Archive for the ‘party politics’ Category

ROC Taiwan: First steal ROC, then nationalize CCK

January 14, 2022

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.

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.

Book review: Taiwan’s Green Parties

August 23, 2021

My friend Dafydd Fell’s new book, Taiwan’s Green Parties: Alternative Politics in Taiwan, has been staring at me for several months. I was finally able to read it this week, and it was quite informative and stimulating. I consider myself to be quite knowledgeable on Taiwan electoral politics, but I learned A LOT about this little corner of the political spectrum. Dafydd spent about eight years working on this book, and during that time he interviewed nearly everyone in or around the Green Party Taiwan (GPT). When he tells us about the internal conflicts or soap operas, he isn’t drawing on secondhand information gleaned from actors who gave political spin to reporters. He is getting it straight from the actors themselves, usually a few months after the events in which they have had time to distance themselves from the day-to-day events. The result is as much of an insider account as you will ever find in an academic book. This is fantastic research, and if you are interested in Taiwan’s electoral politics, the Green Party Taiwan, movement parties, or what life is like inside a fringe party, you need to read this book.

 Most of the book is centered around explaining the GPT’s electoral ups and downs from its founding in 1996 to the 2020 elections. A number of factors are considered, but two are identified as the most important. On the one hand, the GPT has had to find space in a political system dominated by two mainstream parties, and it hasn’t always been easy to find such space. For each election, Dafydd starts with a discussion of the party system. How has the party system (including events that shape the party system) changed since the last electoral cycle, and how did that present or restrict opportunities for the GPT? On the other hand, given the concrete space that the GPT faces in each election, how did it go about trying to take advantage those opportunities? The GPT has agency, and it has made many consequential decisions over the years. After giving the broad overview of each election, we look at individual campaigns. The GPT hasn’t nominated all that many candidates over the years, so Dafydd is able to look at a lot of obscure campaigns in quite a lot of detail. This includes not only campaigns for the national legislature, but also many campaigns for city and county council.

Now, I’ve done more work on city and county council elections that most political scientists, but even I found a lot of these campaigns to be obscure. One example that was compelling to me personally was the case of Chang Ming-li 張明麗, who in 2014 ran for the Keelung City Council, District 6. It was a four-seat district, and her 1048 votes placed her 10th out of 12 candidates. It wasn’t that close; the last winner got two and a half times as many votes as she did. The reason I know anything at all about her is that I live in this district. I have only a very vague memory of her. As with all candidates, the first question is whether to take them seriously. I think I looked at one of her leaflets and dismissed her as a certain loser. Dafydd devotes an entire page to her, concluding that she realized too late that she needed to go out and campaign and that she was actually quite good at it. If only she had started earlier! It was such a pity that she didn’t try again in 2018! Um, that might be a slightly optimistic interpretation of the result… Regardless, I rejoice in academic work that digs down into the weeds to find things that others might have neglected, and this book is a celebration of weed-digging. From all this minutia, we emerge with a rich picture of what GPT campaigns look like on the ground. And since they don’t look like KMT or DPP campaigns, this is a fresh perspective on Taiwanese politics.

The GPT’s electoral record is unimpressive. Dafydd identifies different eras as being more or less successful. So 1996-8 was better, 1999-2005 was dormant, the party re-emerged from 2006-2010, and it was close but never quite made an electoral breakthrough in 2012-2020. I think this is quite a generous reading of history. From my perspective, there is clear failure, dismal failure, and utter failure. I don’t think the GPT has ever been politically relevant in any meaningful sense. There’s a reason that pollsters almost never include the GPT as one of the options when they ask about party ID.

The book is full of stories like Chang’s, in which a candidate didn’t come particularly close to winning. In most cases, the GPT figures explain these results in terms of candidate quality. We didn’t nominate early enough, they didn’t get out of the office and go talk to voters, they didn’t work hard enough, we didn’t have enough money. One of the oldest tropes in politics is that when my side loses, it’s because we had a lousy candidate. When my side wins, it’s because we had better ideas. The GPT uses this trope quite liberally.

Another reason for the GPT’s lousy electoral record is incessant infighting. Fringe parties are notorious for internal squabbles and inability to cooperate (The Judean People’s Front!). The GPT seems to have been constantly bickering. Whenever anyone tried to do something that might win more votes, other people in the party complained that they were sellouts. There were many instances of a new leadership trying to marginalize former leaders. And proposed coalitions with other parties … well I’ll get to that in a minute. For now, let’s just say that the GPT placed far more importance on maintaining their “purity” than on winning elections.

There are numerous occasions in this book in which someone says something extremely revealing. Perhaps the most shocking instance involves Wang Hau-yu. Wang became the party leader from 2017 until he not only resigned that position but withdrew from the Green Party altogether in the aftermath of the 2020 election. Wang was unique among GPT politicians for his ability to regularly get media attention. One way he did this in the 2020 campaign was by releasing survey data on the state of the race. He claimed to have commissioned 25 separate surveys, and each time he was able to add his own spin to the resulting media reports. If nothing else, his continual presence in the media reminded potential voters of the GPT’s existence. At the time, I wondered how he was funding all these surveys. 25 surveys add up to a pretty penny for a cash-strapped organization like the GPT. One of the informants hints at an answer. According to an anonymous party insider, Wang had a secret arrangement with the DPP in which the DPP provided him with survey data. In return, Wang would attack the KMT, NPP, and TPP (p 264). In short, Wang got exposure and chances to argue against GPT rivals, while the DPP was able to outsource negative campaigning and avoid any blame. This doesn’t sound terrible for the GPT, but there’s more. In the last days of the campaign the DPP (predictably) issued a plea with sympathetic voters to vote for the DPP on the party list. One might have expected Wang – the GPT party leader – to make a counterargument that it was the GPT that desperately needed the votes. A few days after the election (in which the DPP won a comfortable majority while the GPT was completely shut out of the legislature), Wang explained why he did not do this on his Facebook page, “of course I knew that at this time the best method would be to tell everyone that the DPP was not in danger. But I did not, I could not do that. I could not put the GPT’s interests first if that meant there was the slightest possibility of there not being a [DPP] parliamentary majority and Han Kuo-yu winning the presidency” (pp 264-5). This is a stunning betrayal! If Wang thought it was most important for the DPP to get votes, he had no business at all representing the GPT! It appears that Wang was simply a DPP agent using the GPT to do the DPP’s dirty work. If this is correct, he had no business leading the GPT, and the only surprising part of his departure from the party immediately after the election is that it wasn’t more acrimonious.

