ROC Taiwan: First steal ROC, then nationalize CCK

In her National Day address in 2019, President Tsai laid out her vision of the what this society is. To put it briefly, she defined the country as ROC Taiwan, a society that has been defined by common experiences for seven decades. The KMT has campaigned for years on the ROC, but Tsai essentially told the KMT that they no longer had sole ownership of that concept. The DPP was also going to claim the ROC, which she explained was equivalent to Taiwan. This country, ROC Taiwan, belongs to everyone, and she hoped everyone would work together for its prosperity and sovereignty.

Somehow, I have never found time to write about the ROC Taiwan discourse. I believe it is one of the most important developments in Taiwan politics in recent years. Tsai basically stole the KMT’s heritage and symbols, and the KMT hasn’t figured out how to react. One of my friends told me (with disbelief in his voice) that his polls showed that people trusted Tsai Ing-wen to protect the ROC more than they trusted Han Kuo-yu. The DPP has become the party of stability, while the KMT has become the party with radical and dangerous ideas.

If you haven’t read the 2019 address or the 2021 address in which she restated the ROC Taiwan discourse, it’s worth it to read them carefully and think about what a monumental shift this is in the DPP’s traditional positions. DPP true believers don’t like the ROC name or symbols. However, Tsai has convinced them that it’s more important to fight the substantive battle over solidarity, sovereignty, and security than the symbolic one over the name ROC and the flag. It’s hard to give up cherished positions, but sometimes that is what is necessary to move forward.

Why am I talking about this today? Well, the Tsai government is making an even more audacious move against KMT symbols. It isn’t enough to steal the ROC and the flag, now they want to coopt the legacy of Chiang Ching-kuo as well!

The Veterans Affairs Commission is holding a big event this weekend in memory of the 34th anniversary of CCK’s death. If there is one thing most military veterans, especially the older ones, can agree on, it is that CCK was a great man. However, it’s a bit surprising for a DPP administration to try to bask in his legacy. After all, he was the dictator that the democracy movement of the 1970s and 1980s struggled against. Yet this is exactly what they are doing. And by using the VAC to send their message, they are going right into the heart of what has always been enemy territory. This is a bit like Kennedy going to Houston to speak to Southern Baptist ministers about his Catholicism.

Yesterday Deputy VAC chair Lee Wen-chung 李文忠 gave an interview on a radio show hosted by Huang Ching-lung 黃清龍, former editor-in-chief of the Want Daily 旺報, to talk about CCK. Keep in mind that Lee is very much a DPP political appointee. He is a former legislator (from the New Tide faction), and he ran for office under the DPP banner as recently as 2014 and 2016. He is a member of Team Tsai, not merely a technocrat. His comments about CCK are part of the broader ROC Taiwan discourse.

Lee said that, like every political figure, CCK[1] had good and bad points, and that we should be fair to him and acknowledge his contributions. He discussed several. First, CCK did away with the dream of reconquering the mainland through military force. At most, he talked about unification under the Three People’s Principles.  Second, Taiwan faced several economic crises in the 1970s, and many people unsure about Taiwan’s future emigrated to other countries. CCK stabilized the country with the Ten Major Construction Projects. Third, he realized that the government needed to bring in native Taiwanese talent. As an example, he paid close attention to Lee Teng-hui’s career and routinely held conversations with LTH when he was Taipei mayor. He even said, “I am Taiwanese.” Fourth, he was a liberalizer. When DPP was founded, no one was arrested. Democracy is not his credit, but not using suppression was a very big contribution. Fifth, he supported innovation. He was willing to confront problems such as lifting restrictions on media and political parties and opening up elections, and he used his authority to convince others to accept these changes. After CCK passed away, LTH became famous for the silent revolution. In fact, he was building on the foundation laid by CCK.

Lee defined the CCK path in six characters: 反共、革新、保台 (resist communism, promote innovation, protect Taiwan). He then spoke directly to “friends in the KMT” and delivered the hammer blow: you have discarded the CCK path. Resist communism? The KMT is not merely friendly to communism, it is kissing up to communism.

What Lee did not explicitly say is that the DPP is now the repository of those values. If you are a follower of the CCK path, the place to find politicians who believe in resisting communism, embracing innovation, and protecting Taiwan is now in the DPP. He didn’t say that, but it wasn’t difficult to make the leap in your mind.

I learned about the VAC event and this interview because Tsai Shih-ping 蔡詩萍, a blue-leaning media figure, made that leap in his head and wrote a pained message about it on Facebook. Tsai put all these ideas together, including the idea that the DPP was about to coopt CCK. Several media outlets then reported on this Facebook post.

