The curious career of James Soong

James Soong has announced that, for the third time, he will run for president. Rather than speculating on how he will do, I thought this might be a good time to look back on the rather unusual career path that Soong has taken.

Soong is from an elite mainlander family, though it not in the top echelon of KMT royalty. Still, Soong had good enough connections that when he came back to Taiwan after getting his PhD, his first job was as Chiang Ching-kuo’s English secretary. Let’s just say that’s not a job that ordinary people could apply for. (Coincidentally, it was also Ma Ying-jeou’s entry-level job.) So Soong spent some time sitting near CCK, though he probably makes more of it than CCK would have. After all, kings have a lot of courtesans. During the late 1980s, Soong worked in the trenches of the KMT party machinery, sometimes doing the dirty jobs that an authoritarian state requires. As head of the Government Information Organization, he was in charge of cracking down on “local dialects.” That is, he was the point man ensuring that Mandarin was the language spoken in the media and in other public forums. During the late 1980s, as KMT deputy secretary general, he was involved in some of the earlier and lower level mainstream / non-mainstream infighting, pulling out Kuan Chung’s people from key positions and inserting people who would support Lee Teng-hui. LTH rewarded him, promoting him to secretary-general. In the 1992 legislative elections, which most people interpreted as a loss for the KMT, he would normally have been the person to resign to take responsibility. (Elections were far below the concerns of the lofty party chair in the authoritarian era.) Instead, the aftermath of the 1992 elections turned out to be LTH’s victorious moment. Even though the non-mainstream New KMT Alliance candidates had all won and election night looked like a big victory for the non-mainstream faction, with a fully elected legislature they suddenly discovered they did not have enough votes to support Premier Hau. Hau had to resign, and, with the help of the DPP, LTH was able to promote his protégé Lien Chan into the premier’s chair. Soong was appointed to take Lien’s former post, as head of the provincial government. Up to this point, Soong seemed to be a fairly run-of-the-mill party hack. He was involved exclusively in elite politics, and he did not seem destined to be anything much higher than another KMT technocrat.

However, as governor, Soong completely reinvented himself. He claims that he followed the example of his mentor, CCK, by getting out of his office and meeting with ordinary people. In fact, Soong did travel all over the island, meeting with regular people. Less obviously but more critically, he also met with lots of local politicians. In fact, this was the key to Soong’s governance model. Instead of sitting in an office, letting other people make financial decisions, and approving the paperwork, Soong went to township mayors, asked them what they wanted, and personally approved the funds. In doing so, he created an image of a compassionate leader who would do whatever was needed to solve problems. He also created a group of local politicians who were politically in debt to him personally. Township mayors are nothing to sneeze at. They control the local mobilization networks and distribute quite a bit of patronage. Back in those days, people who had descended from the central bureaucracy simply didn’t engage local people as an equal, but Soong actually wanted to listen to their problems and work with them to get things done.

When Soong took over as governor in early 1993, it was assumed that he would be a temporary place holder. The position was scheduled to transform from an appointed position to an elected position in December 1994, and it was understood that, as a mainlander, he had no chance of becoming the elected governor of Taiwan. Most people assumed the contest would be between two Taoyuan Hakkas, Wu Po-hsiung and Hsu Hsin-liang. However, as Soong traveled to all corners of Taiwan Province, his popularity skyrocketed and people began to rethink the assumption that he couldn’t win an election. When he announced that he wanted the KMT nomination, there was an intense competition with Wu. Wu famously proclaimed that he would run, even if all that was left in Taiwan was Alishan. However, Soong had the upper hand as he was supported by LTH, while Wu was allied with the minority non-mainstream faction (and had tacit support from the New Party). Eventually Wu yielded.

In the campaign, Soong pioneered a few things that we are all familiar with now. You know those ubiquitous vests that every politician, from legislator to neighborhood head candidate, wears telling you his name, position, and party affiliation? Soong started that by wearing a baseball cap that had “Taiwan Province Governor Soong Chu-yu” stitched on the side. It was different and kind of cool. He also turned the number 309 into his campaign slogan. Taiwan Province had 309 townships, and Soong had visited them all. For a few election cycles, the first thing every county magistrate candidate did was visit every township or even every village in the county. Before becoming governor, Soong didn’t speak anything but Mandarin. During the campaign, the DPP constantly tried to attack him for not being able to speak Taiwanese. However, Soong responded by starting to learn. He wasn’t very good, but he learned how to speak a bit, and he started every occasion by greeting everyone in Taiwanese. His implicit message was that he was trying hard to understand ordinary people. However, Soong took this one step further, and did something no one had done before. He also studied some basic Hakka, and he would throw out a few phrases of Hakka. And he learned a few phrases of Amis, which no one had ever bothered to do. Hakka and indigenous voters thoroughly embraced him, since he had shown respect in a way that no one else had thought to do. In response, Soong learned some Paiwan, Attayal, Bunon, Rukai, and other indigenous languages. The KMT has always done well in Hakka and indigenous areas, but Soong did even better than that.