Movement parties often find elections difficult. One reason for this is that social movements and electoral politics demand different priorities. For example, a labor movement might push workers to strike in order to obtain higher salaries or better working conditions, even though strikes are usually very unpopular among the general public. Movements have to be more radical; elections demand currying favor with mainstream voters. There is an inherent contradiction. However, this hasn’t been the GPT’s problem. They have been a lousy electoral party, but they’ve also been pretty lousy at movement politics. The GPT hasn’t offended mainstream voters because it was staging sit-ins on construction sites, leading marches against Formosa Plastics, protesting nuclear power plants, or engaging in any kind of civil disobedience for … anything. The GPT simply hasn’t been a radical force. When GPT members talk about their record, they point to the fact that some of their longtime positions – against nuclear power, for marriage equality – how now been accepted as mainstream. See, they’re winning! The only problem is that the GPT hasn’t had much to do with that process. In any neutral account of the anti-nuclear movement, for example, the GPT is merely going to be a peripheral actor. The other thing the GPT repeatedly stresses is their international character. They are part of the Global Green Movement! When they talk about what they do between elections, time after time they talk about attending the Global Green convention. Hooray. Forgive me for suggesting that taking a week to go on a trip to London, New Zealand, or Tokyo isn’t exactly my idea of a political movement. They are proud that they persuaded the Global Greens to pass a resolution recognizing Taiwan’s sovereignty. Ok, but when the German Foreign Minister was from the German Green Party, did he care at all about that resolution? The GPT has a party platform, but they don’t seem to do any of the hard work necessary – electoral or movement – to turn those ideals into concrete public policy. In fact, in discussing the aftermath of the 2020 election, the GPT talks about needing to rebuild its ties to social movements since they have let those wither over the past decade.

While this book is an exhaustive look at GPT leaders and candidates and their roles in elections, there is one largely overlooked actor: the voters. Does the GPT have a stable block of supporters? The GPT estimated that between 2016 and 2020, it lost about 1 million voters and gained about the same number (pp 269-71), which suggests that the GPT’s core support base is smaller than they might hope. Who is the GPT tying to appeal to? Some people suggest they should concentrate on Taipei City, while others argue they will have more success in rural areas and small cities. Are they targeting affluent people or working-class voters? Do they expect more support among young or old voters? More important than any demographic categories, how do voters think about the GPT’s issue appeals? Throughout this book, we find GPT politicians rejecting the notion that they are a single-issue party. In their minds, they are promoting a whole range of progressive positions, such as labor rights, housing justice, social inequality, good government reforms, trade policies, and national sovereignty. However, I suspect that most ordinary voters do not share such a broad image of the GPT. In a telling quote, GPT activist Robin Winkler recalls early discussions of cooperation with the SDP before 2016, “my first question [to SDP representatives] was ‘why don’t you just join us?’ They said that you’re just about the environment. I said, ‘have you read our charter?’” (p 211). If these politically sophisticated and sympathetic people – activists who were considering cooperation – thought that they GPT was merely a single-issue party, it seems very likely that most ordinary voters probably would as well. (Winkler’s reaction, that they needed to educate themselves, is also revealing. Successful parties don’t reflexively assign homework to the people they are trying to attract.) Even if most voters don’t know what the GPT stands for, are many voters open to those positions? Do the different arguments conflict with each other, attracting some voters but repelling others?

It is hard to do research on fringe parties since our standard survey data isn’t very useful for parties that have less than 3% support. Dafydd devotes five pages (103-108) to this topic, but the lack of good data means that he is only able to come up with some speculative suggestions. The only data we see about issues comes from a 2016 internet survey of 116 GPT/SDP supporters, which is very small and probably has a skewed sample (60% were students). We find that LGBT rights, environmental protection, labor right, and land justice were the top four issues for these supporters. Unfortunately, we don’t know if labor rights supporters, for example, were expressing support for the GPT, the SDP, or both. All in all, we simply don’t learn much about the GPT’s support base beyond the stories that they tell themselves. And given that we have learned that they aren’t exactly a group of professional politicians deeply embedded in their constituencies, I don’t have a lot of faith that they actually know who votes for them and why.

It is finally time to talk about the beast looming over everything related to Taiwanese politics including the GPT: national identity. National identity is impossible to ignore. China forces this issue on Taiwan, and it permeates all sorts of seemingly unrelated questions. Baseball, airline names, vaccine purchases, a trip to Bolivia, hotel development on Taiwan’s east coast, pineapple farming, national health care costs, my quest for Taiwanese citizenship: China twists them all. There simply aren’t any issues on which Taiwanese voters don’t have to think about the relationship between Taiwan and China. Decisions about how to respond to all these different questions are usually grounded in national identity. People who feel a bit Chinese tend to opt for different policies than people who don’t feel at all Chinese. National identity will continue to dominate Taiwanese politics until Taiwan’s sovereignty is settled. It is inescapable.

From one perspective, the GPT has taken a quite clear stance on Taiwan identity. Kao Cheng-yen sailed out into the Taiwan Strait in 1996 to “catch” the missiles China was firing. The TGP got the Global Greens to pass resolutions on Taiwan sovereignty. The GPT issued statements in favor of Hong Kong protesters. Isn’t all that pretty clear? Well, no. While there are undoubtedly many GPT figures with a strong stance on Taiwan identity and almost none screaming about how they are Chinese, there are hints of ambiguity. A GPT executive committee member suggested the GPT’s task was, “the GPT needs to convince the public that the GPT wants to transcend the issue of unification or independence, either way Taiwan needs to survive and have a good environment” (p 140). This person wants to play both sides; she is not interested in a clear position. An even more striking statement comes from a GPT supporter, “young people in Taiwan today, they have a good life. Young people today don’t say, ‘I want to be independent.’ They don’t think about that as much as before. We have a good life now. … If you keep shouting about independence, unification all days, people will feel annoyed. We are a country now, why do you need to keep repeating those things? (p107). I have spent quite a bit of time over the past year looking at Han Kuo-yu’s rhetoric, and he repeatedly said almost exactly the same thing (except he would have insisted that life in Taiwan is currently lousy). In the current environment, when someone insists identity is not important, it often means they simply don’t want to talk about their opinion because they know it is unpopular.

The GPT seems to know they have an ambiguous stance. GPT activists blamed their poor showings in 2016 and 2020 on a popular desire for a clearer stance on China questions after the Chou Tzu-yu incident and the Hong Kong protests. Either they don’t believe their own autopsy, or they are willingly paying a price for this ambiguous stance.