Tsai argues the DPP is using an old KMT trick of cloaking itself in a great historical tradition. The KMT had traditionally placed itself in a grand Chinese narrative, starting with Yao and Shun, going through Confucius and Mencius, and ending up with Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. Now the DPP is constructing a historical narrative of Taiwan’s democratization starting with CCK, continuing through LTH, and presently embodied by President Tsai. Critically, there is no place for the modern KMT in this, since they adamantly reject everything to do with LTH and the DPP. All they can do these days is to criticize Taiwan’s democracy. Since most people are proud of Taiwan’s democracy, the KMT is placed outside Taiwan’s mainstream.

Tsai reiterates Lee’s point about resisting communism, pointing out that when the CCP talked about creating a “new form of democracy,” no KMT figures jumped out to respond, “Sorry, that’s not democracy.”

Tsai ends his post by exhorting the KMT to return to the true path of CCK: resist communism, promote democracy, protect Taiwan.


Ok, so I don’t think the DPP is going to successfully steal the legacy of CCK. I don’t expect DPP candidates to start running under the slogan, “Support CCK, Vote DPP.” But that’s not really the point. They are trying to win the large group of voters in the middle of the electorate who learned as schoolchildren that their country was the ROC, sang the national anthem, saluted the flag, and supported the national team 中華隊 athletes in international competitions. There are a lot of people who absorbed the symbols of the state without necessarily absorbing the Chinese identity or ideology behind them. CCK was president during a time that many people remember fondly because of the economic miracle, so it is natural to think that he must have been a good president. The DPP has argued for a few decades that he was actually an evil dictator who made the people miserable, but they haven’t gotten too far with that. These days, CCK is the KMT’s last trump card. So the DPP is now arguing that CCK had some real contributions, but the modern KMT has walked away from all the values that led to those contributions. The next time Han Kuo-yu, Ma Ying-jeou, or Eric Chu go onstage and weep about their love for CCK, the DPP hopes that some voters will wonder why they aren’t actually following him these days. Moreover, they want to redefine CCK’s beneficial values as what are now consensus (read: our) values. Ideally, the DPP wants CCK (like the ROC) to belong to all of Taiwan, not just the KMT.

[1] Lee referred to CCK several times as 經國先生 (Mr. Ching-kuo). This is a very polite way to speak of him, implying respect and even reverence. DPP politicians do not habitually call him this.

3 Responses to “ROC Taiwan: First steal ROC, then nationalize CCK”

  1. kezza Says:

    I am not sure whether it was Tsai’s FB post, or the VAC message, that got the ball rolling. It appears that most media outlets (in their evening news) picked up on the VAC’s message and added Tsai’s FB post as “reactions”. I have a feeling Ret Lt General Yu bei-chen had some role in forming the VAC message, either directly or indirectly. Certainly Yu had been making very loud noise for the last year that are bound to be noticed by VAC, and Lee has also been moving steadily towards accommodating veterans views since he got the job at VAC and affiliates. According to UDN, Lee has been putting forward his ideas of re-evaluating CCK in the DPP public discourse since late last year and there hasn’t been any apparent attempt to shut him down.

    I agree this is a monumental shift, probably comparable to, e.g., Benjamin Disraeli incorporating the Labour party into the establishment. If the DPP is successful in pulling this off (it seems likely they would be, at least in the contest of defining the meaning of the “CCK legacy” that KMT worships every January 13th), it would be difficult for this generation of KMTers to have any role to play in this Byzantine legitimacy game.

    Anyway, there are now some early indications that the DPP is preparing to assault the formidable summit of nationalising CKS too in their discourse. For example, Tsai’s 2021 address was willing to shed the 38 years in mainland China and just retain the 72 years of ROC in Taiwan, and New Taipei city councilor and DPP local chair Ho Po-wen was pointing out the last sentence of 蔣公紀念歌 “反共必勝,建國必成 (x2)” (ERA News 新聞面對面 2021-01-13) (video 06:42 ff). The deep greens probably are not going to like it from a DPP government, but perhaps it would be easier using the ROC cloak to allow safe social distance between DPP and CKS.

  2. Wat bedoelen Taiwanezen met ‘onafhankelijkheid’ en ‘status quo’? – Sense Hofstede Says:

    […] om zich ROC-symbolen als de vlag toe te eigenen die de partij voorheen verketterde.17Nathan Batto, ‘ROC Taiwan: First steal ROC, then nationalize CCK’, Frozen Garlic, 14 januari 2022. De betekenissen van de woorden ‘onafhankelijkheid’, ‘status […]

  3. justrecently Says:

    This looks like a good thing to me, because it is a more accurate assessment of Chiang jr. than in the DPP’s past, *and* a rather promising strategy at the same time.
    It also – once again – suggests that Tsai is a far-sighted leader. Her “re-interpretation” (or whatever the right term for this would be) began ten years ago, if not earlier.

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