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The World | COLUMN ONE

Taiwan's Lu Has Her Issues

The matronly vice president's outspoken pro-independence stand makes Beijing apoplectic. Admirers see a pioneering feminist.

October 20, 2003|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

TAIPEI, Taiwan — To her admirers, Taiwanese Vice President Annette Lu is Susan B. Anthony and Margaret Thatcher rolled into one -- a feminist pioneer and no-nonsense political scrapper who has broken the mold for women in one of East Asia's most conservative societies.

To her critics, she's an abrasive maverick whose blunt style and caustic attacks on mainland China -- whose leaders call her the "scum of the nation" -- have done Taiwan far more damage than good.

Either way, Lu stands today as one of Asia's most unconventional political figures: a single woman who rose from modest means to reach Harvard Law School and survive years in jail and a bout with cancer on a remarkable journey to the heights of power.

"She's tested the boundaries of the system," said Hsu Hsin-liang, a onetime presidential hopeful and the former chairman of Lu's Democratic Progressive Party. "She's always controversial."

During the course of an hourlong interview this month in the spacious vice presidential reception room, Lu insisted she has drawn political fire partly because she is a woman and partly because she refuses to compromise her principles under pressure.

She made it clear she wasn't about to change her style now. "I've achieved what I have because I am what I am," she said matter-of-factly.

Part of that is a strong ego. She receives visitors in a room dominated by a large portrait of herself, along with a framed poem about her Chinese name, Lu Hsiu-lien -- "Elegant Lotus."

But Lu's upfront public style is masked by a quiet voice and unimposing demeanor. At 59, Lu's manner, coupled with her small stature and carefully groomed jet-black hair, gives her a matronly appearance.

After attending the August inauguration of Paraguayan President Nicanor Duarte Frutos, she recalled that Cuban leader Fidel Castro initially mistook her for someone's wife.

By all accounts, Lu is a workaholic. According to senior aides, she lives alone in a penthouse apartment just a few minutes' drive from the presidential office complex in central Taipei. She begins her days early, ends them late and frequently calls weekend meetings.

"She's always so enthusiastic about her work, there's not much left for spare time," said Deputy Information Minister Lee Cher-jean, who has accompanied Lu on overseas trips.

When Lu does have free time, she rarely goes out to press the flesh or relax with political cronies. Instead, she stays in, either writing or studying work-related papers. Lu's former spokeswoman, Tsai Min-hua, said Lu rarely listens to music and delegates jobs such as shopping for clothes to subordinates.

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Will He Pick Her Again?

As Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian gathers his forces to bid for a second four-year term next March, Lu's political future remains an unanswered question: Will he pick her again?

Even though she has talked about stepping down, those who track the island's political scene suspect that her words may have been more tactical posturing than a statement of genuine intent. Now she simply avoids the question, saying that Chen will pick his running mate after he wins the nomination at his party's convention, scheduled for December.

"He's the only one who has the answer," Lu said coyly.

Recent opinion polls indicate that Chen trails his Nationalist Party opponent, Lien Chan, by 8 to 10 percentage points and fares even worse when paired with Lu as his running mate. Such numbers would be only one of several reasons to dump her, political observers here note.

Her aggressive style has made her unpopular within her party's leadership and a frequent headache for Chen. "Her chances aren't high for getting back on the ticket," predicted Chin Heng-wei, a respected political commentator and radio talk-show host in Taipei.

Others disagree.

The rhetorical barbs Lu hurls at Beijing and her unabashed advocacy of Taiwanese independence have made her the darling of her party's conservative base, made up of voters who despise the mainland government and reject the ambiguity that hangs over Taiwan's status.

That ambiguity, underscored by Beijing's claim that the island is a breakaway province of China that must be reunited with the mainland, has kept Taiwan largely isolated diplomatically since the 1970s. (The United States broke off relations with Taipei in 1979, when it formally recognized the Communist government in Beijing.) It also compels most of the island's political leaders to carefully choose their words about Taiwan's status to avoid further straining the tense relationship with Beijing.

"She's got the [brass] to say things others wouldn't dare," said Robert Wen, a Taipei electronics company executive, who, like most businesspeople, believes her blunt talk is bad for Taiwan's extensive trade ties with China.

But Beijing's denunciations of her as a "lunatic" have merely added to her aura among the DPP's hard-line faithful.

Former party leader Hsu cites other reasons to expect Chen to keep her on the ticket. He says it would be safer to have her on than off.

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