Annette Lu and Ma Ying-jeou share a history. But they offer different futures for Taiwan.

Annette Lu and Ma Ying-jeou were once on the same page—28 years ago in the 1978 HLS yearbook. Today, Lu is vice president of Taiwan, and Ma is leader of the opposing Kuomintang party.

In Taipei, any given Harvard alumni club meeting brings together a roster of grads who have helped to shape Taiwan—or the Republic of China, as it’s officially known. In this fledgling democracy, divisions over its relationship with the People’s Republic of China—which threatens it with missiles at the same time as it provides unparalleled investment opportunities—run deep. So perhaps it’s not surprising that for some of these grads, the firmest common ground is their Harvard background.

But for Vice President Annette Hsiu-lien Lu LL.M. ’78 and Ma Ying-jeou S.J.D. ’81, who is chair of the opposing Kuomintang party, mayor of Taipei and the odds-on favorite for the 2008 presidential election, their Harvard history has its own complexity. As the saying goes, an HLS education opens doors; but in Lu’s case, it was the door out of prison, and it was Ma who may have propped it open. And for Ma, some wonder whether it was the door to Taiwan’s democratization.

LuIn the 1978 HLS yearbook, photos of Lu and Ma sit side by side. But it’s unlikely the two students ever got that close. They took none of the same courses, and Lu remembers them rarely interacting.

She grew up in the north of Taiwan, where her father was a shopkeeper. Her advocacy and writing on behalf of women (she’s often referred to as the founder of the country’s women’s movement) had helped win her a scholarship to the LL.M. program, and she was already a sympathizer with the cause of Taiwan independence. At the time, the island was still under martial law, with the government limiting freedom of the press and outlawing opposition parties.

Lu may be a candidate in the 2008 presidential race. Ma (above) is the odds-on favorite. Their intertwined paths reflect Taiwan’s transition to democracy and the preoccupying question: One China or two?

MaMa was enrolled in the S.J.D. program, where he would write about the problem of extracting oil from the East China Sea. He’s a Mainlander, born in Hong Kong, though his family moved to the island when he was a year old. More important to Lu, his family had political connections to the KMT ruling party, and she feared that Ma was reporting back to the government on the activities of Taiwanese students.

Jerome Cohen, a China expert who was a professor at HLS at the time and Lu’s adviser, remembers the two students’ relationship as “less than friendly.” Once in a while, Lu would come to him, upset that Ma was there. “I told her it was a free country,” recalled Cohen, who is now a professor at New York University School of Law. “He was a brilliant student. They were both entitled to be there.”

Cohen recalls discussing Lu’s options as she prepared to graduate, including seeking exile in the U.S. or finding work in Taiwan that would not draw attention to herself. But as the U.S. was normalizing relations with the PRC—which would eventually require the withdrawal of U.S. diplomatic recognition of Taiwan and the end of the U.S. defense treaty—she feared for her country. She decided to go home and get involved in politics during what she knew would be a time of change. Cohen said he remembers saying to Lu, only half jokingly, “If they lock you up, we’ll get you out.”

When Lu saw her teacher seven years later, she was serving the fifth year of her sentence as a political prisoner. It was her law school nemesis, Ma Ying-jeou, who arranged the meeting.

After leaving Harvard, Lu had become a vocal participant in politics, eventually working for Formosa magazine, a publication of the Taiwan Dangwai movement, which sought democratic reform and independence for Taiwan. On Dec. 10, 1979, International Human Rights Day, Lu and seven others were arrested after participating in a rally in which violence broke out between police and protestors. She was convicted of sedition and given 12 years for a 20-minute speech.

During this time, Ma finished his S.J.D. and returned to Taiwan to become secretary and English interpreter to then President Chiang Ching-kuo. Cohen was working in Beijing and could do little to help Lu. But that changed after an incident that brought U.S. attention to the KMT government’s ties to organized crime. A Chinese-American writing a book about a member of the president’s family was slain in the San Francisco Bay area. It was suspected that Taiwanese mobsters had done the job, hired by government officials. After an outpouring of outrage from the U.S., a trial was held in Taiwan, and Cohen, as one of the attorneys, was granted a visa. He asked Ma to intervene on Lu’s behalf, telling him that Lu’s release might help to redeem his government’s tarnished image.

A meeting was arranged between Cohen and Lu, which Ma attended. Lu was weak. Her English was rusty after more than five years in prison, but she was overjoyed to see her mentor.

A week later Lu was freed. She had suffered a recurrence of thyroid cancer at the beginning of her incarceration, and her release was officially called a “medical parole.” Lu has often cited the efforts of human rights groups such as Amnesty International in helping to win her freedom. But in an e-mail exchange with the Bulletin, she wrote she believed that the KMT let her go in part because of the political pressures exerted by Cohen through Ma. And although she noted she didn’t know what Ma said to President Chiang, she acknowledged that his intervention “would have influenced [the president] in some ways.” Cohen says he is grateful to Ma, whatever his motives were.


