Archive for September, 2021

Change under Chu? Never mind.

September 27, 2021

You know all that stuff I wrote in the previous post about how Chu might shift directions? Chu didn’t wait even 24 hours before squashing that thought. In basically his first act as the new chair, Chu sent a fawning, groveling letter to Xi Jinping. I’m going to steal Yang Kuang-shun’s excellent translation (thanks):

No photo description available.

“In the past three decades, the cross-Strait relations made very positive progress in exchanges and cooperation at all levels through the relentless works and promotion of our parties. In recent years, however, the DPP administration has changed the status quo across the Strait by adopting ‘de-China’ and ‘anti-China’ policies. It creates tough situation across the Strait and extreme sense of insecurity among the people across the Strait”

“People across the Strait are Chinese people. On the basis of ‘1992 Consensus’ and ‘Opposing Taiwan independence,’ we hope from now on that our parties can pursue consensus and respect differences, promote mutual trust and integration, enhance exchanges and cooperation, so that the peaceful development of the cross-Strait relations can move forward. This is beneficial to the people across the Strait and the promotion of the peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

He starts by blaming the DPP. That is, he is seeking to ally with the CCP (a party dedicated to destroying the ROC) against the DPP. He then bases this relationship on the 92C and Opposing Taiwan independence. Note that he doesn’t bother to state the “each side with its own interpretation part”. What ever happened to this strident insistence that he was passionately against any “red unification”?

Chu basically announced that there will be no change in the KMT position. This is still Ma Ying-jeou’s party. He is not interested in actually placing the ROC first or moving toward the middle of the Taiwan electorate. More bluntly, he isn’t interested in winning national elections. All that stuff from the last two weeks? Let’s just pretend that never happened. He didn’t really mean it. He just had to say some stuff to win an election.

Chu wins. Now what?

September 26, 2021

Eric Chu was elected KMT party chair yesterday.

Eric Chu朱立倫8516445.78
Chang Ya-chung張亞中6063232.59
Johnny Chiang江啟臣3509018.87
Cho Po-yuan卓伯源51332.76
Eligible voters: 370711, turnout: 50.71%

On the one hand, this was utterly predictable. From the moment Chu announced his candidacy, he was the strong favorite to win. A month ago, 45% would have seemed about right to me.

On the other hand, this campaign when dramatically off script in the last ten days. Up until that point, this was an utterly ordinary race. The candidates all professed admiration for traditional KMT positions and complained that Tsai and the DPP were doing a terrible job. The biggest point of contention was about whether it was ok that Chu had not renounced a run for president in 2024. Yawn. And then lots of dubious “polls” appeared, showing that Chang was running a very close second or maybe was leading. And then Chu started attacking Chang as a “red unificationist,” something that I never expected to see.

This turned the race into a clear choice between Chu and Chang. Chu was the defender of the ROC, and Chang stood for political talks toward a peaceful arrangement with the PRC. To put it more bluntly, while Chang didn’t like the red unification label, he never tried to distance himself from red unification policies.

One way to look at this election is that we now have a pretty good estimate of how much of the KMT is serious about unification. One-third of party members heard Chu – a cautious stalwart party leader, not some radical Taiwan independence pundit – tell them that Chang’s pursuit of political arrangements with the PRC was a threat to the continued existence of the ROC, and they basically said, “Yeah, I’m ok with that. I’m for that guy.” Since Chang is something of a blank slate – he’s never run in a general election or held a political office – his support is untainted by his record. What I mean by that is that party members may have loved Hung Hsiu-chu in 2017, but she had just run a disastrous presidential race. (Chang’s 60,632 votes is better than the 53,063 Hung Hsiu-chu got in the 2017 race, especially considering there were 85,000 more votes cast in 2017.) If there had been an election in early 2019, Han Kuo-yu would have swept in partly because of his pro-China stance but partly because he seemed like he could win support from average voters. We don’t have that kind of history with Chang, so no one can say for sure what kind of public appeal he would have. One-third is a sizeable minority. In a previous post, I wondered if a victorious Chu might try to marginalize or even purge Chang. If Chang represents one-third of the party, that seems unlikely. One-third is just too large to ignore, much less actively marginalize. From another point of view, though, one-third is not close to a majority, much less a consensus. Chu’s defense of the ROC and vocal rejection of unification on the PRC’s terms is firmly in the mainstream of the KMT.

