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APRIL 24, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 16

Jerome Favre/AP
Annette Lu keeps on talking, despite being branded "the scum of the nation" by Beijing.

Pump Up The Volume
Beijing raises the heat with vitriolic attacks against Taiwan's incoming V.P.

Some day in the future, when the walls of secrecy that surround China's government finally crumble, it may well turn out that Beijing actually maintains a Central Bureau of Insulting Epithets. Just ask Annette Lu, Vice President-elect of Taiwan. Shortly after her March 18 election victory with Chen Shui-bian, now the island's President-in-waiting, Lu told an interviewer that she considers mainland China a "remote relative and close neighbor." Beijing's reaction was to issue a formal statement describing Lu as nothing less than "the scum of the Chinese nation." The official People's Daily called her remarks "lunatic" and referred to the "unfinished civil war" that led to the separation of Taiwan from China. The People's Liberation Army Daily branded Lu "insane."

Taiwanese are still celebrating the historic election of Chen and Lu, which booted from office a mighty ruling party, the Kuomintang, through the power of the ballot--the first democratic transfer of power in Chinese history. Beijing, by contrast, has used the event as an excuse to rev up the official insult machine, which appears to work with hair-trigger sensitivity and unbridled linguistic creativity. Outgoing President Lee Teng-hui was once described as "a sinner in history" and "an insect trying to dig up a tree." Hong Kong's final British Governor Chris Patten was branded a "prostitute."

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In fact, Beijing's reaction to Taiwan's election--even including its pillorying of Lu--shows a degree of moderation, if one considers the inherent risks of a new regime taking control of the island. Chen and Lu's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has long been the only major political party calling for Taiwan's independence from the mainland--which China has repeatedly vowed to go to war to prevent. During the campaign, Chen backpedaled shrewdly on that stance. After Chen's victory, Beijing said it would be "listening to his words and watching his actions." Then Lu opened her mouth. The 55-year-old lawyer, with degrees from the University of Illinois and Harvard, won renown in the 1970s for fearless opposition to the Kuomintang government, which handed her a 12-year jail sentence in 1980 for plotting to overthrow the government. (She served more than five years before being released for health reasons.) "Annette Lu is a very smart woman with very, very strong opinions that she expresses very, very clearly," says a senior White House aide in Washington. Indeed. Lu told Time last week: "Taiwan is not only de facto independent, but de jure as well." Such rhetoric is guaranteed to inflame China, which insists that it is the motherland and Taiwan a mere prodigal son. And few mothers, after all, like being referred to as a remote relative. Time asked Lu if unification with the mainland was possible. "Not in our generation" she said.

When the row first broke out, there was speculation that Chen and Lu were doing a good cop-bad cop routine, with Chen smoothing feathers while Lu reminded Beijing of the enormous gulf between Taiwan and the mainland. That theory fizzled when Lu courted further controversy by publicly complaining that she was not being consulted on high-level appointments for the new government. She reminded her running mate that she intends to be an active member of the administration and not, in her colorful phrase, "a forgotten concubine confined to the outer harem." Says DPP legislator Shen Fu-hsiung: "When Beijing's leaders speak in public, it's always well-coordinated and they probably assume the same is true here. But Chen doesn't know what Lu is going to say."

Another theory holds that China has nothing to lose by putting preemptive pressure on Taiwan's new leaders in advance of the May 20 inauguration--possibly pushing Chen into making a significant gesture of conciliation. "They want to send a message," says Andrew Yang, secretary general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a Taipei think tank, "that unless he makes a very clear commitment to 'one China,' Beijing could take a much harsher approach after the inauguration."

The fact is, Beijing and Taipei constantly talk past each other when referring to independence for Taiwan. When Chen and Lu's generation of dissidents called for independence in the past, they were largely reacting against the total political dominance of Kuomintang mainlanders, who took refuge in Taiwan in 1949. Independence, therefore, was a demand to abandon the Kuomintang's claim of being the legitimate ruler of all of China. The Kuomintang itself gave up that position in 1991. Taiwan-born politicians are now calling the shots, and Chen has said he has no interest in changing the constitution. In effect, he's abandoning past calls for independence.

Contemporary Taiwanese consider the status quo just fine. But to China, it is not, and Beijing upped the ante in February by publishing a "White Paper" saying that Taiwan should join unification talks sooner rather than later--or face war. Chen and Lu's biggest task is to make sure the only weapon China hurls across the Taiwan Strait is harsh language.

Reported by Don Shapiro/Taipei, Mia Turner/Beijing and Douglas Waller/Washington

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