The KMT Paradox: The Anti-Communist Party or the 'One China' Party?

The KMT Paradox: The Anti-Communist Party or the 'One China' Party?
Credit: Reuters / TPG
Why you need to know

Chiang Kai-shek once called communism 'a disease of the heart.' Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu now describes Taiwan and China as partners in an 'arranged marriage' who are now 'madly in love.'

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Taiwan appears to be on the brink of what may become a constitutional crisis.

The opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party, buoyed by its success in the nine-in-one elections last November, is suddenly seen as having a decent chance of seizing control of both the Legislative Yuan and the presidency. If it succeeds, then some of its policies could potentially threaten the very sovereignty of Taiwan.

In recent years, the KMT has morphed into being Taiwan’s pro-China party. This reached its zenith on Nov. 7, 2015, shortly before the most recent presidential elections in Taiwan, when the Beijing-friendly KMT president of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), formally met with the leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Xi Jinping.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Ma Ying-jeou (L) shakes hands with Xi Jinping.

The backlash against that meeting and the trade agreement which preceded it in Taiwan was profound. With Ma having reached his term limit, the KMT candidate for the presidency in the elections that took place just two months after the meeting was Eric Chu (朱立倫). Chu was obliterated, winning just 31 percent of the vote and a mere 3.8 million votes. By comparison, in the 2012 election, Ma had secured just under 6.9 million votes for a 51.6 percent share.

The fact that the KMT lost more than 3 million voters in just four years is not exclusively down to that one meeting, of course. But it was, in no small part, down to the party’s pro-China policies, most notably the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) which triggered the 2014 Sunflower Student Movement.

Today’s KMT and the '1992 consensus'

Three years on from its ignominious defeat in the 2016 presidential election, the KMT is continuing to bang the same pro-Beijing drum. KMT Chairman Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) who is in the running to be the party’s Presidential candidate, is now proposing a cross-Strait peace treaty with China.

This would essentially restart communications between the two countries but is expected to be rooted in acceptance of the so-called “1992 consensus” and could possibly even revive the now moribund CSSTA as well.

The 1992 consensus is key to cross-Strait relations at the moment. For anyone not familiar with it, the 1992 consensus refers to a tacit understanding between the KMT and the CCP that both sides of the Strait acknowledge there is “one China” with each side having its own interpretation of what “China” means.

The main problem with the 1992 consensus is that it doesn’t actually exist. The former KMT Mainland Affairs Council chairman Su Chi (蘇起) admitted in 2006 that he made up the term in the year 2000. He has repeated this assertation several times since.

Despite this, the CCP has made it their red line in cross-Strait relations and the refusal of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) to acknowledge it is the main reason Beijing refuses to speak to her government.

Chinese leadership has also proved pretty adept at changing what the term “1992 consensus” means to suit their political aims at any particular time.

In his speech at the turn of the year, Xi Jinping defined the “1992 consensus” as “both sides of the [Taiwan] Strait belonging to one China and being willing to work together to seek national unification.” In other words, the CCP currently sees the 1992 consensus as the start of a road to unification via the so-called ‘one country, two systems” policy.

The KMT interpretation has also varied wildly too and rarely agrees with the CCP definition. Wu said earlier this year that the KMT’s definition of the “1992 consensus” involves the free interpretation of “one China” by either side and rejected Xi’s inclusion of the “one country, two systems” framework as part of the “consensus.”

Eric Chu, who is also a candidate for the KMT nomination this time around, added that “the “1992 consensus” and the “one country, two systems” framework are totally different things.”

But to listen to the KMT speak, it is almost as if this fundamental difference in definition doesn’t matter. Closer ties to Beijing will apparently solve all Taiwan’s economic problems – and that’s what matters most.

In an interview with Bloomberg this February, Chu said: “We will achieve economic prosperity for the whole Chinese nation through cooperation between the two sides across the Taiwan Strait.”