Enough about Chang. Let’s talk about Chu. This may turn out to be a transformative moment in Chu’s career. For a decade, we have known Chu as a congenial, cautious, reasonable, capable, somewhat bland, never strident, consensus-seeking fellow. He is the guy solidly in the center of the KMT who everyone in the party can agree on. He might not be their first choice, but he is at least their second choice. From a policy standpoint, it’s the same thing. He doesn’t take positions that make other KMT members nervous. He is for the ROC, the 1992 Consensus, prosperity, new MRT lines, clean air, baseball, moon cakes, and mangoes. He thinks Tsai and the DPP are doing a terrible job in office, but even when he is attacking them, it doesn’t seem as venomous as other people’s attacks. Or at least that’s how I understood him two weeks ago.

His broadside attacks on Chang were completely out of character. He laid out his guiding principle as maintaining the ROC. If you attack the ROC, you are his enemy. This includes both Taiwan independence advocates and red unificationists. He attacked someone inside the KMT as not merely misguided but as an outright enemy. By extension, he was also declaring all of Chang’s supporters – KMT party members! – in favor of aggressively pursuing unification as his enemies. He equated red unification with Taiwan independence, suggesting they are both similarly repugnant to him. This is not the Eric Chu I thought I knew.

Changing the starting point from “One China, each side with its own interpretation” to “unconditionally maintain the ROC” could have monumental implications for Chu and the KMT. If taken to its logical conclusions, I think it could be a platform powerful enough to restore the KMT to electoral viability. However, I’m not convinced Chu is prepared to follow through, since what I have in mind would require significant revisions to KMT discourse.

To illustrate this, consider the repeated incursions of PRC fighter jets into ROC airspace. The current KMT response is that this is all a result of the DPP’s rejection of the 92C and the loss of trust between the two sides. Implicitly, they seem to believe that since there is One China, military threats are inevitable and reasonable if one side seems to deny that it is part of that One China. A KMT dedicated to maintaining the ROC might react differently. First, condemn the PRC’s military actions. They have no right to violate the ROC’s airspace. When civilized people disagree, they use civilized methods to express their unhappiness and seek resolutions. Military threats are unacceptable and inexcusable. Second, vocally and publicly support the ROC military. (Not the retired veterans; I mean the active duty forces.) Take photos with fighter pilots, and support weapons purchases. The ROC military has a sacred duty to protect the ROC, and the KMT should support that mission enthusiastically and unconditionally. Don’t hesitate to single out the PRC as the primary threat to the ROC. The KMT traditionally likes to complain about the Japanese and the Senkakus, but this is not an existential threat to the ROC. If the primary goal is to maintain the ROC, you must face the fact that the PLA is the only military power seeking to destroy to ROC. Third, after posing for photo-ops with DPP politicians and ROC military to clearly present a united front demonstrating the determination of all sides to maintain the security and sovereignty of the ROC – only after that – then proceed to partisan attacks on the DPP. “PLA incursions are absolutely wrong and unjustified, but DPP policies aren’t wise or helpful.” ROC first means national security comes before partisan politics.

I hope that example illustrates how hard this would be for the KMT and why I don’t think it is particularly likely. However, I do think that a KMT refounded on protecting the ROC could win an election. It would lose active support from businesses who want government support in China, and it would probably some votes from pro-unification voters. However, this party would be much better equipped to compete for the median voter, who identifies primarily as Taiwanese. If the DPP had a corruption scandal or some other massive failure of governance, this KMT could be one that people would feel comfortable voting for as an alternative. You wouldn’t need to worry about this KMT undermining Taiwan’s sovereignty or security.

This election may turn out to be the healthiest thing that has happened to the KMT in years. It originally seemed that they were sluggishly drifting along on the same path that had already led them to two dismal defeats. They seemed resigned to insisting that Ma’s path and the 92C were the right way to win in 2024. Suddenly, new alternatives may have opened up. The virulent clash between Chu and Chang forced the two to stand up for different visions of the future, and Chu’s vision is surprisingly viable. Now all Chu has to do is make that vision a reality.

It isn’t clear that he really wants to go down this path. The old Chu and the old KMT could re-emerge. But if he does, it won’t be easy. Chu won a clear victory, but 45% doesn’t automatically confer a mandate. He will have to glue together the 67% who didn’t vote for Chang and make them the foundation of his agenda. It will take tremendous political skill to articulate this vision in a way that both KMT members and average voters can identify with. This is essentially the same program that Chiang proposed last year, and last year it was an utter failure. It can be attacked as a return to the Lee Teng-hui era, and that is a damning accusation within the current KMT. Chu will have to package it as stemming from the genius of Chiang Ching-kuo and thread the needle of persuading the electorate that his is moving away from 92C orthodoxy while not inciting a rebellion from Ma and other defenders of the 92C. Nothing I have seen from Chu in the past decade leads me to expect that he is a brilliant politician capable of this. Then again, nothing led me to expect the previous two weeks either.

