‘I was educated to be patriotic — to be a proud Chinese,” Annette Lu says as she sits imperiously in her spacious office in a skyscraper in Taipei.
Her aging face looms like a white powdered moon over her glittering black suit. She has just held a press conference, blasting Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou.
She settles into a chair with a cup of green tea and tells me the story of her life — how her studies in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s transformed her from an obedient student into one of Taiwan’s most outspoken opposition figures.
Since then, she has survived an assassination attempt, five years imprisonment, and — after free elections finally came — eight years as vice president. She doesn’t show it to me, but I know that under her clothes, there is a scar from a bullet wound near her knee.
I listen intently, because this is the story of how democracy came to the tiny island of Taiwan, and how it might one day take root on mainland China. Talk to Lu long enough, and democracy starts to feel downright inevitable
But the story that led me to Lu is a different one. A juicier one, about her bitter rivalry with President Ma, which began three deacades ago, at Harvard Law School.
Lu starts at the beginning. She was born on Taiwan, the daughter of a local shopkeeper who used to read the newspaper aloud to her, sparking her interest in politics. Back then, Taiwan was an authoritarian state, ruled by Kuomintang (or KMT) party, which had once governed all of China. When the communists swept across China in 1949, KMT stalwarts fled to Taiwan. But they never gave up their dream of retaking China. Every move they made was preparation for driving the communists out.
But just as Lu geared up her activism, a new PhD student arrived at Harvard Law School.
They banned the local languages spoken by the island people. Families that lived on Taiwan for generations were forced to speak like people did on the mainland. Anybody who dared suggest that the KMT stop focusing on defeating the communists — and instead improve life for Taiwanese — was considered a traitor.
Lu believed all the KMT propaganda when she was a child. Then she got a fellowship to study at the University of Illinois. She arrived in the late 1960s, just as feminist ideas were spreading in America. By the time she returned to Taiwan in 1971, she was an ardent activist, full of passionate views about how far Taiwan was lagging in economic development and human freedom.
She started a domestic violence hotline and a feminist coffee shop. But the KMT was watching her. She discovered that one of her hotline volunteers and the manager at the coffee house were both government spies.
“I felt so frustrated,” she says.
But she was also making a name for herself. Renowned China expert Jerome Cohen convinced her to take a fellowship at Harvard Law School. In the bowels of Harvard’s libraries, she found documents that enabled her to write a history of Taiwan — not as a renegade province of China, but as a nation in its own right. That was the beginning of Lu’s outspoken calls for formal independence from China. She smuggled her subversive book into Taiwan by photographing each page and sending the rolls of undeveloped film.
But just as Lu geared up her activism, a new PhD student arrived at Harvard Law School: Ma Ying-jeou, who was born on mainland China to a senior KMT party official. Ma’s father was so dedicated to the dream of reunifying with China that, after his death, a slogan about it was written on the urn that held his ashes.
Quiet and reserved, Ma set out to learn as much as he could about China. He took Cohen’s classes on the Chinese legal system and wrote his thesis on oil in the South China sea.
He became Lu’s nemesis. She felt he was watching everything she did and reporting back to the KMT.
When she organized a protest in Boston against the arrest of democracy activists in Taiwan, Lu says Ma photographed her from across the street.
When she invited a prominent dissident from Taiwan to Harvard to speak, Lu says Ma tipped off the KMT, which blocked him from getting on his flight.
As the struggle for democracy heated up in Taiwan, Lu went back home, with Cohen’s blessing.
“You are nobody here, but you might become somebody at home,” she says he told her. Then he added, half-joking: “If you get arrested, we’ll try to bail you out.”
A year later, after she gave a speech at a rally, she was thrown in prison. She passed the time writing novels on toilet paper. Even when she was struck with debilitating cancer, the government refused to let her out.
“The KMT hated me a lot,” she says.
Ironically, it was Ma — her enemy at Harvard — who eventually set her free.
After Harvard, he worked at a bank in Boston and then became an interpreter for Taiwan’s president, Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of longtime KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek.
Ma had been raised on KMT party ideology. But Harvard had exposed him to democracy. Five years after Lu’s arrest, Professor Cohen traveled to Taiwan and pressed Ma, a rising star in the KMT, about why his former classmate was in prison. Apparently embarrassed, Ma had Lu moved to a hospital. He and Cohen visited her there. It was an emotional reunion. Lu recalls Cohen wiping away tears when he saw her lying emaciated on the hospital cot. She says he told her: “I never should have encouraged you to go back.”
A week later, she was freed from jail.
“In that regard, I owe President Ma,” she tells me.
But she was still forced to stay at home, under house arrest — until the KMT allowed her to take another fellowship at Harvard. She was living in Cambridge in 1987, when the KMT decided that democracy was the future, and announced an end to martial law.
Lu and her fellow activists were pardoned. They formed the largest opposition party. Lu was elected to parliament and eventually became Taiwan’s vice president in the country’s first peaceful transition of power.
“We proved that democracy can be achieved peacefully,” Lu says.
Today, Taiwan is teeming with creative energy. Its coffers are bulging with foreign reserves. Dueling political views duke it out in the newspapers.
But Lu’s time in office was not a big success. Her platform, which advocated officially breaking with the mainland, outraged China at every turn. US officials worried that her calls for independence would drag the United States — Taiwan’s protector — into a war with China.
After eight years — and a string of corruption scandals — the KMT won the presidency back in a landslide. Their victorious candidate? None other than the indefatigable Ma Ying-jeou.
President Ma ushered in a new era of friendly relations with China. He negotiated a flurry of agreements to ease mail service, air travel, and trade. Nowadays, 90 planes fly each week between Taipei and Shanghai. Nearly 2 million Chinese tourists visited Taiwan last year.
“This is a real breakthrough,” Cohen, mentor to both Ma and Lu, told me. Cohen is so proud of what his former student has accomplished that he believes one day Ma should be considered for a Nobel Prize.
But avoiding a war might not be Ma’s biggest legacy. As Chinese visitors flock to Taipei, they bring back descriptions of Taiwan’s vibrant, free society, just as Ma and Lu did when they came from America.
“Over the long run, by word of mouth, it will spread,” says Chong-Pin Lin, professor of international relations at TamKang University. “Eventually China will ask the question: If the Taiwanesecan, why can’t we?”
So Taiwan’s tourist industry just might take down communism, succeeding where its army failed.
But activists like Lu worry that Ma’s cozy relationship to China is a plot to take away Taiwan’s democracy and independence.
She grumbles about how the national museums and temples are always packed with Chinese tourists now. “I never go to those places anymore,” she tells me, twisting her mouth as if she sucked on a lemon.
Instead, Lu spends her time protesting Ma at rallies where activists hold up signs that read: “We don’t want China.” After he was elected for a second term, she held a press conference to announce a long list of demands. One was that Ma appoint advisers from the opposition, like herself.
“Do you think he will listen?” I ask her.
She frowns at the very thought of him.
Then she says: “Probably not.”Farah Stockman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.