Written by Andrew LaRocca.
Image credit: 徐巧芯/ Facebook.
Caesar, The Planet of the Apes protagonist who incites a rebellion to usher in a new civilization, was recently drawn into the KMT’s internal debates when Taipei City councillor Hsu Chiao-hsin changed her Facebook profile picture to Caesar amidst her escalating battle with senior legislator Fei Hongtai. In the comments, netizens joked: “How many terms can upper leaders serve? How old are those seniors?” Hsu’s Caesar reference reflected a sentiment expressed by many Taiwanese youths: the KMT and its leaders are out of touch with Taiwan’s younger generations.
On cross-strait relations, the KMT’s emphasis on closer political and economic ties with the PRC has alienated large swaths of the Taiwanese public. For example, 84% disagree with the PRC’s conception of the 1992 Consensus, which President Xi Jinping defined as one China with the PRC as the sole representative. In addition, 50% disagreed with the KMT’s interpretation of the 1992 Consensus that the party has embraced as the foundation for cross-strait relations. Taiwan’s rejection of closer ties with the PRC stems not only from a growing trend of people who primarily identify as Taiwanese but also due to the PRC’s political system. The Xi regime’s centralization of power, coercion towards Taiwan, erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy, and abuse of human rights have further alienated a public that views democracy as an inseparable part of its identity.
Despite the PRC’s unpopularity, the KMT has struggled to adjust its cross-strait policy. The dominance of the party’s deep blue factions has fostered the perception that the KMT is a “pro-China” and “pro-unification” party among the Taiwanese public. KMT Vice Chairman Andrew Hsia and former KMT president Ma Ying-jeou’s recent respective trips to the PRC have only reinforced this perception.
Going into the 2024 election, will the KMT’s generational divide on cross-strait relations affect its performance?
The KMT’s Different Factions
One must first examine the party’s different factions to understand why the KMT has struggled to adjust its cross-strait policy. The older generation of KMT members consists of the Mainlander faction that supports the policies of Ma Ying-jeou. They defend the 1992 Consensus as essential towards ensuring cross-strait peace and advancing Taiwan’s economy. Their members identify as Chinese and oppose Taiwanese independence. While they do not seek immediate unification, the mainlanders still dream of eventual reunification. The Huang Fu-hsing faction (黃復興) is a radical subsect of mainlanders that consists of Chinese Civil War veterans and their descendants. While their cross-strait views overlap with the Ma faction, they instead advocate that the PRC and Taiwan are both unified under the ROC government.
On the other hand, the local Taiwanese faction (本土派) represents the younger wing of the KMT. Lee Teng-hui, Wang Jin-pyng, and Johnny Chiang come from this faction. Their members identify as both Taiwanese and Chinese. Although they were not born on the mainland, they still claim Chinese heritage based on their blood origin, culture, history, and legal status as ROC nationals under the ROC constitution. Unlike the mainland faction, which emphasizes the shared Chinese heritage between the mainland and Taiwan, the younger generation holds a more pragmatic, “Taiwan-centric” approach to cross-strait relations. While the mainlander faction primarily serves at the central level, the local faction primarily serves in local governments or in the legislature.
However, these factions both suffer from a similar issue in that most of their members are over 40. Only 3% of KMT party members are younger than 40, making it one of Asia’s oldest political parties. The lack of young and diverse voices makes it easier for the older, pro-China voices of the party to dominate cross-strait discussions. The chart below illustrates the impact of the KMT’s generational divide, as the party’s sentiments towards the PRC significantly differ from those of the broader Taiwanese electorate.
How the Generational Divide Complicates Efforts to Revise Cross-Strait Policy
The dominance of the mainlander faction has undermined KMT efforts to revise its cross-strait policy. When asked to clarify his position on cross-strait relations in March 2020, KMT chair Johnny Chiang explained that his basic principle was to “stick to the values of the ROC’s free and democratic system and strive for cross-strait peace and common well-being,” which notably excluded the 1992 Consensus. Chiang also proposed a new cross-strait policy that adheres to ROC sovereignty; protects freedom, democracy, and human rights; maintains Taiwan’s security and priority; and creates shared prosperity.
