Special Section: Asian Journeys

The rivals

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

Annette Lu
AP Photo/Wally Santana

Annette Lu and Ma Ying-jeou were once on the same page—28 years ago in the 1978 HLS yearbook. Today, Lu (above) 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.

In 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.

Ma Ying-jeouAFP/Getty Images

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?

Ma 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.

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