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A nation must think before it acts.
Once again, the future of Kuomintang (KMT), the political party headed by Chiang Kai-shek for decades and that favors a closer relationship with Mainland China, is in doubt due to the results of the recent presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan. President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was reelected in a landslide against her opponent Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang. Tsai received a record 8+ million votes, and the DPP retained its majority in the country’s national legislature by winning 61 seats—though it did lose seven compared to the 2016 election when the party won its first-ever majority. The blowout victory puts the KMT’s future into question—though more senior analysts note that this conversation occurs after every election, particularly the 2016 election, and nothing really changes. Maybe, just maybe, this time will be different.
After spending the week leading up to the election in Taipei with a group of North American scholars of Taiwan and China, it became clear that some members of the KMT are hoping and pushing for change in the party. What form will that change take, if it happens at all?
Outside observers may wonder why the election results would be seen as a clear sign that the KMT needs to change. Taiwan has never had a one-term president, so the reelection of President Tsai need not indicate a crisis in the KMT. And the KMT did better in the 2020 legislative election than in 2016. It added three seats this time around, giving the party 38 in total. Mayor Han also received over 1.7 million votes more than the KMT’s 2016 candidate, former New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu. The recent resignation of Party Chairman Wu Den-yih does not necessarily point to a sense of crisis within the party, or the need for fundamental change, because in Taiwan’s political culture, the head of the party generally steps down if it has a poor showing. It happened to President Tsai in 2018 after the DPP had significant losses in local elections. It is the leader of the party that takes the fall for these electoral losses. However, the current conversation is larger than the typical pattern following an electoral loss; it reaches deep into the culture of the KMT as a party.
The KMT has two primary issues: an aging support base and a perceived outdated policy on China. KMT voters in their 20s do exist (I’ve met with a number of them over the past week), but they are a relatively small minority in their age cohort. KMT policies, particularly on China, do not energize the country’s youth to flock to the polls to vote for the KMT over the DPP. Further cooperation—or eventual unification with China—does not entice the youth vote because during the Tsai administration, China has worked to squeeze Taiwan into submission, and these voters no longer have a connection to the Mainland like previous generations did. Also, the KMT does not work to cultivate and develop the next generation of members and leaders. One such potential candidate, Hsu Yu-jen, was dumped from the KMT’s party list for the 2020 election, largely due to his decision to vote in favor of Taiwan’s same-sex marriage law, which many KMT members campaigned to repeal in 2020. After the election results were announced, Hsu released a number of statements explaining the need for change and reform in the party. Instead of keeping more moderate voices, the KMT has pushed them away and will pay an electoral price in the years to come.
The KMT’s historical baggage with its policies on China have opened the party to sharp criticism after the response to the protests in Hong Kong (over the possibility of implementing an extradition law that would allow for the Hong Kong government to send people to China) and the increased international attention that the internment and cultural genocide of Uyghurs in Xinjiang has received. While Mayor Han spoke out in support of the Hong Kong protests and has espoused a more assertive approach to China than previous candidates, voters found it hard to cast a vote for the party that advocates for closer relations and increased dialogue with China. Han also called the 1992 Consensus “magical.” These issues made the party’s China policy untenable in the 2020 campaign—despite many young and old KMT members’ assertion that it, not the DPP, has the better policy on China; based on President Tsai’s vote share, the Taiwanese electorate disagreed.
The KMT can keep the spirit of its China policy, while abandoning some of its more unpopular policies. Pushing for dialogue and detente with the CCP is not a bad idea on its face, especially since China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, accounting for almost US$529 billion in total trade (the U.S. is second with almost US$265 billion). However, signs pointed to Taiwan’s youth not favoring closer economic relations with the Mainland in 2013 with the Sunflower Movement protests against the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement. This trade figure shows that the China could crush Taiwan economically if it chose to do so; the Tsai administration has attempted to diversify its economy away from China with the New Southbound Policy, which emphasizes closer relations with Southeast Asia.