Sometime soon after Soong’s triumphant re-election in 1994, something began to change. My guess is that Lien Chan began to see Soong as a threat to replace him as LTH’s successor. Lien had access to LTH’s ear, and he might have slowly poisoned LTH’s mind, reminding LTH that Soong was a mainlander and could not be trusted. Around this time, the term “Yeltsin Effect” also entered Taiwan’s political vocabulary. As the directly elected president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin had pushed aside Michael Gorbachev, who had been the indirectly chosen head of state of the USSR. Prior to the 1996 presidential election, the parallels between Russia and Taiwan Province may have alarmed LTH. Even after the presidential election, Soong could claim a stronger mandate since he had won a higher vote share in a largely overlapping electorate. Whatever happened behind the scenes, LTH turned against Soong.

LTH pushed for a deal with the DPP to abolish the provincial government. While the negotiations were underway, Soong struck back. He dramatically announced his resignation. He ended up serving out his term, but this move marked him as different from other KMT elites. Soong would not simply bow to the inevitable. He fought back. This caused LTH to try even harder to suppress Soong’s career. After Soong’s term as governor ended, the focus turned to the 2000 presidential election. All the polls showed that Soong was overwhelmingly the popular favorite. (In early 1999, typical polls were something like Soong 45, Chen 25, Lien 8.) However, there was no way LTH was going to nominate Soong. LTH was firmly in control of the party, and he used that control to give the nomination to Lien. Again, Soong refused to accept this result and announced an independent run for the presidency. The turning point in the campaign was when the KMT unleashed the Chung-hsing Bills Finance Scandal, accusing Soong of corruption. It damaged Soong, but it didn’t help Lien much. In the end, Chen Shui-bian won by less than 3%.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, returning to the KMT probably wasn’t a realistic option. Perhaps Soong could have waited for the fallout to settle, returned to the KMT in a year or two, and eventually risen to the top of the party. Perhaps he, not Ma Ying-jeou, would have become president in 2008. However, Soong opted to go his own way and form the People First Party. In doing so, Soong deepened a shift that had already started in the presidential election. In 1994, Soong was part of LTH’s mainstream KMT. He outmaneuvered Wu – who was favored by the non-mainstream – and then the New Party ran a candidate against him in the general election. By the 2000 election, he had started to shift to what would soon become labeled as the deep blue portion of the spectrum. Lien was seen as LTH’s puppet, and he was a Taiwanese defending LTH’s special state to state relationship position. The orthodox KMT swung behind the mainlander Soong, with the United Daily News decisively endorsing him a week before the election. When Soong formed the PFP, a lot of deep blue figures left the KMT to join him, as did most of the remnants of the disintegrating New Party. Of course, Soong still had his grassroots supporters, but he became increasingly identified with the unification slice of the political spectrum.

[This is where Typhoon Soudelor decided to take four days from my life. It’s ok with me if we don’t have another typhoon like that for the next few years.]

During the Chen Shui-bian era, Soong and the PFP were the reasonable hardline unification supporters. (The unreasonable hardline unification supporters were the New Party, of course.) However, as the KMT reformed itself under Lien and then under Ma, it also moved toward a clearer pro-unification position. This squeezed the political space open to the PFP. In the 2004 legislative election, the PFP lost a dozen seats and went from being a nearly co-equal partner to a clear junior partner in the Pan-Blue coalition. When electoral reform passed abolishing the old multimember districts in favor of single member districts, its disadvantageous position became even clearer. A number of PFP legislators switched parties, jumping to the KMT in order to try to save their careers. The PFP negotiated on behalf of the rest, eventually obtaining four spots on the KMT party list for PFP members, though they had to join the KMT. In effect, almost the entire PFP legislative caucus was swallowed whole by the KMT in 2007 and 2008. Rather than being a PFP faction within the KMT, these people simply became regular KMT politicians. Their former ties to the PFP were quickly forgotten.