Annette Lu may be a candidate in the 2008 presidential race.

That was more than 20 years ago. Lu went on to make her name in national politics. She won a seat in the Legislative Yuan, the country’s legislature, where she played a role in foreign affairs, and continued to push for Taiwan’s admission to the U.N. She was also magistrate of Taoyuan province, where she’d grown up. She now serves in the highest-profile position of her career, after she and President Chen Shui-bian won the 2000 election on the Democratic Progressive Party ticket, forcing out the KMT, the party that had imprisoned her and ruled her country for more than 50 years.

The DPP grew out of the Dangwai (“outside the party”) movement. For the first time, the outsiders are on the inside and face the difficulties of this new position.

But one of the challenges Lu couldn’t have anticipated was the shadow cast on their re-election in 2004 by a mysterious shooting on the eve of the vote. The incident left Chen and Lu with wounds in the abdomen and knee, respectively, from which they have now recovered. It’s been harder for the president to recover from the opposition’s allegations that the shooting was staged to boost the pair’s flagging popularity.

Ma is the odds-on favorite in the 2008 presidential race.

Credit: AFP/Getty Images Ma is the odds-on favorite in the 2008 presidential race.

Over the past 20 years, Ma has become one of the most influential politicians in Taiwan. As minister of justice in 1993, he cracked down on corruption and electoral fraud, which plagued the Taiwanese system and were associated with his party. As senior vice chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, he was present for the party’s sea change toward Communist China, which led to the first talks between Taiwan and the PRC in the early ’90s. He’s now finishing up his second term as mayor of Taipei, after defeating in 1998 the man who is now Taiwan’s president. Many see Ma as the new face of the KMT and as his party’s best hope for winning back the presidency in the 2008 elections.

This spring, in his role as party chairman, Ma went on a 10-day visit to the U.S., including a stop in Cambridge. After meeting with Harvard faculty such as Roger Fisher ’48 and East Asian Legal Studies Director William Alford ’77, Ma entered the classroom where he was to speak. Before he said a word to them, audience members held up cell phones and clicked with abandon, the way you snap photos of a movie star. In Taiwan it’s called the Ma Ying-jeou phenomenon. Handsome and athletic, at 56 a marathon runner and champion of public interest causes such as blood donation, Ma is extremely popular among the oft-polled Taiwanese. (In one survey, women voted him the man they would most like to father their children.)

Some in the United States have likened his charisma to that of JFK. With his American legal education and his fluency in English, he stands out from other politicians on either side of the Taiwan Strait.

Rachel Lu ’07 (no relation to the vice president), who went to hear Ma speak in March, said that having lived in the PRC until she was 12, she “wanted to see what a [culturally] Chinese democracy could produce.” She was impressed, especially with the effort Ma made to connect with his audience. After a speech that lasted less than half an hour, he answered questions for twice as long. Chung Chi LL.M. ’02, a Taiwanese doctoral student, was struck by how funny the KMT chairman was. (Ma told the audience that he and his wife had so enjoyed their time at Harvard that they’d wanted to name their daughter Cambridge Ma.)

Clearly, despite his sense of humor, politicians and policy-makers are taking Ma seriously. In addition to his stop in Cambridge, his trip to the U.S. included a closed-door meeting in D.C. with White House officials, including Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick ’81, as well as a question-and-answer session at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. Cohen, who led the council session, said of Ma, “There’s one thing I am convinced of. If this guy gets elected president, there are going to be few leaders in the world that are of his ilk.”

But though many see Ma as the new face of the KMT, others have trouble forgetting the past.

Eric T. Wu LL.M. ’77 S.J.D. ’90 is one of them. A prominent civic leader, businessman and Taiwan independence supporter, who until recently was a member of the Legislative Yuan representing the Taiwan Solidarity Union, Wu finds the idea of Ma representing a new improved KMT hard to swallow. “As an individual, of course, Ma is charming,” said Wu. “But the problem is he is part of that system.” And even if he fought corruption on a case-by-case basis as minister of justice, said Wu, “he would have to come out and reflect on all the wrongdoings of the KMT, all the previous corruptions, or he is just doing a piecemeal treatment of corruption. You know, it’s that corrupt structure that brought him to power.”

Alford, who has known both Ma and Lu for years, says fighting corruption was essential to the development of Taiwan’s democracy, and Ma clearly cares about the issue. Yet, strategically, a KMT politician couldn’t have picked a better one to build his career on. “He had the guts to stand up to his own party and break with the corruption,” said Alford. “At the same time, it was incredibly clever politically.”

The debate over one politician’s background is part of a bigger dispute over who should get credit for the country’s move to democracy—activists or the KMT government.

Alford says of course Dangwai activists, such as Lu, should get credit. But others should, too. “Chiang Ching-kuo was an authoritarian politician, but he figured out that the only way to have a peaceful transition and for the Kuomintang to hang on to some power was to ease up and relinquish some power,” Alford said.