It isn’t just a question for voters. National identity is probably behind the GPT’s problems in forming electorally advantageous coalitions. In 2012 and 2016, the DPP yielded a legislative district to a GPT (or GPT allied) candidate. This should have been a golden opportunity. The GPT’s candidate was guaranteed media coverage, and the DPP was basically inviting it to make a sales pitch to its tens of thousands of local supporters. This was also an opportunity for the GPT to make contact with organizational networks and potential financial backers. However, the GPT was not able to take advantage of these opportunities. In both cases, when Tsai Ing-wen campaigned with the GPT candidate (national attention!! this is your chance!!), GPT party activists publicly revolted against any suggestion that they were endorsing her presidential campaign. In a contest between the KMT and DPP presidential candidates, they did not want to take a side (even though the DPP presidential candidate was endorsing their legislative candidate). They might have argued that their neutrality had nothing to do with national identity, but presidential elections are essentially referendums on exactly that question. The GPT might write something about sovereignty in its party charter, but very few people read party charters. These incidents got national press coverage, making it clear for all to see that the GPT was internally divided on Taiwan identity. Moreover, because of this internal division, they weren’t able to commit to an electorally advantageous alliance. They wanted to tell people to ignore identity and focus on the environment, but they were unable to take their own advice. Identity is inescapable.

The TSU: We’re back, baby!

August 19, 2019

So apparently, the Taiwan Solidarity Union still exists. Who knew! I learned of their continuing existence because they published a half page ad in the Liberty Times yesterday. This has to be my favorite ad in several years. I’m not quite sure why it tickles me so much. Do they understand how crazy it is to publish a voting guide for strategic voting five months before the election? We don’t even know who the contestants will be yet. And look at how they have helpfully defined all the other political parties in various far-fetched ways! And their totally unrealistic policy proposals! Did anyone tell them that there is a range of enormous mountains on the island or a big body of water next to it? Even though this ad is half bonkers, the other half is somehow extremely informative.

Here’s the ad:

The top line reads, “unity in the green camp, but differences on the party vote.” On the left side, the red font reads, “if you support these policies, vote for these parties.” The logos are for the DPP, NPP, Taiwan State Building Party, and Social Democrats. Their respective policies are abolishing the death penalty, raising the minimum wage and applying labor laws to foreign workers, huge increases in tobacco taxes, protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty, and not amending the constitution to formally change the name of the country. On the bottom left, they have the logos for the two new radical independence parties, the Formosa Alliance and the Taiwan Action Party Alliance. People who oppose Tsai Ing-wen are encouraged to vote for those two parties. On the right side it lists the TSU’s positions:

  • Protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty by amending the constitution to change the name
  • opposing recent revisions to the labor standards law (concerning consecutive working days or mandatory two-day weekends; also, they think it should only set a maximum number of working hours everything else should be left to negotiations between labor and capital)
  • opposing abolishing the death penalty
  • applying different standard to Taiwanese and foreign labor (NT30,000 minimum wage for Taiwanese labor, NT8,000 minimum wage for foreign labor, you must hire one Taiwanese worker for every four foreign workers, this cuts the price of labor in half!)
  • oppose huge increases in the tobacco tax
  • allow and encourage automobile racing, light aircraft, and coastal and canal yachts
  • development projects for the west coast
    • bridge between Taiwan and Penghu (next to the bridge, there will be large-scale enclosed aquaculture, under the bridge will be tidal power generation, next to the bridge wind power generation
    • east-west rail line from the east coast to Yunlin and Chiayi to Penghu
    • 80km artificial island off the west coast (Changhua to Tainan), upper layer for wind power, forested lower layer to help reduce air pollution
    • Canal on the Changhua to Tainan coast for yachting and waterside residences

To top it all off, the orange box at the bottom sneers, “You don’t care about policies? Your vote is a worthless fart! Cast your party for the TSU; the communist bandits will shit their pants.”


I wonder who has an investment interest in auto racing and/or yachts. Those are flat-out weird. Also, they are entirely focused on southern Taiwan. There is no mention of the north, and the only mention of the east is the bananas idea to run a railroad straight through the Central Mountain range to Hualien. I also love the idea of building wind turbines in a forested area. Have they never noticed that all the vegetation around the base of a wind turbine is always removed? I dunno, maybe these guys aren’t exactly world-class civil engineers.

Yet, this ad does say something substantive. First, the TSU is clearly defining themselves as a conservative, Taiwan nationalist party. Never mind all the progressive stuff that the NPP and Social Democrats are pushing, they think the DPP’s economic policies are basically socialist! Second, they are differentiating themselves from the two new radical independence parties by supporting Tsai Ing-wen. They think everyone in the green camp should vote for her (including supporters of those two parties, but they aren’t asking for party votes from people who oppose her.

But let’s not let actual information distract us too much from the main message: The TSU is batshit zany. They are throwing down a marker to all the other small green camp parties: we dare you to try to match our superficially reasonable but utterly delusional ideas. We are the craziest motherfuckers in this polity, so stay off our turf. (Especially the turf on the magical artificial island next to the impossible bridge!)

The NPP’s internal divisions, Ko’s new party, and the China Cleavage

August 7, 2019

Every now and then, an international media outlet will publish a story on Taiwan elections that interprets everything through the lens of relations with China. For example, someone might write a story saying that, after the recent events in Hong Kong, the DPP’s presidential prospects are surging. Every time this happens, a gaggle of Taiwan-based analysts responds by pointing out that it isn’t that simple. Taiwanese politics are complex, and Taiwan’s international relationship with China isn’t the only thing that affects voting. All kinds of things unrelated to China policy – nuclear power, labor policy, air quality, food safety, overdevelopment, corruption, marriage equality, pensions, health care, industrial policy, tax rates, whether to ban drinking straws, and on and on – also affect electoral outcomes. Of course, they are right. But…

In the broader argument about the fundamental nature of Taiwanese politics, I come down firmly on the side that argues that Taiwan has one and only one dominant political cleavage. Taiwan’s relationship with China, broadly conceived, is more important than all of those other issues put together. This China Cleavage fundamentally shapes every aspect of Taiwan’s politics, most notably the party system. To put it bluntly, you can understand most – somewhere between 70% and 90% – of Taiwan’s politics if you understand the China Cleavage. (Of course, no one – including me – fully understands the China Cleavage.) Moreover, you can’t understand anything else unless you understand how it is embedded within the China Cleavage. The conflicts over all those other issues I listed above don’t make any sense unless you understand how they are filtered through the China Cleavage. They aren’t completely absorbed by it; otherwise they wouldn’t matter at all. However, they are deeply influenced by it. The opposite is not true. You don’t need to have a solid background in food safety issues to understand the China Cleavage.

