators: two men and two women. They kept interrogating me, day in and day out and nothing to do."
     Her mother, shocked by Lu's arrest, grew ill. While she was ailing, Lu went on a hunger strike, trying to see her, to no avail. The government produced a doctor who certified that Lu's mother was not really ill; the next day she died, still a painful thought to Lu.
     While in prison, Lu wrote books, sometimes on toilet tissue, which were smuggled out of the prison.
      "Many of my books were banned right after they came out," she says. While in prison, Lu developed cancer, and her illness, coupled with pressure from groups such as Amnesty International, led to her being released with less than half her sentence served.
     She returned to a Taiwan starting to recoil from the corruption and violence of the Chiang Kai-shek years, a nation realizing that democracy was the road out of international isolation. Lu again took up the cause of women in Taiwan, setting up help hotlines and organizing career workshops for women (and, to be fair, cooking competitions for men).
     As in America, publicity can turn to political power. In 1992, Lu was elected to the legislature, representing her home district of Taoyuan. It was the first election where the old Nationalist Party—the KMT—was seriously challenged by a new party, the DPP, which grew out of the same opposition group that had sparked the Kaohsiung protests.
     In the late 1990s, Lu became an adviser to President Lee Teng and served as a magistrate.
     She returned—in an unofficial capacity, of course—to Chicago for the Democratic National Convention in 1996.
     "Chicago changed so much," she says. "It's beautiful now."
     She was added to the presidential ballot of Taiwan's DPP in 1999 mainly to draw on her popularity—much in the same way that Geraldine Ferraro was named the running mate of Walter Mondale. But unlike that ill-starred pair, Chen and Lu won.
     Lu's tenure has been anything but placid. She touched off a major sex scandal when—supposedly—she phoned a reporter and said the president was having an affair with his secretary.
     Lu's feminism is of a type that might strike many Americans as extreme—"Marriage is not the best choice for women," says Lu, who has neither wed nor had children—and she is not famous for her humility.
     "In many countries the women's movement didn't start until democracy has been in practice," she says. "I would say, thanks to my efforts, Taiwan started both feminism and democracy simultaneously."
     She is proud that she is the first elected female vice president to wield power in 5,000 years of Chinese history and hopes that someday someone in America will follow in her footsteps.
     "I thought you would have had a female vice president sooner than us," Lu says. "I think I run faster than my sisters in the states—I came from prison to a palace. But my sisters in America still have a little way to go."
     As with most Taiwanese leaders, she is very concerned about the Taiwanese money and manpower now flowing to the mainland.
     "No one can really stop it," she says, "it is a tide."
     But she sees the Taiwanese as crucial, as managers and workers, to the rapid economic growth of China—
"Without support from Taiwanese, China wouldn't be able to take off so quickly"—and thinks self-interest will keep the mainland, despite their harsh rhetoric, from attacking Taiwan.
      The larger question, she says, is whether that investment will bring the two nations closer to peaceful coexistence, or merely strengthen China and hasten the day when it tries to seize Taiwan.
     "For the past five decades, the PRC has always played two cards toward Taiwan—carrot and stick," she says. "People here are used to that. Yes, they are increasing their military, their ballistic missiles targeting Taiwan.On one hand, they prepare to intimidate Taiwan or even attack Taiwan. On the other hand, they smile on us. They try to seduce the Taiwanese people to go to the mainland and spend money, to contribute to their development."
     That is why, she says, Taiwan needs to be militarily strong and why the United States needs to help.
     "It's certainly in the best interest of the United States to safeguard Taiwan," she says. "Taiwan is one of the best allies the United States has. If Taiwan is taken over by China, then China will be in and out of the Pacific, a continental hegemon and a marine power that would be very much a threat to the United States."

COMING MONDAY: Part II: Security: Taiwan on the Knife's Edge.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 14, 2002


  1. Didn't know Taiwan was that sexist.

    1. Better than the U.S. -- we refused to elect an eminently qualified female who was running against a moronic buffoon.

    2. Didn't know they were that repressive.

  2. A blogger in Taiwan is less complimentary about Lu:

    Michael Turton teaches English in Taiwan.

    (Your article made me curious, so I read a couple of articles on Lu. This was the fourth or fifth link when I searched.)


Thanks for commenting.