Johnny Chiang’s failure

September 25, 2021

Today, Johnny Chiang 江啟臣 lost his bid for re-election as KMT party chair. That understates things. He didn’t just lose, he lost badly, finishing a distant third. By the end, he was almost an afterthought. A mere 18 months ago, he was the KMT’s new hope – a bright, articulate, handsome, politician unscarred by the two consecutive landslide election defeats. He seemed like the person who might be able to lead the KMT out of the wilderness. What happened?

The simplest answer is that Chiang was never actually a KMT heavyweight and never actually ran the party. He was a three-term legislator from out in the sticks, not a mayor or a longtime party insider. The party was happy to present him as its public face in the aftermath of another devastating loss, but the actual heavyweights were biding their time to take back control of the party when things improved. So now they are reclaiming power.

That is also what people thought would happen in the DPP when Tsai Ing-wen became party chair after the landslide defeat in 2008. However, Tsai proved to be a pretty good leader, and the erstwhile party heavyweights were never able to push her aside and retake control. Why couldn’t Chiang follow this script?

The real reason Chiang’s re-election failed so miserably is that he failed the leadership test. The KMT had lost two consecutive national elections, and both times they lost badly. Chiang’s challenge was to honestly assess the reasons for those painful defeats, propose a new path forward, and then drive the party forward on that path. This is extremely difficult. No one likes looking in the mirror and admitting that their ideas – things they passionately believe in – aren’t going to work. The reason the KMT lost was glaringly obvious to outsiders: its stance on China drove too many voters away. However, the KMT has two decades of energy, hopes, wealth, and political careers invested in Chinese identity, integration into the Chinese economy, and the claim that any military or security threats from the PRC are entirely a result of things the DPP does. It is very difficult for the KMT to conclude that its China policy is the root cause of its problems.

Chiang started his tenure well. He put together some committees to propose ways to reform the KMT, and on June 19, 2020 they recommended four pillars to guide the KMT’s cross-straits policy. (1) insisting on the sovereignty of the ROC; (2) safeguarding freedom, democracy and human rights; (3) prioritizing Taiwan’s security; and (4) creating win-win situations and shared prosperity. These are not far from current KMT discourse, but there are slight differences in emphasis. For example, this does not start with One China, inevitable unification, or even an obligation to interact with China. I can imagine how a reformer could start from these principles to significantly change concrete KMT behavior and rebuild enough trust with Taiwan’s electorate to make winning a majority possible.

Ma Ying-jeou wasn’t happy with these proposals. They did not mention the 1992 Consensus, and there was talk that Chiang wanted to turn the 92C into a historical relic. Ma correctly saw this as a direct repudiation of his legacy. It doesn’t matter that Chiang was the official party chair; the KMT still follows Ma.

It took Chiang three days to surrender. On June 22, Chiang met with Ma and assured him that the 92C would not be abandoned. When the Central Committee met in September to pass Chiang’s reform package, the four clauses on cross-straits looked quite a bit different. (1) Use the 92C, which is based in the ROC constitution, to continue cross-straits interactions. (2) Resolutely oppose Taiwan independence and One Country, Two Systems. The mainland should renounce military action against Taiwan. (3) Simultaneously promote cross-strait ties and US-Taiwan relations. (4) Draft rules governing cross-straits interactions for party officials. In a nutshell, the KMT decided that there would be no change from Ma’s vision.

And that was effectively the end of Chiang’s leadership. What we learned last summer was that Chiang might have a vision for how the KMT could move into the future, but he didn’t have the political resources or skills necessary to sell that vision to the rest of the party. Anyway, he might not have believed very strongly in the vision in the first place. He surrendered very quickly, and he has obediently stuck to the 92C orthodoxy ever since. During the party chair election, you would never know that just a year ago he had doubts about the 92C. As with so many KMT politicians – especially native Taiwanese from local factions – over the past few decades, once the adults in Taipei told him to get back in line, he meekly got back in line. Maybe the next generation of KMT politicians will finally outgrow the party’s authoritarian-era political culture.

I guess now Chiang can go back to being a simple legislator from Taichung and maybe even plot a run for mayor in 2026.  Or maybe not. It’s possible that his time as party chair will damage his career in local politics.

Chiang’s legislative district is not blue at all. Tsai won his district 56.0-39.4%. That same day, Chiang won his race 59.0-38.9%. Chiang ran nearly 20% ahead of Han; this was the best performance for any KMT candidate in the entire country. Chiang is only in the legislature because he convinced large numbers of voters who prefer Tsai and the DPP to vote for him in the legislative race. That is, they voted for him in spite of his KMT label; he must have been “a different kind” of KMT candidate. However, he has spent the last two years cloaking himself firmly in the standard KMT colors. He ran this campaign insisting that he represented normal KMT values.