Lots of people have written about this messy cleavage that defines Taiwanese politics, so I’ll be brief. I think of it as having four related but somewhat different dimensions. The first is ethnic background – the conflict between native Taiwanese (those who were already here during the Japanese colonial era) and mainlanders (who came after WWII). This dimension was most important during the authoritarian era but has faded in importance over the past few decades. The second is national identity, whether a person self-identifies as Chinese or Taiwanese. My personal opinion is that this is currently the single most important aspect of the China Cleavage. If I were cut off from all information about Taiwan for five years and you offered to give me just one number, I would want to know the percentage of respondents identifying as Taiwanese only in the NCCU Election Study Center tracking polls. The third dimension involves Taiwan’s future status. Should Taiwan unify with China, become a formally independent state, or something else. This dimension seems to have faded in importance in recent years. The fourth dimension is how to manage day-to-day relations with China. On what basis should Taiwan have economic interactions with China? How should Taiwan regulate Taiwanese citizens in China and Chinese citizens in Taiwan? Is it important to have government-to-government communications? What is the best way to prevent war? What is the best way to protect Taiwan’s sovereignty? This dimension is rapidly increasing in importance and may even be approaching national identity in significance. It will probably continue to increase in importance because China is increasingly making demands on Taiwan and more and more aggressively challenging Taiwan’s place in international society. National identity and day-to-day relations focus attention in different places. National identity is idealistic, looking at how citizens feel about themselves and who they want to be. Day-to-day relations is much more pragmatic, searching for a workable plan of action that may not completely reflect the choices they would make in an ideal world.

Lots of people would prefer for Taiwanese elections not to be about the China Cleavage. These people are like climate change deniers. It doesn’t matter if you want to ignore this set of issues, the world will force you to pay attention to them. You might want to think about air quality, but whether or not Taiwan continues to exist simply matters more. You might want to think about labor relations as a purely domestic issue, but Taiwan’s economy is highly intertwined with China’s, and China periodically does things that send shockwaves through Taiwan’s political and economic environment. Until Taiwan’s status is thoroughly resolved – something that is hopefully not on the immediate horizon – the China Cleavage will inevitably dwarf everything else in importance.


Why am I talking about the China Cleavage? The last couple weeks in Taiwanese politics have been eventful, to say the least. I’m going to focus on two big stories, the civil war threatening to rip the New Power Party apart and the recent moves by Ko Wen-je and Terry Gou. Both of these are much more easily understood through the lens of the China Cleavage.


The New Power Party was founded on the assumption that Taiwan does NOT have a single dominant political cleavage. The NPP positioned itself as a pro-Taiwan party occupying roughly the same space as the DPP on the China Cleavage spectrum. Unlike the Taiwan Solidarity Union or some of the new political parties that have been announced in the past few weeks, the NPP did not differentiate itself from the DPP by staking out a markedly more extreme position on this spectrum. Rather, it differentiated itself by staking out a markedly different position on a second dimension, the progressive-conservative dimension. The NPP argued that the DPP was fundamentally a conservative pro-Taiwan party, and it would be a progressive pro-Taiwan party. Thus, the NPP took different positions on things like labor unions, the welfare state, student issues, and, above all, marriage equality.

In recent months, the NPP has had an internal debate over its future path. Some, led by Freddy Lim and Tzu-yung Hung, want the NPP to cooperate with the DPP in the presidential election to guard against throwing the presidency to pro-China forces. Others, led by KC Huang and Yung-ming Hsu, feel that this will condemn the NPP to an existence as the DPP’s junior partner. They want the NPP to set its own course and become an unaffiliated party that can bargain with (and extract more concessions from) either major party. These two visions effectively force members to ask themselves whether the China Cleavage or the progressive-conservative cleavage is more important to them.

If the latter is true, Huang and Hsu are probably right to want to escape the DPP’s shadow. The NPP will be able to maintain its popular support, since its voters will continue to support them. (Voters tend to vote for whatever they think is the most important thing.) Moreover, the NPP will have more bargaining power in the legislature if it can deny both major parties an outright majority.

However, the progressive-conservative cleavage simply isn’t more important than the China Cleavage. Even NPP, who might like that to be so, know deep in their guts that the China Cleavage trumps everything. Maintaining Taiwan’s sovereignty is a prerequisite for everything else. Marriage equality is impossible without liberal democracy, and liberal democracy is incompatible with any arrangement the PRC would agree to. Lim and Hung simply (and correctly) aren’t willing to throw the presidency to the KMT, even if that means that the NPP is doomed to remain a “small green” party. They can’t convince themselves that their progressive agenda makes it ok to ignore the China Cleavage. If Huang and Hsu insist on directly challenging the DPP, the NPP will inevitably be plunged into this sort of civil war.

Being a “small green” party may not be the path that the NPP wants, but, unless it wants to adjust its position on the China Cleavage spectrum, that is the only viable path to survival. They simply cannot be a pro-Taiwan party that purposely divides the pro-Taiwan vote and helps the pro-China side to win, no matter how wonderfully progressive they are. They can perhaps survive by sticking to their 2016 positioning. In 2016, they cooperated with the DPP in the presidential and district legislative races. In the party list ballot, they contented themselves with the (small) chunk of pro-Taiwan voters who were also progressive. If the NPP does choose to adjust its position on China, it has two other options. It either has to become more extreme and argue that the DPP is not actually a pro-Taiwan party or become more moderate and argue against pro-Taiwan positions. If it takes the latter path, it has an obvious ally in Ko Wen-je.


Ko Wen-je is setting up a new party today, the Taiwan People’s Party. He also may or may not be running for president. He also may or may not be cooperating with Terry Gou, who also may or may not be running for president. I’m fairly sure that at least one of them will run. At any rate, we don’t know exactly what it will look like, but there will be a challenge from the center.

Like the NPP, Ko’s most enthusiastic supporters may not want to care very much about the China Cleavage. Ko’s base is disaffected youth who think that both major parties are corrupt and do not represent them. However, there isn’t really a cluster of issues that Ko taps into to bind these voters to him for the long run. Ko, unlike the NPP, was glaringly absent during the debate over marriage equality. When he did speak, it was for the other side. To the extent that Ko has any specific issue, it is that he has paid off lots of government debt. However, I don’t think that his supporters are really motivated by lowering the city debt. I think they are more motivated by his style. They see him as speaking bluntly and plainly. He sometimes says controversial things, but that is ok because it shows that he is not an ordinary, polished (meaning corrupt) establishment politician. So far, Ko has a good record on corruption, and this is also one of his main appeals.  However, corruption is what we call a valence issue: it is unidirectional. Everyone is against corruption, and everyone wants less of it. Being against corruption is like being for a good economy and praising mothers. Enduring parties are founded on positional issues, not valence issues. Someone else has to enthusiastically take the position that you are standing against. If Ko were just a plain-speaking, honest politician, he wouldn’t be very interesting.