His use of the term “whole Chinese nation” clearly implies unification, although Chu sidestepped a question on whether he preferred eventual unification with China. In a classic political cop-out, he described that as a discussion for future leaders – hardly the inspiring words of an aspiring future leader.

Chu is clearly aware of the controversies that his Beijing-friendly views will provoke. In the same interview, he said, “the KMT’s policy is to be “amicable to Beijing, friendly to Tokyo and close to the U.S.,” while at the same time seeking to establish friendships with South Korea and European nations. He added that “cross-Strait exchanges would ensure peaceful development [of cross-Strait ties], but while we seek peaceful development of cross-strait relations, we must not ignore national security.”

The question of national security is one that too many KMT politicians conveniently overlook in the scramble to ingratiate themselves with Beijing. But it must always be remembered when considering cross-Strait ties that Communist China is the single greatest threat to Taiwan’s national security and there is nothing in their rhetoric of cross-Strait policy to suggest that a peace treaty, or anything short of full unification, will change this.

While the likes of Chu and Wu tip-toe around definitions of the 1992 consensus, most eyes in Taiwan and China are on the KMT’s Trumpian Mayor of Kaohsiung, Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜). He was elected on a stream of rhetoric and promises that even he has since admitted were undeliverable but is now being touted as a likely KMT Presidential candidate.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG

Having steadfastly avoided the issues of cross-Strait relations during his campaign, his maiden speech as mayor-elect suddenly saw him wholeheartedly embracing the “1992 consensus” and calling for closer ties with Communist China. It took the people of Kaohsiung rather by surprise, despite his outspoken support in the past, and Google searches of “1992 consensus” in Kaohsiung went through the roof after his speech.

His enthusiastic support for closer ties with China has culminated in his recent, unannounced meeting with CCP officials during his visit to Hong Kong. He has flatly refused to explain exactly what was said in that meeting, which has raised further questions about his intentions for cross-Strait relations both as mayor and potential KMT presidential candidate. So strong is his pro-China rhetoric that some fear he could go even further than a peace treaty and the CSSTA, and there has been no shortage of questions about the extent of potential CCP involvement in his Kaohsiung campaign.

Reaction to the ‘peace treaty’ proposal

The idea of a peace treaty with China has, inevitably, provoked strong feelings on both sides of the cross-Strait issue and among experts too.

Those on the KMT side who favor closer ties with China feel such a treaty is necessary to undo the damage caused by the policies of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration of President Tsai. Those opposed say Taiwan is thriving under the current administration’s New Southbound Policy, which seeks to build ties with South and Southeast Asian nations and lesson Taiwan’s dependence on China. They also question how you can sign a peace treaty with a country which continues to threaten to annex you by force and which is creating all the hostility, aggression, and provocation which is unending the cross-Strait status-quo.

Jonathan Sullivan, Director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, was cited by the Chinese-language NewTalk as saying Taiwanese voters will not think that ‘one country, two systems’ is attractive. “Taiwan is not a colony like Hong Kong,” he said. “To accept ‘one country, two systems’ will have a negative impact on Taiwan.”

Such sentiments reflect the thoughts of the majority of Taiwanese people, according to most independent polling. However, as with all cross-Strait issues, feelings are strong on both sides.

The stage appears to be set for a presidential election in 2020 which will effectively serve as a referendum on Taiwan’s future relations with China with a pro-China KMT candidate squaring up against a pro-Taiwan DPP nominee. Other issues will play a role of course, but the chances are that it is relations with China that will be at the top of the political agenda.

But how has Taiwan managed to maneuver itself into the position where its elections are now defined largely by voters’ views on the country’s relations with China?

Taiwan’s current party political divide

It is fairly obvious why the DPP is seen as Taiwan’s pro-independence party. They grew out of Taiwan’s long battle to escape the KMT’s military dictatorship and establish the country as a free and democratic state. It would be unthinkable for them, having battled so hard for the freedoms Taiwan now enjoys, to advocate handing their country over to an authoritarian Communist dictatorship.