If I were a local DPP politician, I’d be salivating at the chance to run against Chiang in 2024. The lines of attack are obvious and easy. “We thought he was different but he isn’t; he’s just like Ma Ying-jeou and the other KMT politicians.” “He’s been busy playing national politics instead of trying to do things for you and me here in Taichung.” “He hasn’t tried to cooperate with other people from different parties to do things for us; he has been more interested in stirring up partisan divisions than working for compromise.” “Even the KMT doesn’t respect him – look at how they used him and then tossed him aside; this isn’t a guy who can get things done.” And on and on.

I’m not saying that Chiang will definitely lose in 2024. However, I think his unsuccessful foray into national politics has made things a lot more difficult for him.

Chu goes ballistic

September 21, 2021

Ten days before the Sept. 25 KMT party chair election, everything seemed to be going rather predictably. They weren’t fighting each other very hard over substantive matters, the party had reaffirmed the primacy of the 1992 Consensus as the party’s core idea, and Eric Chu seemed to be cruising to a fairly comfortable victory. Ho hum. Well, I clearly misread something, because that isn’t what happened.

A bitter battle over how to deal with China has broken out. To be more precise, Eric Chu 朱立倫 decided to launch a blistering assault on Chang Ya-chung 張亞中 as a “red unificationist” 紅統. Let’s recap Chu’s attacks. On Sept 17, Chu went on an internet show and called Chang a red unification scholar 紅統學者, saying that if Chang were elected party chair, the KMT would change from blue to red. When asked if the KMT would split if Chang were elected, Chu answered that he hoped not but believed it would, adding that the TPP would be the biggest beneficiary and the DPP would set off celebratory fireworks. On Sept 18, CiTV hosted a debate among the four candidates, and Chu deepened his attack. When Chang complained that Chu was unfairly labeling him 扣帽子 as an extreme unificationist, Chu replied that the label wasn’t unfair and wasn’t from him – Chang had engaged in all sorts of unification activities, everyone knew he was a prominent scholar supporting unification, and, in the past, he had been proud to call himself that. Chu then pointed out that Chang had supported “one China, same interpretation” 一中同表, and he had also called for faster unification. Then on Sept 19 at a candidate forum in central Taiwan, Chu let forth another salvo. This time, Chu said that his own loyalty was to the ROC, and he considered anyone attacking the ROC as an enemy, whether it was Taiwan independence activists or extreme unificationists. Chang had gone to China and had issued a proposal in which he titled the ROC as “Taipei, China.” Even more damning, Chang had argued that the quickest and most effective way to unification was by using One Country, Two Systems.

Chang’s response to these attacks has been fairly simple. First, Chang has complained that party comrades should not try to label each other. Second, he has denied that he is extreme. He hasn’t actually denied any of Chu’s substantive charges; he has simply denied that those make him extreme. (Is seeking a peaceful relationship extreme?) Third, he has elaborated on what he wants to do. Here, I think he might be playing into Chu’s hands, because some of his plans are a bit extreme. For example, he talked about his plans to visit China and come to an agreement on how to move cross-straits relations forward. His plans might be too aggressive for the mainstream of the KMT. (In the first debate, he admonished KMT voters not to worry too much about public opinion since Sun Yat-sen would never have started his revolution if he had worried about public opinion. Chang isn’t overly worried about whether the general electorate supports him; he seems to assume that they eventually will come around or maybe he just doesn’t care.)  It is worth taking a bit of time to explore Chang’s remarks on the 92 Consensus.

In the CiTV debate, Chang talked about the 92C at length, saying that Chu doesn’t understand it at all. Chang explained that there was consensus on two things and no consensus on a third item. Both sides agreed that (1) there is One China and that (2) they would seek unification. However, there was no consensus over the meaning of One China. Taipei said that each side had its own interpretation – we will call it the ROC and you will call it the PRC. However, Beijing never accepted this. The two sides would discuss the meaning of One China in the future, and in the meantime they could talk about practical matters. The 92C was not and could not be the basis for a meaningful peace; it was merely a temporary truce. Real peace will require political negotiations, and he is willing to engage in those talks.

This is a very different interpretation of the 92C than Ma Ying-jeou has been selling. In Ma’s discourse, the 92C has always been One China, each side with its own interpretation. Sure, the PRC never acknowledged the ROC – their interpretation is that China means the PRC. However, the two sides have a tacit understanding that they agree to disagree, and both sides think that this is an acceptable ambiguity upon which they can build a meaningful and mutually beneficial relationship. In the debates, several KMT party chair candidates have argued that the 92C is still appropriate, and the public has been led astray by underhanded DPP attacks painting the 92C as equivalent to One China or One China, Two Systems. But here, Chang Ya-chung is arguing exactly that. The 92C has never been a consensus on anything more than One China and pursuit of unification. It has never meant that the PRC tacitly accepts the existence of the ROC. In Chang’s discourse, the 92C only brought about a temporary truce, but the two sides have remained fundamentally at conflict – even during the Ma era. If you want to build harmony across the straits, the 92C is inadequate.

