Dire Straits: Trimming With the Kuomintang

March 17, 2022

It is rare for any bill to pass the Legislative Yuan in Taipei without dissent. Yet when Chiang Chi-chen, incumbent leader of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), proposed two motions during session on October 6, not a single opposing vote was cast. Even the fringe New Power Party, famous for combatting KMT maneuvers, had nothing to say in protest. Both KMT bills suggested deepening the US-Taiwan relationship - the first sought resumption of official diplomatic relations and the second closer cooperation in national defence. The move is a marked departure from party orthodoxy and a strong signal sent by Chiang to Beijing, Washington and - most importantly - the Taiwanese voting public that times are changing. Amidst ever-escalating tensions in the strait, these bills represent a radical policy shift for Taiwan’s mainstream ‘blue’ party and mark potential sea change in the political makeup of the island nation.

Born of the nationalist movement to unify China in the first half of the twentieth century, the KMT fled to Taiwan after their defeat on the mainland, overseeing the 228 purges and subsequent years of ‘white terror’. After democratic transition in 1987, the KMT became Taiwan’s mainstream ‘blue’ voice in parliament against the ‘green’ Democratic Progressive Party (DDP). This ‘blue/green’ divide in Taiwanese politics ostensibly correlates to the ‘left/right’ of Western democracy. Yet the ‘blue/green’ halves of parliament in Taiwan are arranged along a sliding scale of the eternally immediate issue - are you pro or anti-Beijing? The ‘deep blue’ advocate immediate unification with the Chinese mainland and the ‘deep green’ propose an almost total severing of relations. Certainly, the tendency is for older conservative voters to identify ‘blue’ while young liberals tend ‘green.’ Yet the distinction is such that greens can support hawks like John Bolton simply for their anti-PRC position while such blue parties as the KMT have often advocated reductions in military spending, friendly Taiwan-China relations, etc.

Blue Rinse: GMD supporters march through the streets of Taipei. (Source: Initium)
Blue Rinse: GMD supporters march through the streets of Taipei. (Source: Initium)

The KMT have long been ‘light blue’ and advocate strengthening ties with the PRC for reasons economic in theory, but political in practice. Yet Taiwanese voters have flocked to the polls for their balance of conservative Chinese ideology and economic growth: half the democratic Presidents of Taiwan have been KMT candidates. In 2020, the winds changed. This January, Kaohsiung city mayor Han Kuo-yu was the KMT’s candidate running against DPP incumbent Tsai Ing-wen. A populist, he rose to extreme prominence for ‘telling it like it is’ and the slogan ‘let’s make a fortune’ - something that he openly admitted would require reliance on Beijing.

His monumental defeat (57.13-38.61%) was perhaps less shocking than it would have been a few years prior. Every year since 1992, a poll has been carried out to record the political mood and self-identification of the Taiwanese people. This year, support for an immediate declaration of independence hit all-time highs of 27.7%, while desire to reunite with the mainland was at its lowest ever, just 5.7%. Equally, the proportion of respondents who identified as ‘Taiwanese and not Taiwan-Chinese’ broke another record at 67% of all respondees.

Such a fundamental demographic shift is reflective of the broader currents running through domestic and international politics in East Asia. Recent developments - most notably the forcible ratification of Hong Kong’s new national security law - have proven that Xi Jinping’s unflinching ‘one country, two systems’ policy platform is a ‘knife hidden in a smile’. Beijing’s continued challenges to the stats quo are causing not only well-founded fear, but also loathing. From cyber attacks launched by PRC citizens to regular invasions of Taiwanese airspace by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), many Taiwanese fear their way of life may be in mortal danger. James Moriarty, chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan, recently charged the CCP with contravening international law. Beijing, he claimed, have moved on from threatening governments who dare establish Taiwan relations to sanctioning individual hotels, airlines and defence contractors who do business with the island. Considered with the PRC’s steadfast refusal to accept Taiwan as anything but an ‘inseparable part of the motherland,’ cross-strait relations have hit the bottom of a gully deeper than imaginable even 5 years ago.

So it was that when the ‘light-blue’ KMT suggested that Taiwan seek the resumption of official US relations and American help in ‘resisting the CCP,’ it was hardly unexpected. Even Taiwan’s pro-CCP stronghold has to admit that times have changed.

Professor Ch’en Yuchung remarked in an interview that the KMT bills ‘are of greater significance to the party than the world, their symbolic meaning greater than their practical’ - and are unlikely to have much effect on DPP foreign policy. The US remain now as before extremely unlikely to break relations with China in favour of her island cousin and direct military interference in the region will remain at the level of showboating until some great geopolitical earthquake breaks the veneer of peace.

Home Turf: Dutch van Gessel (left) and Robert Parker (centre) meet then Premier Sun Sun Yat-sen. (Souce: amcham.com)
Home Turf: Dutch van Gessel (left) and Robert Parker (centre) meet then Premier Sun Sun Yat-sen. (Souce: amcham.com)

The function of these KMT bills, then, is to send a signal to the voting public. The crushing election defeat earlier this year demonstrated that even the ‘blue’ stronghold in the south of Taiwan is running out of steam. The KMT did not update their policy directive after losing in the 2018 local elections or immediately after January’s crushing loss. This pair of bills are an attempt to repaint the KMT’s public image before the 2022 local elections and beyond into 2024. Chiang Chi-chen has realised the unavoidable necessity of meeting voter opinion if any thread of KMT power is to be maintained. As Ting Shufan told Deutsche Welle, the KMT are ‘an opposition party in clear decline, [they must] draft motions with strong calls to action if they are to recapture people’s attention.’

Chiang Chi-chen’s decision to alter the course of his party and perhaps Taiwanese history has not been without its detractors. Such KMT luminaries as Hung Hsiu-chu have battled with rumours of a policy shift since the election loss in January. Just this month, when the media approached current legislator and former president Ma Ying-jeou, they asked whether the two bills represent KMT approval of a pro-US foreign policy directive. He replied ‘I’m afraid the Kuomintang will not acknowledge such an interpretation’.

In recent years, Tsai Ing-wen’s government have expanded military spending and the national armoury through purchases from Lockheed-Martin and other US defence contractors. These international purchases solidify the DPP’s anti-Beijing stance and lash the Taiwanese economy far closer to Washington, in line with ideology that appears widely popular among voters. As the ‘blue’ is diluted into ‘green,’ and the ‘green’ covers ever more walls of the White House, yet another battle line in Pompeo’s ‘new cold war’ is drawn across the Pacific.

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