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Taiwan's vice president asks for U.S. support

TAIPEI, Taiwan—The tart-tongued vice president of Taiwan, Annette Lu, twinkled impishly and asked whether the communist government in China was lobbing any new vitriol her way.

"Do they still call me `scum of the nation?'" Lu asked a visitor.

She's a perpetual thorn in the side of Beijing, despised even more than independence-minded President Chen Shui-bian for her adamant affirmation that Taiwan and China are two countries that are unlikely to be united in the next generation.

In a wide-ranging interview with Knight Ridder, Lu asserted that China wouldn't dare send its armed forces against the independently ruled island in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. She voiced concern at the huge flows of Taiwanese investment to build factories on the mainland and questioned why President Bush doesn't receive either Taiwan's president or herself at the White House.

"Frankly speaking, both of us deserve an invitation to visit Washington, D.C.," the vice president said, noting that their visits to U.S. soil are sharply restricted.

"If Mr. Arafat, if the Dalai Lama, can go, why can't (we)? We are freedom fighters," Lu said, referring to the deceased head of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the exiled religious leader of Tibet. "Both of us received many awards in terms of freedom or human rights or peace. We certainly deserve an invitation."

Lu said successive U.S. administrations had shunned Taiwan's elected leaders at the White House because "they are so afraid of China."

She received a visitor recently in an ornate meeting room of the presidential palace in Taipei, a full-length portrait of herself hanging behind her seat.

A one-time political prisoner, Lu acknowledged that she didn't get along well with Chen for at least the first year after they were elected in 2000. The two have patched up since, especially since winning a re-election campaign last year that saw both survive an eleventh-hour assassination attempt that left them with light wounds.

"The first year was awful. Everybody knows that," Lu said. "The idea was not really to accept a female to become the vice president."

Lu wasn't one to be a figurehead vice president, however. The holder of two U.S. master's degrees in law, one from the University of Illinois and another from Harvard University, she seized a role in shaping human rights policy, pushed for greater diplomatic recognition for Taiwan and leapt into local headlines with verbal jabs at China.

Lu, a former human rights campaigner who was jailed for more than five years in the early 1980s, said a military buildup on the mainland was unlikely to lead to an invasion of Taiwan in the next few years.

"China's leaders are not willing to launch a war against Taiwan before 2008. They are withholding themselves for the Olympic Games," she said.

In March, China's rubber-stamp Parliament passed an anti-succession law enshrining Beijing's right to use military force against Taiwan if it discerns any sign that the island is moving toward declaring its independence.

For its part, the Bush administration, worried about an outbreak of violence in the tense Taiwan Strait, has exhorted China and Taiwan to maintain the fragile status quo. Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979, but has pledged to provide the island with defensive weapons.

Lu said China hadn't "exercised one second of jurisdiction over Taiwan" since the modern communist nation, known as the People's Republic of China, was founded in 1949.

"In the foreseeable future, we see no opportunity and no justification to let Taiwan become part of the PRC," she said.

Lu voiced pride in the strength of Taiwan's economy, the seventh largest in the world, saying the island of 23 million people "is one of the major powerhouses of the new economy. We're proud of that and we are confident."

Over the last decade, Taiwanese entrepreneurs eager to take advantage of rock-bottom labor costs on the mainland have built thousands of factories near the Yangtze and Pearl River deltas. On an average day, about 1 million Taiwanese are on the mainland, Lu said, overseeing some $200 billion in investments. At least a half-million Taiwanese already have homes on the mainland.

Lu urged Taiwan's legislature to speed approval of a proposed law to punish those who leak "sensitive high-tech" information to China and voiced apprehension at the political impact of having so many nationals on the other side of the strait.

"They try to seduce our entrepreneurs, try to steal our achievement. In a way, they have been successful because so many Taiwanese entrepreneurs are having their investment in China to help them upgrade their industry so rapidly."

"It's troublesome," she said.

In Taipei political circles, word is spreading that Lu will seek the ruling Democratic Progressive Party's presidential nomination in the 2008 election. She declined to address the issue, but asserted that her forthright manner has endeared her to voters.

"More and more, people like me because I'm always candid, honest and persistent in my principles," she said.

The subject came up again while Lu was posing for photographs, and she interjected: "I have run six times (for political office) and never failed." She smiled, then changed the subject.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): TAIWAN-VEEP

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