What is going on here? Why did Chu choose to start this war? The obvious answer is that Chu got scared that he might lose. There have been several internet polls showing Chang doing very well. I have assumed that these easily manipulable polls were manipulated. Most internet polls are entirely self-selected. If you want to vote, you can. Heck, you can vote multiple times if you like. An internet army can easily make a weak candidate look strong. Let’s not forget that Chang is almost certainly the PRC’s favorite candidate, and the PRC just happens to have an internet army at its disposal. I don’t know if that’s what happened, but it wouldn’t surprise me. At any rate, the UDN online poll had nearly half a million votes, and I can’t imagine that many individual netizens were motivated to express their opinions on a random, meaningless internet poll hidden deep inside the UDN website. I had mostly dismissed these polls, but it’s possible that they either reflected Chang’s popularity or helped to create it. The first challenge in a race like this is to be taken seriously. Cho Bo-yuan 卓伯源, for example, has never been taken seriously, and he will end up as a footnote. If he actually had people who wanted to support him, they have almost all decided to vote for someone else rather than waste a vote on Cho. Perhaps the online polls made people think that Chang was in the race and that voting for him wouldn’t be throwing their vote away. It is also possible that Chang is getting more support simply because he is perceived as being in the race. Chu is a well-known commodity, and he doesn’t have a strong record of winning. Chang is something new, and he speaks confidently, forcefully, and unapologetically. Maybe if you are a KMT supporter tired of losing, it isn’t a bad idea to try out the new, energetic guy.

Was Chu actually in danger of losing? We really don’t know. The internet polls are probably garbage. A recent poll done by Apollo (艾普羅) suggests that maybe it wasn’t all that close. (Apollo is affiliated with the Want Want group, but its polls have a fairly good track record. I’m assuming this is reasonably accurate data.) This was a landline poll conducted Sept 14-16 (or before Chu launched his attacks). In the overall population, Chu was at 39.3%, Chang 10.7%, Chiang 10.3%, and Cho 4.0%. Since this is the KMT party chair race, it doesn’t really matter what DPP supporters think. If we just look at blue camp supporters, the race is Chu 45.9%, Chang 18.3%, Chiang 14.1%, and Cho 4.2%. Chu is ahead, and by a wide margin. Again, only KMT party members have a vote, and that is a much smaller group than blue camp sympathizers in the general electorate. The Huang Fu-hsing military veterans, for example, have more influence in the party vote than in opinion polls. However, it would surprise me if the polls are completely off. I don’t generally assume that KMT party members are completely unlike KMT party supporters when it comes to the future of the KMT. On the other hand, let’s assume that Chu might have a way to read the state of the race. Chu talks to a lot of people, and he probably has his own internal polls. He almost certainly has better information on the state of the race than I do. So maybe he got a clear message that Chang was close, and he sensed a really danger that he might lose.

His attacks on Chang have probably worked. They may have depressed Chang’s support by convincing some voters that Chang is more radical than they originally thought. However, the larger effect of Chu’s attacks seems to have been to marginalize Chiang 江啟臣. A few months ago, this was supposed to be a contest between Chu and Chiang. However, now Chu has made it into a contest between Chang and himself. In this two-way race, Chiang’s supporters seem to be strategically flocking to Chu. They may prefer Chiang, but they definitely don’t want Chang. Almost all of the party figures who have announced endorsements in the past week or two are for Chu: Taitung magistrate Rao Ching-ling 饒慶鈴, Hualien magistrate Hsu Chen-wei 徐榛蔚, Lienchiang magistrate Liu Tseng-ying 劉增應, Nantou magistrate Lin Ming-chen 林明溱, Yunlin magistrate Chang Li-shan 張麗善, Hsinchu legislator Lin Wei-chou林為洲, and Taipei legislator Lin Yi-hua 林奕華.

Another reason to think that this is all a result of Chu being shocked into action is that it is completely out of character for Chu. Chu has always been a consensus-oriented politician. He has always tried to be the person that everyone in the KMT can agree on. He has never been the type of person to intentionally pick fights or make enemies. And Chu must know that his attacks will have lasting costs. When he is elected chair, he will have a lot of angry party members to deal with. They might never trust him or give him the benefit of the doubt again. Moreover, Chu has now legitimized DPP attacks that the KMT is a red party. In the next election when DPP talking heads say that the KMT has powerful forces who want to unify Taiwan with China by acquiescing to One Country, Two Systems, they will be able to point to Chu. Hey, this isn’t us making wild accusations – the KMT party chair said all those things. This is a heavy price to pay, and Chu must have been terrified to make the choice to pay it.