The defection of all the hardline unification legislators back to the KMT turned out to be an opportunity for Soong and the PFP to return to their 1990s roots as defenders of the average person. Soong tended to ignore questions about China while at the same time harshly criticizing the Ma government for being out of touch with the economic pain that regular people were experiencing. Ma was pursuing grand schemes with an ideological fervor, and Soong responded by arguing that good governance requires thinking about how the details of policies will impact ordinary people rather than simply looking at the top-line economic growth statistics.

With this stance, Soong has often found himself on the same side as the DPP. Tsai Ing-wen has also stressed the importance of looking beyond aggregate GNP growth, and the DPP shares a desire to mitigate the pain that the losers of increased cross-straits trade incur.

As an opponent of Ma’s approach to governance and now freed of the hardline unification elements, Soong has also been able to go back to his allies in the nativist wing of the KMT. Most of the township mayors and other local politicians that Soong built such strong ties to in the 1990s are much more comfortable with Wang Jin-pyng’s style than with Ma’s or the defenders of KMT orthodoxy in the military system. Figuratively, Soong can speak their language effortlessly, even if he literally doesn’t speak their language (Taiwanese) very fluently.

The result is that Soong – once thought of as a classic mainlander and later thought of as the champion of pro-unification – is now trying to cultivate the light blue vote, made up primarily of native Taiwanese who increasingly no longer self-identify as Chinese. Once you think about who Governor Soong was, it doesn’t seem strange at all that he would be targeting this market. Maybe the deep blue Soong of the Chen Shui-bian era was the aberration.

Soong seems fated to be one of those figures who had the political talent and training but not the timing or luck to be president. He has kept himself relevant for three decades by thoroughly reinventing himself four times. However, he isn’t simply impressing people with a pretty picture frame. Soong’s appeal has always been grounded in substance. He was an effective party hack in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and he was effective as governor. Moreover, he has always tapped into people’s concerns and desires, whether it was for effective and compassionate governance or for Chinese nationalism and stronger economic connections to the Chinese market. Soong probably has a few scenes left in the last act of his remarkable career. He probably won’t win the 2016 presidential race, but he could do very well in the election and set the PFP up for a much more promising future. After the election is over, he will need to figure out how to position his party in the aftermath of the likely KMT debacle and find a successor to lead whatever emerges. After that, Soong will probably be too old to take the front stage, and he will probably evolve into one of those wise old sages who the frontline politicians rely on for timely political counsel.

Or maybe not. Perhaps the curious career of James Soong will take yet another unlikely turn.

7 Responses to “The curious career of James Soong”

  1. James Chen Says:

    Thank you very much for this comprehensive and balanced overview of Soong’s career! This blog provides a great service for primary English-language readers who seek to gain a greater contextual (and non-polemic) understanding of Taiwanese politics. Please keep up the wonderful work.

  2. Echo Chamber Says:

    However reasonable he seems when criticizing the Deep Blue camp, he still has not acknowledged his own role in that camp.

    PFP swallowed whole by KMT in 2008 set the precedence of PFP being just a safe harbor for those out of favor. When pendulum swings back, this wave of pols leaving KMT will just jump right back.

    Much of Taiwan’s current problems is due to the patronage system. Soong is very much emblematic of the corrupt system.

  3. ジェームス (@jmstwn) Says:

    Excellent work. But now I need to hear your opinion on everyone’s favorite conspiracy theory, that Lee Teng-hui wanted Chen Shui-bian to win the 2000 election and stuck the KMT with Lien Chan to destroy it.

    • frozengarlic Says:

      Nah. LTH misread Lien, just like CCK misread LTH. Hopefully we have moved beyond that old authoritarian culture in which you parrot whatever your boss thinks up until the day you become the boss and finally get to have your own thoughts.

    • csempere109 Says:

      ジェームス, if it had been a conspiracy they wouldn’t have nominated him again in 2004…

  4. les Says:

    Anyone expecting President Soong to be as generous as Governor Soong was will be very soon disappointed. Central govt. has nothing like the cash reserves it did in those days, so the largess is going to be very poor in comparison.

  5. Tim Says:

    Thank you for this comprehensive article. Of the three candidates (an indecisive woman, an accident that resulted from a disintegrating, and a potentially corrupt man) I believe that only Soong has the guts and ability to fix the debacle that the last two presidents have left Taiwan with. Hes got my vote.

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