Written by Mingke Ma.
Image credit: Flags of the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China by Supreme Dragon, license CC BY-SA 4.0
Surprisingly, competition became fierce after the first Television policy debate on 4th September for the 2021 KMT Party Chairperson Election. The difference in support ratings on the opinion poll for the two leading candidates—former New Taipei City mayor Eric Chu and former KMT chairperson Hung Hsiu-chu’s policy advisor, Professor Chang Ya-chung—had been zigzagging within the error range of 3 per cent (figure 1). After a bitter struggle, Eric Chu won with a historically low share of the vote of every KMT chairperson (45.78%). However, Chang Ya-chung’s surprise win of a 32.59% support rate poses a direct challenge to Eric Chu’s leadership. Indeed, the latter’s existing Cross-Strait vision enjoys favourable conditions to rebuild Cross-Strait relations by uniting consensus inside both the party and within Taiwanese society.
Figure 1: KMT Chairpersons’ Opinion Polls and the Final Electoral Performance
Chang Ya-chung’s Rise
Still, for the KMT presidential nomination in 2019, Chang Ya-chung only achieved a support rate of 3.54%. For Chang’s Chairperson bid, even his ideological comrade Chiu Yi had no faith in the possibility that he could threaten Chu. The latter was expected to acquire an easy victory through squeezing current Chairperson Jonny Chiang’s factional and organisational support by his more seasoned experience on public services and party affairs to channel patron-client networks. However, by growing from 3.54% to 32.59%, Chang achieved this success by providing an alternative and short-tempered framework on Cross-Strait relations during the context of KMT’s total failure on mediating the Cross-Strait deadlock and upholding the ‘party souls.’
Nevertheless, as an alternative to existing ‘One China Different Interpretations’ frameworks, Chang’s ‘Pacify-to-Integrate 和合’ formula builds upon the ‘One China Same Interpretation’ epistemology to bring Cross-Strait relations towards unification. There is, thus, an emphasis on shared historical and cultural understandings of what is meant by ‘Whole China.’ Moreover, this shared understanding will help achieve pacification and Taiwan Strait demilitarisation for swifter integration. Practically, he promised a visit to Beijing to negotiate and sign a drafted Memorandum of Peace. The concepts of Pacify-to-Integrate, One China Same Interpretation, and a Cross-Strait Peace Deal are not unfamiliar to the KMT. In fact, during the 2019 Party Nomination Race, Eric Chu also proposed a Peace Declaration be signed with him and Xi Jinping in Kinmen. However, Chang’s discursive power was enlarged by his lousy criticism of two ex-Chairpersons on their betrayal of Chinese nationhood in relation to the KMT’s values.
On the first television debate, Chang cited Chu’s previous scandals and failures to suggest he is a ‘weak’ candidate and has betrayed the Chinese nationhood of the KMT. Furthermore, he directly confronted Chu about the WikiLeaks files on presenting Chu as an asset of the CIA and his failure to represent the KMT chairperson’s office during an event at Fudan University.
Meanwhile, he criticised Jonny Chiang as mired in ‘the remaining poison of Lee Teng-hui’ since Chiang witnessed the emergence of the de-sinicisation attempts within the KMT when proposals to reform the Chinese Nationalist Party naming and the abolishing of the 1992 consensus emerged. These attacks made Chang’s name trend on Taiwan’s Internet, as figure 2 shows.
Figure 2: Comparisons of Public Interests of Chang Ya-chung, Eric Chu and Vaccination in Taiwan
When the KMT moderates returned to their organisational lines – after Chu’s nervous counter-mobilisations – Chang’s lack of organisational support resulted in him adopting more radical proclamations. Indeed, to consolidate support, we even saw him refusing to nominate the KMT’s presidential candidate: a nominee who does not accept the Pacify-to-Integrate formula. Moreover, when party moderates led Chu to victory, Chang still achieved a solid support base of 32.59%. Hence, Chang’s popularity poses a direct challenge to the KMT. In response, Eric Chu must adopt a firm, recognisable, and realistic Cross-Strait policy framework with a genuine action plan. Or otherwise, it could neither compete against the DPP effectively from the Cross-Strait relations dimension nor protect KMT’s internal cohesion.
Eric Chu’s Cross-Strait Vision: Seek Common Ground While Respecting Differences
Eric Chu has long advocated a ‘Seek a Common Ground while Respecting Differences’ political vision, which hopes the KMT and CPC can move forward from ‘Reserving Differences 存異.’
Chu views the 1992 consensus as the foundational attitude to deal with Cross-Strait relations and Mainland China. To achieve this, Eric Chu requires the KMT to continue accepting the 1992 consensus. Furthermore, it needs to actively repair peaceful communication channels across the Strait to emphasise interactions among civilian forces where culture, religion, sports, economy, trade, city, and academia are the major areas for interaction.
This moderate approach comprises Johnny Chiang’s ‘Taiwan First’ strategy and Chang’s ‘Actively Seeking a Peace Agreement with the Mainland.’ Such an approach could influence localists (本土派) inside the party by asking the CPC to officially admit to constitutional and political differences between the ROC and the PRC. It could also satisfy the moderates in the unificationists (統一派) by implying the KMT is bringing Taiwan and the Mainland closer through civilian interaction projects. However, the prospect of this vision of delivering practical, relational transformation across the Strait still depends on Chu’s outlook on achieving party cohesion and future electoral success.
For the CPC’s Eric Chu is an acceptable candidate due to the familiarity of this vision. Eric Chu initially proposed this ‘Respecting Differences’ vision during a meeting with CPC’s Director of Taiwan Affairs Office, Zhang Zhijun. Meanwhile, this concept also emerges in the highest communications between him and Xi Jinping. The CPC implies its acquiescence with no public condemnation and a swift official congratulations to Chu’s recent electoral victory.
Eric Chu has a high possibility of uniting opinions inside the party. He had proposed the ‘Peace Declaration’ vision in 2019 as well. Moreover, he must explicitly demonstrate his continued willingness for this institutional outcome. He also needs to explain how his vision is more feasible on leading KMT’s electoral victory since rushing towards this end without proper societal consensus building will only lead to backfire.
Future Electoral Outlooks:
Eric Chu justifies his Cross-Strait vision by believing formulating goodwill across the Strait will provide a foundation for KMT’s future electoral victory. Thus, by combing the recent KMT’s public approval rating increase and the decline of satisfaction towards the Tsai administration, this expectation has a positive structural condition to be fulfilled by expanding the KMT’s acceptance base in Taiwan. This can occur through a unified narrative that can navigate Taiwan in overcoming several dilemmas emanating from Cross-Strait relations.
Moreover, this narrative must explain how to institutionalise the overheating economic dependence on the Mainland to protect the grassroots interest of the Taiwanese. It should also explain how to increase Taiwan’s overall economic competitiveness when its traditionally protectionist domestic market structure had rejected liberalisation towards Mainland and became the major obstacle to further its relations with the West.
Moreover, the KMT does not lack a political superstar who has a qualified resume in public service. Hou Yu-ih, Eric Chu, and Lu Shiow-yen are all promising presidential candidates for the KMT. Combining with an inclusive Cross-Strait grand narrative, a KMT administration after 2024 remains possible.
Mingke Ma is a MPhil candidate in Global and Area Studies at the University of Oxford. He is interested in the political economy of Taiwan with a focus on institutions and the Cross-Strait Relations.
This article was published as part of KMT’s Chairman Election special issue.