The party’s hope for unification under the framework of the Republic of China Constitution, that is a democratic China and Taiwan under one government, is not going to happen anytime soon—if it ever does. The current trajectory People’s Republic is not towards democracy and reform, but the consolidation of authoritarian power under Chairman Xi Jinping. The 1992 Consensus—a topic of great controversy in Taiwan due to its unclear meaning, but recently has come to mean that the Mainland and Taiwan belong to the same China, but both sides have different interpretations—is not something that the KMT can keep pushing beyond 2020. The term is controversial because the CCP and KMT interpret it differently. To add another wrinkle to the 1992 Consensus, President Tsai and the DPP reject that a “consensus” even exists, especially since Chairman Xi uses Tsai’s refusal to “accept” the Consensus as the basis for the CCP’s more aggressive Taiwan policy. In the immediate aftermath of her reelection, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs reminded President Tsai that for any dialogue to occur, she must accept the 1992 Consensus and “The People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China. Taiwan is an inalienable part of the Chinese territory. And the one-China principle is the universal consensus of the international community.” These statements, and others, point to a continuation of China’s pressure campaign against Taiwan.
As one of the two major parties in Taiwan, the KMT should not use Chairman Xi’s punishment against President Tsai as a reason for voting for it; touting this punishment is not in Taiwan’s greater interest. The party and its members should begin to advocate that the CCP should have dialogue with whatever party is in charge without the precondition of the 1992 Consensus because an adversarial relationship between Taiwan and China whenever the DPP holds the presidency hurts Taiwan in the long term. Placing all blame on to President Tsai and not onto Chairman Xi and the CCP is unfair and unrealistic. Soon-to-be former Legislator Hsu Yu-jen released a statement on Facebook arguing that the 1992 Consensus has collapsed in light of the Hong Kong issue. If young KMT members are admitting this in public, then it is time for a new conversation to be had internally. Is there room in the KMT for pushing aside the 1992 Consensus or arguing as President Tsai did that Taiwan is already independent?
The KMT’s argument that President Tsai’s cross-Strait policy is a failure has fallen flat. A record-breaking number of voters have given her a second mandate, and part of that mandate is her refusal to accept the 1992 Consensus and bow to Chinese pressure through military incursions at air and sea and the poaching of diplomatic allies. There is room to carve out a new policy while recognizing that Taiwan has had de facto independence for decades if the KMT so chooses. The KMT ruled Taiwan as an authoritarian, one party state from 1949 to the late 1980s during which time Taiwan was de facto independent. The party could push the “fact” that the KMT, not the DPP, created the space for Taiwan’s current “independence” by preventing an invasion by the Mainland and solidifying U.S. support in an unofficial diplomatic capacity. This could become the bedrock of a new KMT policy.
After all, the term “1992 Consensus” was made up in 2000 by KMT member Su Chi, who served as Secretary-General of the National Security Council and Minister of the Mainland Affairs Council. Acting like a 20-year-old term is etched in stone and the foundation of relations between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait ignores how the two sides have co-existed since 1949. The party must put even more emphasis on its “Taiwanese”-ness over its “Chinese”-ness; it has made progress on this front, but more work can—and should—be done. A change in name from the “Chinese Nationalist Party” to the “Taiwanese Nationalist Party” is one option to put the identity front-and-center. Americans and Taiwanese alike have brought this up in conversations. Polling shows that a significant majority of people identify as “Taiwanese,” not “Chinese,” so calling the party the “Chinese Nationalist Party” makes it seem like the party is ignoring decades-old identity patterns.
While some in the party push for change, the old guard can hold fast by arguing that only it can steer the party forward. After all, the supposedly very unpopular party list slate received 33% of the total vote share, less than one percent away from the DPP’s 34%, and as mentioned earlier, it picked three seats. The old guard could argue that the presidential results were going to happen no matter who ran against President Tsai, even though Mayor Han was particularly unpopular (an unconventional candidate for the KMT), so it can use the legislative results to maintain the status quo in the party. These people will say that in 2024, the voters will swing back to the KMT after eight years of a DPP government. It happened before for both parties, and generally occurs throughout most democracies. The first indicator of what will happen to the KMT in the next couple of years will be who succeeds Wu as leader of the party.
The danger lies in that if the KMT does not reform its cross-Strait policy and identity, the country’s youth will continue to view the KMT as an old, backward party, forcing them to vote for the DPP as the only other viable major party. The world has changed, and China has changed, so why shouldn’t the KMT’s policies also reflect these changes? The change does not have to radical, but change must occur. It is likely that the party will make some superficial changes in the immediate aftermath of the election to make it seem like the party elite has learned its lesson. But the much-needed reform of the party structure and cross-Strait policy remains highly unlikely, and signs do not yet indicate that such a debate will occur.