However, Ko has also taken a centrist position on the China Cleavage. His One Family discourse effectively stakes out a position somewhere in the muddy middle. Unlike the KMT, he does not explicitly endorse the 92 Consensus or the One China policy. Unlike the DPP, he makes nods toward the notion that China and Taiwan are somehow connected.

Terry Gou has also staked out a relatively centrist position, though his is closer to the KMT than Ko’s. While the KMT drifts to a more extreme position by endorsing a peace treaty and jettisoning ideas such as No unification, No Independence, No War, Gou has shifted toward the center. He has suggested that Ma’s 92 Consensus is too weak, and the critical part is “each side with its own interpretation.” He has also played around with a Two China’s discourse.  Gou is clearer than Ko about the fundamental nature of Taiwan as Chinese. However, both argue that they would do more than the KMT to protect Taiwan’s sovereignty.

This centrist positioning suggests that the Ko/Gou alliance (if one takes shape) might be a viable stance. However, China will have something to say about that. Under Ma Ying-jeou, the KMT’s policy was to engage formally with the PRC to spur economic growth. However, this meant that the KMT had to entice the PRC into the meeting room, and that meant satisfying PRC demands on sovereignty. The 92 Consensus was designed as a formula that would simultaneously satisfy China (“One China”) and reassure the Taiwanese electorate that the KMT wasn’t plunging headlong into unification (“each side with its own interpretation”).  In recent years, the PRC has been increasingly dissatisfied with this formulation, constantly urging the KMT to go one step further. Since the KMT still needs the PRC to enter the meeting rooms, it has been dragged to a more extreme position.

Ko and Gou are effectively ignoring the KMT’s experience and arguing that they can get all the benefit of the 92 Consensus with even less of a concession on sovereignty than even Ma, much less Han, had to make. This is going to be a difficult position to explain to the public during the campaign. I have no idea if China will stay silent, thus helping Ko/Gou by not publicly vetoing their proposal, or feel the need to clarify that it requires more. If either is elected, I suspect they will find their position untenable and will be driven either to the DPP’s position of living without official contact or the KMT’s position of fully endorsing One China and taking concrete steps toward unification (eg: peace treaty) in order to get into the meeting room. As we say in Texas, the only things in the middle of the road are yellow lines and dead armadillos.


The hegemony of the China Cleavage isn’t entirely a bad thing. In fact, Kharis Templeman has made a powerful argument that Taiwan’s successful democracy has been achieved not in spite of the China Cleavage, but precisely because of it. The China Cleavage gives Taiwanese politics structure and stability. You may have a different opinion, but we don’t get to try it a different way. For better or worse, Taiwan’s relationship with China, broadly conceived, will continue to be the most important force in Taiwanese for the foreseeable future.


I wrote this post before watching the rollout of Ko Wen-je’s new party. Let’s just say that it isn’t going well so far.

When news leaked that Ko had registered a party named the Taiwan People’s Party, a name previously used in the 1920s by a group led by Chiang Wei-shui, criticism came quickly. Chiang’s family members publicly and vocally opposed Ko’s use of the name. They think that Ko is taking advantage of Chiang’s good reputation while not representing Chiang’s ideals. DPP surrogates have elaborated on this by contrasting Chiang’s defense of Taiwanese autonomy (“Taiwan is the Taiwanese people’s Taiwan”) with Ko’s ambivalent One Family discourse. Right off the bat, Ko is being defined as wishy washy on China and lacking in core values.

I wondered who would show up as a founding member of the new TPP. I thought maybe Ko would have some high-profile figures from society and maybe even a smattering of defectors from both the blue and green camps. Nope. Almost all of the prominent roles are being filled by officials from the Taipei city government. (Terry Gou and Wang Jin-pyng sent flowers but did not personally attend.)

Today’s other big news is that protests and government/thug crackdowns continue to intensify in Taiwan Hong Kong. Han Kuo-yu gave a pro-China response to the media, expressing hope that the chaos in Hong Kong would end quickly and pointedly refusing to express support for demonstrators or democracy and declining to assign blame to China or the Hong Kong authorities. That was predictable, as the KMT has decided to do whatever it takes to maintain an amicable relationship with the PRC. Ko’s response was more surprising. Ko said that he didn’t know anything about it, and that the protests in Hong Kong had nothing to do with Taiwan. He might as well have covered his eyes, turned his back, and then buried his head in the sand. So maybe that is how Ko intends to deal with China…

At the ceremony, Ko gave a short speech laying out his vision for his new party. He argued that Taiwan has lousy government because the two big parties run the country along ideological lines. What is he for? All the things you want! Good policies, effective governance, human rights, democracy, standing with public opinion, respect for expertise, no corruption, and (I think) economic development. Notice anything missing? That’s right. In this speech laying out the basic ideals of the new party, Ko did not mention sovereignty or China. He completely ignored the question of how he would manage the single most important question facing the country.

I guess Ko doesn’t agree with my thesis in this post. If today’s performance was any indication, he’s going to try to ignore the China Cleavage. At the very least, he’s going to argue that other things are more important. We’ll see how well this argument goes over with the general public. I don’t think he can run for president this way, though maybe his party can win a few (less than five) seats on the party list. Perhaps he is leaving the door open for an alliance with Terry Gou. If Gou is the presidential candidate, he will define the position on China. Still, I expected him to say something vague about protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty and having fruitful relations with China. He couldn’t even manage that.

the KMT primary

July 4, 2019

I started this post last week after the first KMT presidential debate. It was supposed to be a debate summary. However, I don’t seem to have the time to write an exhaustive debate analysis, and I have an important point about polling that I want to throw out there. So I’ll just publish this without much debate analysis.


It’s hard to know where to start with this field since there are so many different angles. I guess I’ll start with Han Kuo-yu. The Kaohsiung mayor has seemingly been in the lead all year. In a previous post, I suggested that Han draws support from three different types of voters: orthodox KMT supporters, the uncommitted and not-very ideological centrist voters, and voters fed up with the establishment from both parties.

