Chu goes ballistic

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.

7 Responses to “Chu goes ballistic”

  1. Mark Says:

    Agree with everything, except “Chang is almost certainly the PRC’s favorite candidate”. A Chang win would actually be a massive headache for Xi, since he would have to decide how to respond to Chang’s call to negotiate a “peace memorandum” with the KMT chair. It would be awkward for Xi to ignore it, but even worse to engage and then see the idea roundly rejected by the electorate in 2022/2024. Also, given her closeness to Beijing, I don’t think Hung Hsiu-chu would have attacked Chang over his fundraising activities without Beijing’s approval.

  2. csempere109 Says:

    Fascinating as always.

    My wife’s family covers the blue spectrum, and I know she’s had the same thought about the deep blues being a threat to the ROC’s existence. So while it could just be Chu worrying that Chang would cost the KMT elections, your hypothesis is totally reasonable.

    If Chu won the chairmanship, would Tsai Ing-wen’s relatively moderate stance towards the ROC name affect how a KMT “preserve the ROC” message would be received by voters near the middle?

    • frozengarlic Says:

      I’ve thought for a while that Tsai is eating the KMT’s lunch with her “ROC Taiwan” rhetoric: that should be the KMT’s thing. Maybe it’s harder for the KMT to fight there because the DPP has staked out that territory, but I think that is where the KMT has to fight if they ever want to reach the median voter.

  3. Mark S. Says:

    “If we just look at blue camp supporters, the race is Chu 45.9%, Chang 18.3%, Chiang 14.1%, and Cho 4.2%.”

    That’s pretty close to what happened, with the undecideds going much more for Chang than Chiang.

    Chu: 45%
    Chang Ya-chung: 32%
    Chiang: 19%
    Cho Po-yuan: 3%

  4. Chu wins. Now what? | Frozen Garlic Says:

    […] 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 […]

  5. Eric Chu Wins KMT Chair Race, With Chang Ya-Chung as Runner-up, Johnny Chiang Distant Third | New Bloom Magazine Says:

    […] Perhaps as a consequence, media discourse in the weeks prior to the election focused on the race as one which was primarily between Chu and Chang. Attacks between Chu and Chang became increasingly intense, as Chu accused Chang of being an extreme pro-unification advocate, based on his past academic record…  […]

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