Eric Chu’s trip to China for the KMT-CPP forum is now over, and Chu has completed his first event in the international spotlight. How did it go? From where I sit, it went pretty badly.
First, the optimistic assessment. Chu’s main message to China was that the KMT under his leadership will continue business as usual. Chu promised not only to continue to respect the 92 Consensus, but even to deepen it. He went out of his way to show respect for the CCP’s sensibilities by not stating the “each side with its own interpretations” part to their faces, and even when he needed to say “Republic of China” for domestic consumption he found a way to do that that the CCP leaders wouldn’t object to. He further stated that the two sides “both belong to One China” 兩岸同屬一中, a formulation that the Ma administration had previously rejected. In short, Chu presented himself as someone the PRC can work with. That will reassure the PRC, some people in Washington, some in Taiwan’s business community, and most in the KMT’s deep blue wing.
Now, the negative assessment. Reread the above paragraph.
The most important job of any party leader in a democracy is to win elections. Power is the top priority. I’m not convinced that Chu’s trip helped the KMT in winning votes next January. The current Ma government is deeply unpopular, and the 2014 elections and data from public opinion polls seem to indicate that the electorate does not want another term of the same old policies. It isn’t clear exactly how much change the electorate demands, but it does seem clear that the KMT needs to offer some sort of change from current policies.
The 92 Consensus, in particular, is living on borrowed time. It is under attack from both sides. China doesn’t seem satisfied with continuing the status quo indefinitely. Several Chinese leaders have made statements about needing to move forward with political integration. KMT presidential aspirant Hung Hsiu-chu has echoed this, saying the 92 Consensus has performed its historical transitional role, and now it is time to move forward and sign a peace agreement. In other words, the unification forces are just about ready to throw away the “each side with its own interpretation” clause. The Taiwan-First side is also just about ready to ditch the 92 Consensus. The usefulness of the 92 Consensus stemmed from its ambiguity. The PRC has suffocated it by squeezing the life out of the “each side with its own interpretation” clause and by refusing any international space for the ROC. If all that is left is One China and the PRC, it becomes harder and harder for people who think Taiwan is a sovereign country – the large majority of the electorate – to see any space for them within the 92 Consensus. Big business still supports the 92 Consensus, but the rest of the coalition is shrinking fast.
I didn’t really expect Chu to reject the 92 Consensus, but I thought he might play to public opinion and try to differentiate his position from Ma’s. After all, the classic KMT electoral strategy is to talk about being Taiwanese, placing Taiwan first, and affirming that the ROC is an independent, sovereign state. Chu’s public image is still not yet fully formed, and he had an opportunity to position himself closer to the median voter. Instead, Chu doubled down on Ma’s position. He effectively told the electorate that he would continue Ma’s strategy of incrementally moving closer and closer to China and unification. Predictably, KMT mouthpieces complained that the green media was painting him red. Actually, the green media didn’t need to smear him. Chu went out of his way to ensure we all know that he is firmly in the pro-unification slice of the spectrum.
By deciding to attend the forum personally, Chu also signaled that he doesn’t see anything wrong with the party-to-party model of cross-strait affairs. If the KMT controls the government, it can use government channels to arrange policy. If the KMT loses control of the executive branch, it will revert to party-to-party channels to try to control Taiwan’s interactions with China. Unless I’m reading public opinion incorrectly, this is not a winning political position. The public is in favor of cross-strait exchanges, but it wants politics and negotiations to be done on a government-to-government basis. I don’t think Chu’s smug and condescending question of why the DPP didn’t have its own forum with the CCP resonated as well with the general public as he thought it would. Chu apparently doesn’t see anything wrong with undermining his own country’s government to collaborate with another country’s rulers. This, of course, is what One China means. The KMT and CCP are both from the same country, so there is no question of undermining the country.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Chu would toe the party line on the 92 Consensus. However, he could have easily differentiated himself from Ma by calling for policies that would help ordinary wage earners. Instead, he asked the PRC for cooperation on exactly the same things that the Ma administration wants. He asked for Taiwan to join the AIIB and to participate in China’s regional economic cooperation program (RCEP). Laissez-faire economists often argue that more trade and economic grown will trickle down to ordinary people, and the KMT also generally takes this stance. However, the Taiwanese public is increasing rejecting the idea that cross-strait economic integration has been good for everyone. Widening income inequality certainly seems to indicate that the gains have been monopolized by a small minority while the broader public shoulders the costs. Who would benefit from Taiwan’s participation in the AIIB and a trading block run under Chinese rules? Probably the same big corporations that benefitted from earlier rounds of integration into the Chinese economy. In other words, Chu is doubling down on Ma’s economic strategy, and he is forgoing the opportunity to try to appeal to wage-earning sectors of the voting public.