The deep blue voters are head over heels for Han. He is a mainlander who came up through the KMT Huang Fu-hsing (military) party branch, so maybe it isn’t all that surprising that they love him so much. I think one thing that is often overlooked with Han is just how orthodox his views about Taiwan and China are. We often think of him as a populist, throwing bombs from the outside. He has offended some KMT insiders, such as former president Ma, but his offenses are stylistic rather than ideological. On policy, his views fit in quite comfortably with standard KMT views. Economically, he wants to develop by integrating Taiwan’s economy into China. This is not fundamentally different from Ma’s policy. Of course, Han packages it differently. He stresses how lower-class people can benefit, such as farmers selling agricultural products or people in the tourist industry catering to Chinese visitors. Ma viewed the problem from a more abstract macroeconomic angle. Nevertheless, they are both pushing similar policy agendas. Han also isn’t really challenging the 92 Consensus, though he doesn’t always phrase his ideas in those terms. In other words, Han is different from someone like Trump. Republicans have to accept some policies they don’t like about Trump (notably trade policy and, to a lesser extent, immigration policy) to get the things they like (taxes, judges, and executive power). They also have to accept his style, which most of them dislike. KMT members don’t have to make any policy compromises with Han. They only have to accept his style, which isn’t nearly as outrageous of a departure as Trump’s. This is a small price to pay for winning. Let’s not forget that Han performed a miracle last year, winning what was widely regarded as an unwinnable race. To put it even more dramatically, after 2016 it looked as if the KMT message was obsolete. To win back power, the KMT was going to have to make some painful changes to some of its most cherished positions. Instead, Han emerged and managed to sell an almost unaltered version of their old-time religion to some of the traditionally hostile voters in the country. Moreover, he created the wave that carried the KMT along with it in many other important races all over the island. “We can win elections without doing anything differently? Sign me up!”

So it makes perfect sense to me that the deep blues adore Han. What is somewhat harder to understand is why he is so attractive outside that group. After all, it is the ability to go beyond deep blue votes that enables him to win (and thus so enthralling to the deep blues). He has been embraced by the KMT local factions in a way that is nearly unthinkable for a mainlander (who speaks only lousy Taiwanese) from the Taipei area who came up through the military party branch. The obvious answer is that he married well. His wife’s (Lee Chia-fen) family is deeply enmeshed in Yunlin factional politics. Her family has held a seat in the county assembly since 1986. Her father had it for three terms, then her brother held it for three terms, and now she is on her third term. Her father started out as a factional opponent of current Yunlin political godfather Chang Jung-wei. In Chang’s first big stab at power, the 1994 Yunlin speaker election, her father supported the other side. (That was a wild affair. Both sides bribed heavily and then took their purchased assembly-elect members on foreign trips to make sure the other side wouldn’t poach them, returning only on the day of the election. About 2000 police surrounded the county assembly so that gangsters wouldn’t be able to physically intimidate the members. The first ballot was tied, and Chang’s opponent won when one of Chang’s votes was ruled invalid because it was (inadvertently or maybe not so inadvertently) splashed with betelnut juice.) Four years later, Chang won the 1998 speaker election. In that election, Lee’s father switched sides, the Lee family has been allied with Chang ever since. There are at least two important consequences of this history. First, Han has been in close contact with local faction politicians for his entire thirty-year marriage. He has learned how to speak their language and be comfortable with their culture. As a family member, he has been trusted and socialized in ways that very few mainlander politicians can claim. In short, he is not an outsider. Second and more specifically, his ties with Chang Jung-wei go back two decades. He is not just a recent ally of convenience. This is a long-term relationship. Chang is one of the most influential faction leaders. If he vouches for Han, it carries some weight. It has been fascinating to watch the local factions switch their allegiance over the past year. A year ago, Wang Jin-pyng and Wu Den-yi were considered the leaders of this part of the KMT. Wang campaigned hard for Han in the mayoral race, bringing the Kaohsiung factions into the fold. Now however, Wang and Wu seem to have lost their leadership positions. All those local factions seem more responsive to Han than to them.

I’m not entirely convinced by the story I just told about Han becoming part of the factional family. I can’t quite explain why, but it just seems too easy to me. I suspect (without any evidence) that something more substantial is going on behind the scenes. Political scientists have traditionally understood local factions as a network of hierarchical patron-client relationships, with the top-level patron as the KMT. The KMT distributed resources to its clients, which they in turn distributed down their networks. However, many of the old sources of goodies, such as the farmers association credit unions, township budgets, and irrigation associations, have dried up. Why has Han emerged as such a powerful leader? The sinister explanation is that he is the connection to a new top-level patron distributing resources. We know that China is trying to penetrate Taiwanese society in exactly this sort of way. Admittedly, I have no evidence for this suspicion, but it seems to me a more convincing explanation of the factions’ sudden rush to embrace such an unlikely figure.

These two pillars of Han’s support, the deep blues and the local factions, are pretty solid. That might seem unexpected, since I just argued that one of the sources of Han’s support is the idea that he can win. One might expect that bad polls would puncture that bubble, and all of his support would evaporate. I do not expect his support to be so tenuous. The deep blue voters have seen him deliver a miracle once, and I suspect they will be reluctant to abandon him without definitive evidence in the form of a losing election. After all, switching to another candidate probably means accepting some (painful) adjustments to China policy. They are all in on him. Likewise, many of the local factions have made serious commitments to the Han campaign; they are also heavily invested in Han. Moreover, there is a big payoff to being a core supporter of a winner. Many will take their chances at that prize rather than becoming peripheral supporters of another candidate who (momentarily) appears to have a slightly higher chance of winning.

Outside these two pillars, however, Han’s position seems to be gradually eroding. His lackluster performance as mayor has hurt him. He doesn’t seem to be able to manage the Kaohsiung city government, so voters might wonder if he is up to the task of overseeing the much more complex and challenging central government. Moreover, at the same time he seems a bit overmatched by the task of governing Kaohsiung, he is grasping at even more power by running for the presidency. Many voters who thought he was a different type of politician may be having second thoughts. He is also hurt whenever he deals with or comments on China. Ordinary voters mostly overlooked his position on China, but they were not happy with his lack of support for the Hong Kong demonstrations or his startling reluctance to criticize One Country Two Systems. Han’s support among ordinary centrist voters – and most are not directly controlled by local factions – seems to be waning. His support among disillusioned voters has probably declined even more. His unfavorable ratings have steadily crept upward over the past six months, and he is now one of the more disliked politicians in Taiwan. He appears to have a high floor and a low ceiling.


When Terry Gou jumped into the race, I expected him to run on a platform of integrating Taiwan’s economy with China’s and sweeping aside any political obstacles (such as disagreements about One China) that might get in the way of that goal. After all, it was widely rumored that Gou had been recruited by former president Ma as a way to block Han from getting the nomination, so it seemed reasonable to expect that Gou would share Ma’s vision. Moreover, as the head of Hon Hai, the largest private employer in China, Gou has a strong incentive to ensure that Taiwan and China enjoy smooth relations.

It hasn’t turned out that way. Gou has positioned himself as a defender of the ROC who is not at all interested in unification. Rather, he has staked out a position in the center of the independence – unification spectrum that might be described as maintaining the status quo indefinitely. The DPP currently also wants to maintain the status quo, but Gou and the DPP have different ideas of what the status quo is. The DPP says that the status quo is de facto independence, while Gou believes that the status quo involves a sovereign ROC that is not an independent Taiwan. In this, he is most similar to Lee Teng-hui’s position in the 1990s.