Chiang’s redesign occurred against the backdrop of the PRC’s erosion of the “one country, two systems” model in Hong Kong through a national security law. The PRC’s treatment of Hong Kong offered the Taiwanese public a glimpse into what their future could hold under reunification. This incident, coupled with Xi’s equation of the 1992 Consensus as “one country, two systems,” forced the KMT to clarify that they were not advocating for Xi’s definition. However, Chiang’s refusal to support the 1992 Consensus earned swift condemnation from former KMT chairs Ma Ying-jeou, Lien Chan, Hung Hsiu Chu, and Wu Po Hsiung. Due to this pressure, Chiang reluctantly announced the party would retain the 1992 Consensus at the 2020 KMT National Congress.
Attempts by KMT youth organizations to transform the party’s cross-strait policy have also proved unsuccessful. The Grassroots Alliance, which sought to replicate the Sunflower Movement, advocated for radical reforms, such as removing senior leaders to appeal to Taiwanese youth. However, their efforts to combat the influence of older KMT leaders have sparked accusations that they are pan-green. As a result, younger KMT leaders like Hsu Chiao-hsin have argued that young people shouldn’t join the KMT due to its intolerance of younger voices.
Implications for KMT’s Prospect in the 2024 Election
While the KMT is unlikely to revise its cross-strait policy in the 2024 election, its leading candidates, Hou You-Yi and Terry Gou, have tried to portray themselves as peacemakers while deflecting accusations that they are pro-Beijing. Hou, the current frontrunner, has remained vague on cross-strait relations and the 1992 Consensus, instead arguing for peace, practical communication, and the common good. While Hou may be biding time due to the political fallout from Ma’s trip, his current stance is unsustainable. As the party’s standing committee will now choose its future nominees, senior leaders will force Hou to clarify his stance on cross-strait relations and the 1992 Consensus. On the other hand, Terry Gou has argued that the PRC would not go to war with Taiwan if he were president due to his opposition towards Taiwanese independence. Gou has also assailed the DPP for increasing the risk of war through arms purchases.
Despite efforts by Hou and Gou to portray the DPP as a pro-war party, 68.6% of Taiwanese in March 2023 disagreed with this claim. Efforts to promote the KMT as the peace party may not resonate with voters. However, a few trends can benefit the KMT in 2024.
Due to deteriorating cross-strait relations, Taiwanese public perceptions of the US have recently declined. 58.6% of Taiwanese believe the US defends Taiwan due to its own interests at the expense of Taiwan. Across political lines, most Taiwanese also believe that the US is moving towards a “One China, One Taiwan” policy that has worsened stability. The rise in anti-American sentiment, coupled with the disapproval of Tsai’s handling of cross-strait relations, would weaken DPP support due to its promotion of close ties with the US. However, declining support for the US does not translate into greater support for the PRC.
Building off their success in the 2022 local elections, the KMT will attack the DPP for neglecting domestic issues, especially the economy. KMT candidates argue that their ability to develop closer ties with the PRC will benefit Taiwanese businesses and the broader economy. However, as the PRC’s Taiwan Affairs Office has recently echoed KMT talking points on the economy in their criticism of the DPP, Beijing could inadvertently undermine the KMT by tying themselves too closely to the party.
One factor that could undermine the KMT’s election prospects is Ko Wen-Je’s candidacy. Unlike KMT candidates, TPP candidate Ko has disavowed the 1992 Consensus. While promoting Taiwan’s need to bolster its self-defence, he has simultaneously argued for a need to reduce hostilities. Not only can Ko appeal to voters that believe the DPP has put Taiwan on the road to war, but he can also appeal to voters who distrust the PRC and advocate for Taiwan to defend its sovereignty. While Taiwan’s dominant two-party system makes it difficult for Ko to win, he will likely play the role of spoiler and peel votes from the KMT due to his appeal among pan-blue groups.
Given these factors, the outcome of the 2024 election will likely be close. While the KMT may benefit from some broader trends, their ability to achieve victory will come down to whether voters believe they can best maintain the status quo without compromising Taiwan’s sovereignty. As the party’s cross-strait position has remained unchanged since Ma’s presidency, the KMT is betting on whether Ma’s policies present the best approach today, despite the Taiwanese public rejecting it in the last two presidential elections.
Andrew LaRocca is an MA student in East Asian Studies at Stanford University and a 2nd Lt. in the US Air Force. He graduated from the US Air Force Academy in 2022. His views are his only and do not reflect the views of the US Air Force.
This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘KMT primaries battle‘.