Fear of losing is the obvious answer, and it is probably the right answer. However, I can think of another plausible reason Chu chose this path. It’s probably not right, but let me lay out the scenario.

In this scenario, Chu was on the path to a comfortable victory, and he knew it. Chu had seen polls like the Apollo poll, and he was confident of winning by a significant margin. However, Chu saw Chang getting significant amounts of support, and he decided to act preemptively to cut out this cancer before it got out of hand. Chang represents a grave danger to Chu’s KMT. Since the CCK era, the KMT has been a party that talks about China and unification, but it doesn’t really mean any of it and isn’t interested in taking any concrete actions. One China and unification are just decorations on the house; that give the KMT its historical legitimacy, but they haven’t really motivated the party in day-to-day decisions. The party is happy to talk about the ten golden years or the three principles of the people, and it is happy to go to China and make business deals that enrich everyone. However, they are aware, even if they won’t admit it out loud, that unification would mean the end of the ROC, and they don’t want that to happen. Chang is among the few in the party who have confronted that problem and (seem to) have decided that China is more important than the ROC. Hung Hsiu-chu is another. When she was running for president in 2016, old KMT veterans were shocked to hear her refuse to talk about the ROC since that would mean two Chinas. Chang and Hung are not unconditionally blue; they are willing to be red if their loyalty to One China demands it. Chu’s insistence that he is “true blue” 正藍 and that the KMT must not become “little red” 小紅 is not mere rhetoric. He is fighting for the survival of the ROC. The danger is not that Chang might win this election, since (in this scenario) Chu was confident of victory. The danger is that Chang might lose honorably, getting a lot of votes, a lot of respect, and set himself up as the frontrunner in the next contest. In other words, Chang might follow the Han model. Chu doesn’t want to merely defeat Chang; he wants to discredit Chang. The point of calling Chang red is to paint him as outside KMT values. Chang’s aggressive steps toward unification are not steps that the KMT cannot tolerate if it ever wants to win another election. They are also not steps that the KMT rank and file – even the old military veterans devoted to the ROC – are willing to countenance. Chu is exposing the true essence of Chang in the hopes that all those party voters might say, “I love China, but that is too much.” The acid test of whether this is the correct interpretation of Chu’s actions will come after Chu wins. If Chu is really serious about confirming the KMT as a blue party and dispelling any suspicions that it is really red, he will marginalize Chang and then purge him from the KMT.

If this scenario is correct – again, I doubt it is – it could have a tremendous impact on the future of the KMT and on Taiwanese politics. Chu’s KMT could be very different from Ma’s. If preservation of the ROC, rather than the 92C or eventual unification or integration with China’s economy, becomes the lode star of the KMT, I can start to imagine how it can rebuild itself as a viable political party capable of winning elections.

Ma wins KMT party chair debate

September 6, 2021

I watched the KMT party chair debate this weekend, and I have a few reactions. This is going to be a sloppy post. I’m not going to be very careful about who said what because they all sounded pretty similar. No one said anything that someone else vehemently disagreed with.

There were four people on the stage, and conventional wisdom is that this is a race between Eric Chu and Johnny Chiang, with Chu probably leading. There was a clear winner in this debate, and it wasn’t any of them. The undisputed winner was Ma Ying-jeou. A year ago, Chiang was trying to move the KMT away from the 92 Consensus. Ma utterly squashed that move. From the debate, you would never know that anyone had even questioned the brilliance and absolute perfection of the 92C. Someone else will be elected party chair, but Ma still runs this party.

None of them were really serious about power. The first thing Chiang said was that he was not going to run for president in 2024. Great. You want to be the party leader, but you don’t want to seek the most powerful position? One of the legacies of the authoritarian state is that politicians, especially in the KMT, have to act like they are embarrassed by power. In a democratic regime, power is good. A politician tells people, “Our society has problems, and I have a vision about how to make things better. Empower me, and we will make society better for all of us.” No one in this debate presented a vision, and no one was unashamedly asking for power to make changes. They all seemed to think they were interviewing for a middle-management position. Their job wasn’t to lead the party, it was merely to run the machinery that would select the real party leader (who might eventually wrestle with Ma).