Lu thinks the government had no choice. Wu also believes that the president gave in to the mounting pressure from activists as well as to political pressure from the Carter administration. At the same time, Wu remembers the intoxicating effect of the freedoms he experienced as a student at HLS. To go from an authoritarian regime to a place where you can talk about anything, “to us that was like heaven,” he recalled. Harvard placed such a high value on human rights and rule of law, he said, that perhaps Ma, too, was affected: “It may have sunk in Ma’s mind and maybe influenced Chiang Ching-kuo in some fashion. It could have.”

During his visit to the U.S. in March, Ma said his party would be "a peacemaker, not a troublemaker," if it regained the presidency in 2008.

Credit: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images During his visit to the U.S. in March, Ma said his party would be “a peacemaker, not a troublemaker,” if it regained the presidency in 2008.

Such speculation aside, the issue that both political parties are focused on now is Taiwan’s relationship to the PRC.

When he spoke in Cambridge, Ma critiqued Chen’s recent record, including his move to abolish the council set up to unify Taiwan and the PRC, as dangerously confrontational, and against the wishes of the Taiwanese people and the U.S. government. He promised that if the KMT came back into power, “it would be a peacemaker, not a troublemaker” and “stick to the status quo without seeking independence or unification.”

Lu calls Ma’s approach appeasement. “We have to make our voices heard,” she said. “The number of missiles is increasing. … As president and vice president, we have to do something to protect us. But the world has been blind, including the United States.”

In his speech, Ma said his party wanted to resume cross-strait dialogue based on the 1992 consensus, “namely, one China, different interpretations. For us, one China means the Republic of China in Taiwan. For them, one China means the People’s Republic of China. These two concepts seem not to be reconciled,” he acknowledged, but this approach, he said, would make it possible “to shelve the issue for the indefinite future and change our focus to something that needs our immediate attention.”

Lu can’t see the point of such fancy footwork. “It’s ridiculous,” she said. “Why not they just say that there are two Chinas? One on the mainland and one in Taiwan. Be honest.”

Enjoying the irony: Nowadays, Lu, a longtime champion of a free press, is often a media target.

Enjoying the irony: Nowadays, Lu, a longtime champion of a free press, is often a media target.

It’s this outspokenness that has driven her career. “She’s an extraordinary person,” said Alford. “Someone with a lot of principle and conviction and stick-to-itiveness. And a lot of people don’t like her for that reason.”

As vice president, her independent attitude has won her harsh words from the PRC, including “scum of the nation,” “lunatic” and worse. “Reading what the PRC says about her,” remarked Alford, “is a good way to keep up one’s repertoire of vitriolic Chinese terms.”

Lu says she doesn’t mind being targeted by the mainland; it’s helped to draw attention to her point of view and her cause. She is quick to admit that in Taiwan, she is much less popular with the media than Ma Ying-jeou. But after fighting for freedom of the press, she says she now has to take her lumps when they freely criticize her. “That’s the way we have to pay,” she said, laughing.

Lu is mentioned as a possible candidate for the 2008 presidential race herself, although many say she hasn’t been enough of a team player for her party or her president. She answers accusations that she’s too independent by making it clear the vice president shouldn’t have to apologize for being ready to lead the country. But when asked about her own ambitions for the 2008 presidential race, she says the upcoming local elections are her party’s first priority (actually sounding quite like a member of the team).

Lu is very much focused on today’s Taiwan. But if you mention the five years she spent in prison, she reminds you of the exact number of days: 1,933. She says she’s become a symbol. And details of her imprisonment, such as the novels she scribbled on toilet paper, have become legendary; in fact, Taiwanese TV is making one of the books into a miniseries. It’s the toll her imprisonment took on her family that Lu says she minds most; her mother became ill and died without Lu getting to say goodbye. But the vice president is quick to point out that she’s just one of many who suffered. The mother and twin daughters of a protestor arrested with Lu were murdered in their home—their throats cut. Lu said she is proud that her side of the “revolution” was peaceful, and that in today’s Taiwan, “problems for political freedom are almost zero.”

Although she expressed no gratitude to Ma for his actions more than 20 years ago, Lu did tell the Bulletin she doesn’t resent him or other KMT officials. “I think humans make mistakes. The important [thing is] to try not to repeat them.”

“I have no intention to attack Mayor Ma,” she stressed. “No personal attacks, please.” What it’s about, she says, is issues and ideology. But when it comes to Taiwan’s politics, it doesn’t seem like that can ever be simple.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time, and maybe the same could be said of a democracy. S.J.D. candidate Chung Chi was only a year old when Lu was imprisoned, but he says he feels a deep debt of gratitude to her and other activists for helping make his country the boisterous democracy it is today. But he also admires Ma: “Both of them dare to challenge the conventional wisdom.”