The American in me thought that Chu looked like a leader. He was energetic, friendly, and spoke eloquently without a script. This was in marked contrast to the other side of the table, which seemed dull and lifeless. However, the voice in my head that pretends to understand Chinese political stagecraft laughed at my inner American’s naiveté. Chu was overeager, a younger smiling too broadly and showing his desperation for the older man’s approval. Xi showed his dominance by giving only the faintest of smiles in the official photo. Xi read his remarks from a script without much emotion, as if this were just another – relatively unimportant – event in his busy schedule. Yesterday while I was driving home, a talk show host (on a deep blue radio station) lambasted Chu for introducing his team one by one in the reception line, as if he were presenting a group of schoolchildren to the principal for a pat on the head. Chu simply didn’t seem to have the gravitas of people like Lien Chan.
Overall, my overall impression of Chu from this visit is that he’s still not quite ready for the big stage. He didn’t take the opportunity to present any sort of independent image or vision. He seemed content to not offend anyone and to reassure everyone that he would continue Ma’s policies. Most of all, he didn’t seem to understand that he was talking to people at home as much as he was talking to Beijing leaders. His “ROC” moment was particularly instructive. Green voices always complain that blue people only talk about the ROC at home. When they go to China, suddenly they are afraid to say anything about the ROC. Chu decided that he would take this talking point away by directing saying the term “ROC” to Xi Jinping’s face. Of course, he didn’t want to offend Xi, so what he did was to say something about “back when Sun Yat-sen established the ROC…” Of course, the ROC that existed during Sun Yat-sen’s time is not controversial at all. Apparently Chu thought that Taiwanese wouldn’t be able to see through this ruse, and DPP politicians would no longer be able to claim he didn’t dare talk about the ROC in China. Maybe he thought no one was watching the 24 hour news channels? In fact, now he simply opens himself to ridicule, and DPP attack dogs will be even more likely to bring up the topic.
I guess I should remind myself that Chu hasn’t exactly had good training for national leadership. He was a professor of accounting, a one-term legislator, and head of a local government for 12 years. His one stint in upper-level national politics was a very short eight-month stint as Vice Premier, during which he wasn’t exactly the public face of the government and may not have been included in President Ma’s strategy sessions on how to deal with China and manage the economy. In high politics, Chu is a greenhorn.
Of course, we shouldn’t overstate the impact of Chu’s performance. Within the KMT, he is still the most popular figure and the overwhelming preference for the presidential race. Now that he has come back and the deadline for deciding the presidential candidate is fast approaching, the KMT is putting the pressure on him to run. We are now in full flattery mode. “Only you can save the party from disaster.” “You are our only hope.” “We nurtured your career; you have no right to avoid a fight when the party needs you.” In 2010, Tsai Ing-wen found it impossible to resist her party’s pressure to run, even though it was pretty clear she would have preferred to sit out the race. My impression is that Chu was sincere in planning not to run, but I’m not sure he will be able to resist the pressure coming from almost all corners of his party.
If Chu does end up as the KMT’s candidate, the KMT-CCP forum will be even more awkward. It will appear as though he went to Beijing to inform Xi he was running, or, worse, to get Xi’s blessing. The forum and the presidential nomination are temporally so close that it is nearly impossible not to draw a connection in your mind. This is not helping Chu’s case with the general electorate. It didn’t have to be this way. If Chu was going to be the candidate, he probably should have sent someone else to Beijing to meet with Xi. At the very least, he could have changed the date of one of the events. Hey, he’s the party chair. He could have decided that the forum should be a month earlier or the nomination registration deadline would be moved back to June. If it looks like Chu went to China to get Xi’s imperial approval of his presidential bid, it’s his own damn fault. He shouldn’t blame the media for painting him red when he arranges events in this way.
[Of course, I could be wrong. I’m still waiting for a post-trip opinion poll to be published.]