Why does this matter? The 92C drives almost everything the KMT stands for, and it is increasingly divorced from reality. They assume that if only Taiwan goes back to saying the magic words, China will revert to the Hu Jintao era and play nicely. The KMT can go back to telling the voters that the magic words don’t really mean anything and telling the CPP that the magic words are very meaningful, and both sides will just forget the past decade and buy into it. Never mind that the PRC stopped pretending to respect the 92C several years ago and now insists that the 92C is exactly their version of One China. Please also ignore that China is now a much less attractive place to ordinary Taiwanese. It isn’t growing as fast, Xi Jinping runs an intrusive regime, everyone is aware of what has happened in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and China regularly threatens Taiwan with fighter jets. There are still Taiwanese who want interactions with China, but not as many as a decade ago. For an opposition party, that is the most important thing. The 92C is now an electoral disaster. The KMT can still win 35-40% with the 92C, but that isn’t anywhere near a majority. No mind. The KMT is going to approach all questions dealing with China with exactly the same ideas it developed back when Jiang Zemin was handing over power to Xi Jinping.

This isn’t the only area where the KMT party chair candidates had nothing constructive to say. One of the questions was about how to attract more youth support, since the KMT is currently extremely unpopular among everyone under 40. Several of them talked about returning to the spirit of Sun Yat-sen. After all, most of his followers were young. Yeah, the way to attract young Taiwanese worried about contemporary Taiwanese society is to go back more than a century and think about how Han nationalists in southern China put together a secret society to organize violent insurrections to overthrow the geriatric Qing dynasty. Great!! Anyway, what exactly is the spirit of SYS that many of them spoke so emotionally about needing to revive? If we follow the SYS spirit, how exactly do we distribute vaccines, generate electricity, or manage water resources? As far as I can tell, this SYS spirit that they all regard with such reverance just means “good.” “Do it gooder.” Well, that’s going to win the youth back. Their other great idea was patronage. A couple talked about reserving positions in the party for young people. Hey, that worked back when they were young! Back then, the authoritarian KMT party-state coopted young talent by giving them nice jobs. While I think that lots of young voters would be happy to get good-paying jobs, I don’t think they are clamoring for a return of the (corrupt) patronage machine (and the KMT doesn’t have that many jobs to offer these days). They want ideas about how to solve the problems facing contemporary society, not bribes for a select few or platitudes about an irrelevant statue. There was one other thing that Chu mentioned briefly: we can’t be afraid to talk to them in the ways that they understand. Let me translate: “We should use SnapTube and InstaLine. That’s what the kids want. Packaging!”

By the way, what went wrong in the last two elections? Why is the KMT now in opposition? The people on stage offered up the usual excuses. The DPP unfairly slandered them by painting them red, and the KMT messed up its nomination process. What could they do about this? They all thought that the chair’s most important job was to set up a better nomination process. In fact, the 2016 nomination process was a debacle, and there were some problems in 2020. However, in 2020 the KMT ended up with the candidate overwhelmingly preferred by party members, and he unified almost all of the opposition to the DPP around him. The KMT lost the election by 18%. Nomination isn’t their biggest problem.

My main takeaway from this debate is that the contemporary KMT is not serious about returning to power. Returning to power requires taking a hard look at what went wrong and making painful adjustments. No one on the stage was offering either. They were pandering to the desires of the deep blue party rank-and-file party members. But let’s not place all the blame on Chu and Chiang. They were doing what was necessary to win this party election (even if it will be a disaster in a general election). It’s the rank-and-file who ultimately are responsible. They have collectively decided that they would rather lose more elections and stay in the opposition than back away even a bit from Ma, the 92C, and their attachments to China.

Ma won this debate, and he will win the party chair election. Who is the loser? Again, I don’t think it was necessarily anyone on the stage. Things are lining up for Hou You-yi to be the KMT presidential candidate in 2024, so I think he was the biggest loser. If he runs, the KMT will not be an asset. He will have to drag the party and its unpopular positions through the campaign. Rather than lightening that load, the KMT seems to be intent on adding as much weight as possible.

Covid and KMT electoral strategy

September 4, 2021

In my last post, I hinted that the recent polls had suggested some interesting things about how the 2024 presidential race might unfold. I was thinking about what the polls said about the support of the various prominent contenders. However, since writing that, I have been obsessed with the idea that there was a much more important lesson. Perhaps these recent polls show that one of the KMT’s basic assumptions about how they can win a presidential election is flawed.