Upon entering the race, Gou called for two countries. This was probably not a sophisticated and carefully considered position, since he backtracked fairly quickly in face of the outcry from orthodox KMT voices. Rather, it probably reflects a pragmatic business approach in which he has never really had to parse his words with the fanatical precision that politicians do. Gou retreated to a version of the 92 Consensus, but he is not all the way back to Ma Ying-jeou’s 92 Consensus, much less to the slightly more China-friendly version most of the KMT is holding today. During the first presidential debate, Gou flatly stated that the 92 Consensus must be one China, each side with its own interpretation. Moreover, the second part of the formula – each side with its own interpretation – was the more important part of that formula. Without that second clause, Gou insisted that there can be no consensus. If Gou is elected and insists on this, it might effectively torpedo the utility of the 92 Consensus for lubricating official interactions with the PRC since the PRC has doggedly ignored the existence of the second clause. To them, the 92 Consensus is only One China. The KMT has ignored the PRC’s redefinition, waving it away as the PRC’s interpretation. After all, they say, each side has its own interpretation. Gou is suggesting that the 92 Consensus requires the PRC to admit that the ROC interpretation exists and has some degree of legitimacy.

Eric Chu is the third KMT candidate. Chu is professional, respected, has thought through various policy positions, and – unlike Han or Gou — generally ready to be president. KMT voters seem to be uninterested. He continues to lag in a clear third place in almost all polls.

Here are my quick debate impressions of the first two debates. In the first debate (which was the most important, both because it was about sovereignty and because people pay more attention to the first debate), Han seemed nervous. It seemed like he was trying to look and act like what he thought a presidential candidate was supposed to look and act like, but he didn’t know exactly what that was. He spoke in vague and mostly unsatisfying platitudes. The second debate was on social issues, and Han was clearly much more at home. He still didn’t have any concrete policies, but he was quite comfortable complaining about the current state of society. Gou is also clearly an amateur. Neither one of his debate performances inspired much confidence. However, I think he did much better in the next day’s newspapers than on stage. In each debate, he put forward a few ideas that dominated coverage. In the first, it was his statements about the nature of the ROC. At one point, he addressed fears that the PRC would use his company as a hostage by saying he could withdraw from China any time: Who’s afraid of who? In the second debate, he promised to pay all costs for children under the age of six. Chu was polished and prepared; he was the only person who looked anything near presidential. He did well in the first debate, both by subjective impressions and by Google searches. On China, he took a position between Han and Gou, saying that Taiwan’s democracy is non-negotiable and that Taiwan shouldn’t be afraid to offend China by standing up for democracy. The polls don’t show him making much headway, though. There were two minor candidates. Former Taipei county magistrate Chou Hsi-wei is running as the representative from 1982. He promised to unify China under the ROC. In his closing statement, he talked about how wonderful it would be when the country became an international superpower! I was disappointed that he didn’t go all the way and use the old slogan, “unify China under the three principles of the people.” Chang Ya-chung, an extreme unification ideologue, is running as what DPP supporters might call “the surrender candidate.” Chang argues that war would be so horrifyingly catastrophic that Taiwan must do anything to avoid it. Naturally, this means moving quickly toward a political settlement with China. Chang also promised that he would strictly prohibit government officials from openly advocating Taiwan independence. [Note: I am a government employee, so let me just politely say to him, “Fuck off.”]


Let’s go to the polls. Depending on which question you ask, the polls are either wildly different or remarkably consistent. If you are interested in inter-party politics, the polls are all over the place. In the course of two weeks, major polls have shown Tsai way ahead of the field and way behind the other candidates. Ko is either in the high 20s, in or close to first place, or struggling to maintain 20% and clearly in third place. The craziest outlier (at least I think this one is the outlier) is a TVBS poll showing Tsai at 35-37% in the three-way races and 45-50% in head to head matchups with the three KMT contenders. She is at least 8% ahead of her closest competitor in all of those matchups. Remember, TVBS polls usually show a lean to the KMT. TVBS seems to publish at least one head-scratcher every year. I suppose this is evidence that they aren’t herding (adjusting their results to keep them in line with other polling results), which is commendable. In contrast, United Daily News and Apple Daily polls published this week both show Tsai languishing in the low 20s in three-way races and losing all the head-to-head matchups by a considerable margin. The polls are just all over the place, and I have no idea who is ahead and who is trailing.

KMT Tsai Ko DK
Apple 6/19 Han 32.8 27.1 24.3 15.8
Apple 6/19 Gou 27.2 25.4 24.2 23.2
Apple 6/19 Chu 26.8 26.6 25.5 21.1
Apple 6/19 Han 39.1 40.3 20.6
Apple 6/19 Gou 40 32 28
Apple 6/19 Chu (+0.2%) ?
Apple 6/26 Han 33.7 26.7 22.9 16.7
Apple 6/26 Gou 27.3 25.2 21 26.5
Apple 6/26 Chu 26.2 26.6 25.1 22.1
Apple 6/26 Han 38.8 40.6 20.6
Apple 6/26 Gou 36.9 33.8 29.3
Apple 6/26 Chu 35.6 37.3 27.1
Apple 7/3 Han 35.8 24 23.1 17.1
Apple 7/3 Gou 32.5 20.1 21.4 26
Apple 7/3 Chu 29.5 22.8 22.6 25.1
Apple 7/3 Han 42.1 33.9 24
Apple 7/3 Gou 43.8 26.1 30.1
Apple 7/3 Chu 39.3 30.9 29.8
TVBS 6/22 Han 29 37 20 14
TVBS 6/22 Gou 24 35 21 20
TVBS 6/22 Chu 21 36 23 20
TVBS 6/22 Han 36 50 14
TVBS 6/22 Gou 35 45 20
TVBS 6/22 Chu 33 48 19
UDN 7/1 Han 35 22 26 17
UDN 7/1 Gou 31 19 24 26
UDN 7/1 Chu 25 21 28 26
UDN 7/1 Han 43 38 19
UDN 7/1 Gou 45 30 25
UDN 7/1 Chu 42 33 25


However, right now it isn’t that important how Tsai or Ko are doing. The immediate question at hand is the KMT nomination, and the polls are stunningly consistent on the state of that race. Let me state my conclusion first: Han is a prohibitive favorite to win the polling primary and, thus, the KMT nomination.

