Johnny Chiang’s failure

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.

5 Responses to “Johnny Chiang’s failure”

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

    […] A Blog on Elections in Taiwan « Johnny Chiang’s failure […]

  2. Where Does the KMT Go From Here? | taktik(z) GDI (Government Defense Infrastructure) Says:

    […] Indeed, in charting Chiang’s political trajectory as chair we can see this shift from moderation toward a more hardline stance. While Chiang initially tried to suggest that he would rise above mudslinging, his actions eventually became increasingly partisan, including allowing the KMT caucus to throw pig offal at DPP politicians in the legislature and to mount a short occupation of the legislature to protest U.S. pork imports. Nevertheless, as with deep Blue insurgents, Chiang’s rise to power arguably also only occurred due to party heavyweights declining to run for key positions. […]

  3. KMT यहाँ से कहाँ जाता है? hindisky Says:

    […] दरअसल, च्यांग के राजनीतिक प्रक्षेपवक्र को कुर्सी के रूप में तैयार करने में हम इस बदलाव को संयम से अधिक कठोर रुख की ओर देख सकते हैं। जबकि च्यांग ने शुरू में यह सुझाव देने की कोशिश की कि वह कीचड़ उछालने से ऊपर उठेगा, उसके कार्य अंततः अधिक पक्षपातपूर्ण हो गए, जिसमें अनुमति देना भी शामिल था। केएमटी कॉकस डीपीपी राजनेताओं पर सुअर का मांस फेंकने के लिए विधायिका में और विधायिका के एक छोटे से कब्जे को माउंट करने के लिए अमेरिकी पोर्क आयात का विरोध करने के लिए। फिर भी, गहरे नीले विद्रोहियों की तरह, च्यांग का सत्ता में उदय भी यकीनन केवल हुआ पार्टी के दिग्गजों के प्रमुख पदों के ल… […]

  4. Where Does the KMT Go From Here? – The Diplomat - A News Room Says:

    […] Indeed, in charting Chiang’s political trajectory as chair we can see this shift from moderation toward a more hardline stance. While Chiang initially tried to suggest that he would rise above mudslinging, his actions eventually became increasingly partisan, including allowing the KMT caucus to throw pig offal at DPP politicians in the legislature and to mount a short occupation of the legislature to protest U.S. pork imports. Nevertheless, as with deep Blue insurgents, Chiang’s rise to power arguably also only occurred due to party heavyweights declining to run for key positions. […]

  5. What Strategy will the KMT Take Next? What Are the Odds of Reform Under Chu? – Taiwan Insight Says:

    […] junior politician. Moreover, Chiang may have become chair of the KMT, winning in a by-election race, because more established party heavyweights were declining to throw their hat into an election that would only have gained them one year as party […]

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