The contemporary KMT was rebuilt by Lien Chan, Su Chi, Ma Ying-jeou, and a few others after the 2000 presidential elections. After they purged Lee Teng-hui, they went back to their Chinese nationalist roots and reimagined the KMT as a party that could constructively engage with the PRC. The 92 Consensus was the linchpin of this new party, combining their nationalist urges with an economic strategy that was potent enough to win a majority of voters. That strategy ceased to be electorally effective in 2014, and the PRC ceased pretending to respect it a year later. Nowadays, the 92 Consensus is a heavy weight around the KMT’s collective necks while the KMT is struggling not to drown. Nonetheless, they are determined not to cast it aside. When interim party chair Johnny Chiang proposed altering or putting it in a museum (as the DPP did with its independence plank in 1999), the party decisively rejected his proposals. Chiang may sit in the party chair, but Ma demonstrated that the party still follows him. Ma made it crystal clear that he was not about to allow the party to move away from the 92 Consensus. Or perhaps that gives too much credit to Ma. Perhaps the party collectively demonstrated that its rank and file are still committed to the 92 Consensus. Either way, the KMT remains centered on an idea that is ballot box poison. (Back in the 1990s, the KMT frequently gleefully pointed out that Taiwan independence was ballot box poison for the DPP. Since the DPP was unwilling to distance itself from independence, it was unelectable. Ironically, the KMT finds itself in a mirror image of that same conundrum.)

Opposition parties often find themselves in unpopular positions, and it is hard to change. After all, they believe deeply in these positions. In USA in the 1930s and 1940s, Republicans were dead-set against the New Deal, and they lost landslide after landslide for two decades. In the UK in the 1980s, faced with the popular Thatcher government, the Labour Party decided to double down on traditional policies. Its 1983 platform was dubbed “the longest suicide note in history.” They did they same thing a few years ago by turning to hard leftist Jeremy Corbyn, and the result was another electoral disaster. Parties can change. Republicans nominated Eisenhower in 1952 who pointedly promised not to touch social security. In the 1990s, leftist parties in the USA, UK, and Germany all nominated centrists promising a third way. These produced victories, but the true believers were not all that happy with being in power since they couldn’t do all the things they really wanted to do. Sometimes, parties don’t have to make these sorts of painful changes. Sometimes society shifts in their direction. In the 1980s Republicans and Tories won with hard right leaders who did not have to make painful concessions. The DPP won the 2016 elections with only minor changes from the platforms they had been presenting since 2000. But most parties are not so fortunate. Returning to power usually requires some adjustment.

There are no indications that Taiwan society is becoming more open to Chinese nationalism and engagement with China (on the PRC’s terms). If the KMT is unwilling to move away from the 92 Consensus, how does it think it is going to ever win back power?

The only clear strategy I can see is that the KMT is depending on DPP failures. The KMT doesn’t seem interested in making any positive appeals that will persuade a majority to vote FOR them. They do not seem to have any fantastic ideas saying, “On the issues you care most passionately about, we are going to do A and B, so you should vote for us.” Rather their real argument seems to be mostly negative. “Things aren’t going well, and it’s the DPP’s fault. Throw them out! Vote against them (and we’re the only viable party to replace them).”

2018 was a perfect demonstration of how this strategy was supposed to work. The KMT did not abandon the 92 Consensus; it just avoided talking much about it. Instead, it told voters how unhappy they were with air quality, economic grown, the gays, Taipei City, President Tsai, Premier’s Lin and Lai, electricity blackouts, and generally everything else. As we all remember, this worked pretty well.

They were unable to repeat their success in 2020, but never mind that. From the KMT’s point of view, there were lots of extenuating circumstances. Han made mistakes, the DPP used lots of dirty tricks, and, above all, Hong Kong happened. Han didn’t win, but 2020 didn’t prove to KMT loyalists that their party platform was fatally flawed. (Note: I don’t buy any of these “excuses.” I think it showed exactly that.)

This is where we come to the last four months. If the KMT’s fundamental strategy is to argue that the DPP is doing a lousy job, May and June should have been a golden opportunity. KMT figures were screaming loudly every day about this massive failure of governance, and the media mostly played along. If there was ever an opportunity to persuade the general public that the current government was incompetent, this was it.

As I wrote last time, we did see a small dip in President Tsai’s approval ratings and DPP party ID. However, with such a salient crisis, I thought it was a relatively small dip. More strikingly though, we did not see any shift toward the KMT. In fact, the KMT lost popularity.

This is not how their plan was supposed to go. I’m not criticizing them for failing to get to 51%. It’s really hard to get that many people to support you, and the last 5% is the hardest. But they couldn’t even get the first 5%. Going from 17% to 22% should have been the easy part. Instead, they went from 17% to 13%. This is a failure of proof of concept.

The KMT’s assumption is that if the DPP is unpopular, voters will inevitably turn to the KMT. If it didn’t work this time, what will it take? The failure suggests an uncomfortable possibility. The KMT might be becoming so toxic with so many voters that people dissatisfied the DPP might not know where to turn. The KMT might be losing its status as the easy default option for voters who want to vote for “anyone else.”

That should terrify them, but it won’t. It’s much easier to bury your head in the sand, refuse to make any painful changes, and hope that things will get better. Such is life in Ma Ying-jeou’s KMT.