The single-most important fact is that, in every poll, Han does better than Gou in the three-way race. Forget Tsai and Ko for a minute and just focus on Han and Gou. Han’s support is always 3-5% higher than Gou’s. For example, in the UDN poll, it is irrelevant that Han beats Tsai by 13% while Gou beats her by 12%. What matters is that Han gets 35% and Gou gets 31%, so Han leads Gou by 4%. This is not how we usually look at polls, but this is how the KMT will calculate its interparty question, which accounts for 85% of the KMT’s nomination decision. Again, in five polls with wildly different inter-party outcomes over the past two weeks, Han always beats Gou by a consistent margin of 3-5%. This pattern has also emerged in every other poll I’ve seen over the past month or two, though Han’s lead has sometimes been bigger.

The other 15% of the nomination is determined by an intra-party comparison. Here, Han and Gou are more tightly matched.

Han Gou Chu Chang Chou
Apple 6/19 27.9 25.6 11.4 0.0 1.2
Apple 6/26 29.0 21.4 13.4 0.3 1.0
Apple 7/3 29.6 28.4 12.3 0.4 0.4
TVBS 6/22 27 29 19 0.4 1
UDN 7/1 30 29 15 1 1

This section only accounts for 15% of the total score, so Gou would have to win this question by a huge margin to make up for his deficit in the other section. For example, if Han wins the first section by 3%, Gou would have to win this question by at least 17%. In other words, the first question is decisive, and this one only matters if they are tied in that first question.

This all implies that Han has enjoyed a consistent, though not overwhelming lead. Apple has helpfully calculated the nomination scores based on its poll results. The race has tightened up in the last week, but Han is still clearly in the lead.

Han Gou Chu
Apple 6/19 38.6 32.6 28.8
Apple 6/26 39.7 31.6 28.7
Apple 7/3 37.4 34.3 28.3

Yet I am arguing that Han is a prohibitive favorite to win. There is one more factor to consider. In the DPP polling primary, Tsai had been leading slightly in the final polls, but she ended up with a comfortable victory in the polling primary. Tsai was favored by DPP supporters by about 2 to 1 over Lai. This group was almost certainly overrepresented in the actual results because DPP supporters mobilized themselves. They sat by their phones at home, stayed out of the shower during polling hours, answered unknown numbers instead of ignoring them, and once they answered the phone they didn’t hang up on the pollsters. My guess was that they were over-represented by about 50%, and this expanded Tsai’s margin over Lai from about 2% to about 8%. The same effect will occur in the KMT’s primary. KMT supporters will be much more motivated than everyone else to answer their phones. Moreover, since the KMT is only calling landlines (unlike the DPP which also called cell phones), mobilization to stay home is even more important. This is a big advantage for Han. Most polls don’t publish preferences broken down by party support, but the few results I have seen all tell the same story. KMT supporters overwhelmingly prefer Han. For example, the Apple 6/19 poll published the following:

Chu Han Gou No response
overall 11.4 27.9 25.6 35.1
Pan blue 8.7 52.7 28.0 10.6
Neither 7.9 19.5 23.7 48.9
Pan green 18.1 6.2 26.6 49.1
No response 1.9 9.7 5.3 83.1

Among blue camp supporters, Han crushes Gou by 52.7 to 28.0, roughly 2 to 1. Gou’s support comes mostly from neutral and green respondents. In the general election, that would make Gou a strong candidate; in the polling primary it is a disaster for him. The KMT primary looks eerily like a mirror image of the DPP primary.

The media is making a big deal out of how close this race is. However, I expect Han to win the polling primary by roughly 10%.

Before moving on, I want to pause for a minute to think about an alternate world. What if the KMT had decided to use a head to head matchup with Tsai instead of the three-way race for the (85%) interparty question? Gou does much better in the two-way question; he is usually tied or leading by slim margin. Han’s advantage among blue voters would probably still swing the polling primary his way, but it would not be a sure thing. By choosing the three-way race, the KMT basically rigged the outcome in favor of Han. I used the word “rigged” on purpose, because the KMT has been enthusiastic about applying it to the DPP for exactly the same choice. I’m not sure Gou’s team had any polling experts, but I am damn sure that Han’s team did. They knew exactly what they were doing when they chose this question, and I suspect KMT chair Wu Den-yi and his crew were in on it as well.


The fact that I think Han will cruise to victory does not imply that I think he is the stronger candidate. In fact, I think the data pretty clearly show that the KMT is more likely to win the general election if they nominate Gou. [Note: I am looking at current data. I’m not considering gaffes, international developments, scandals, or anything else that might happen between now and January.]

There are a couple of numbers that I think are significant. First, in the head-to-head races, Gou always does better than Han, relative to Tsai. Let me edit that big table from above:

KMT Tsai DK Margin
Apple 6/19 Han 39.1 40.3 20.6  -1.2
Apple 6/19 Gou 40 32 28  +8.0
Apple 6/26 Han 38.8 40.6 20.6  -1.8
Apple 6/26 Gou 36.9 33.8 29.3  +3.1
Apple 7/3 Han 42.1 33.9 24  +8.2
Apple 7/3 Gou 43.8 26.1 30.1  +17.7
TVBS 6/22 Han 36 50 14  -14
TVBS 6/22 Gou 35 45 20  -10
UDN 7/1 Han 43 38 19  +5
UDN 7/1 Gou 45 30 25  +15

Gou is always 5-10% better than Han. That is a pretty significant difference. The easiest way to see what is happening is to eyeball the difference between the three-way and two-way races. That is, what happens to Ko’s support if he doesn’t run? When Gou (or Chu) is the KMT candidate, about half of Ko’s support goes to the KMT and about half goes to the DPP. However, if Han is the KMT candidate, about two-thirds of Ko’s support goes to Tsai and only one-third goes to Han. I think we are starting to see the effects of Han’s increasingly high disapproval. People who like him absolutely love him, but (the increasing number of) people who don’t like him are fairly unlikely to vote for him.

Another thing to look at in the above table is the “don’t know” column. When Han is in the race, voters mostly know who they will vote for. When Gou is in the race, the number of undecided voters goes up by 6-10%. That is, there are a lot of people who still haven’t made up their minds about Gou.

I believe this is not simply because Gou is a newcomer to politics and unfamiliar to many voters. Rather, this is a direct result of Gou’s positioning on sovereignty. Gou has placed himself much nearer the center of the political spectrum than Tsai, so there are a lot of light blue or neutral voters who are unhappy when Han plays footsie with China and who are intrigued when Gou criticizes the Red Media or One Country, Two Systems. In a general election, Gou can appeal to a much bigger audience that Han (assuming he can hold the deep blues).

To use Donovan Smith’s vivid formulation, Han has a high floor but a low ceiling. In a three-way race in which Ko maintains his support, Han’s high floor might be sufficient or even an advantage. However, if Ko doesn’t run or if his support fades, Han’s low ceiling could be a big problem for the KMT.