In fact, under the leadership of President Tsai, the DPP have truly become the party of the status quo. There are plenty in her own ranks who would like to see her taking a more pro-independence stance but the reality is that it is only her refusal to acknowledge the debunked 1992 consensus which is giving China an excuse to undermine her.

But rather more intriguing is how the KMT has ended up where it is today. How did the party of Chiang Kai-shek(蔣介石), which fought tooth and nail against Communism during the Chinese Civil War end up taking what appears to be a complete volte-face to effectively now be advocating handing Taiwan over to Communist Party rule?

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Credit: AP / TPG
Chiang Kai-shek, pictured in 1937.
From Chiang to Ma: The KMT’s political journey on relations with the CCP

For decades, while Taiwan (as the Republic of China) was under the KMT dictatorship of Chiang and his successors, the idea of unification with Communist China was inconceivable.

Chiang spent the majority of his adult life fighting Communism either as the leader of the KMT during the Civil War in China or as the head of state of the Republic of China (ROC) leading the Chinese government in exile in Taiwan. He was unequivocal that the ROC should never submit to the will of the CCP.

Chiang described Communism as “a disease of the heart” and wrote that it was a “fake philosophy which uses lies top penetrate people’s mindset. It uses violent, cruel and inhuman treatment to strip people of their freedoms with the aim of controlling the entire world.” He went on to describe it as a “false religion” and a sort of “despicable idolatry.” It was a stance that was also maintained by his successors.

Chiang also regularly expressed a desire to move the Republic of China onto a democratic footing, despite never getting close to it in his lifetime.

However, while Chiang and the KMT of old would never have countenanced peace with the CCP, he did still see the Republic of China that he ruled as being part of China. He firmly believed that they were the rightful government of China and one day would return to China to take back what was rightfully theirs.

At that time, the ROC government was recognized by the international community as being the legitimate government of China. It was not until the 1970s that the Communist regime began to be recognized as the Chinese government by the rest of the world.

During Chiang’s rule, while the Communist Party never looked like relinquishing its grip on control of China, it was by no means the powerful international force that it is today. With the Cold War pitting the west against Communism, it was far from inconceivable that the CCP could one day fall.

Times change

This ambition was therefore not the outright fantasy it is today. But geopolitical realities change quickly and even the most ardent of “one China” supports today would accept that the government in Taipei is never going to take back control of China.

However, Taiwan has changed as well. In Chiang’s time, most of the people on Taiwan had fled from China and yearned to return to their homes. Today, the vast majority of people in Taiwan were born and raised in Taiwan and their links to China are cultural and ancestral rather than direct. Taiwan is a fundamentally different country to China. Their relations are akin to the similarities between the USA and the UK. One country occupied the other for a while, they speak the same language and share many cultural similarities, but they are very different countries.

Most people would accept this change. But not the CCP or the KMT. Their largely elderly membership and support base still retain the ambition to be part of China again. But this creates a big paradox within the party. These days, the only way to get back to China is go against everything the KMT of Chiang Kai-shek fought for and believed in and make peace with the Communist Party.

To outsiders, this looks like a betrayal of their forefathers. But within the KMT ranks, they appear to have long since made peace with the paradox. “One China” has been deemed more important than the KMT’s historic opposition to the Chinese Communist Party.

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Credit: AP / TPG
Han Kuo-yu waves to the media in Hong Kong on Mar. 22, 2019.
Why the KMT volte-face on the CCP?

Why has this conclusion been reached? Perhaps their look on enviously at the power China wields in the world. Perhaps they see China’s great wealth, rather than the abject poverty many of its people still live in, and greed overtakes all else. Perhaps they have simply made peace with the reality that the KMT lost the Civil War and that China belongs to the Communists now.

Whatever the motivation, the KMTs policies have over the past 20 years morphed seamlessly from outright opposition to the Chinese Communist Party to a desire to at least make peace with them and perhaps even more. The party has apparently reached the conclusion that the “one China” objective matters more than opposition to the CCP.

The majority of Taiwanese people do not share either their views of their ambition. But many in Taiwan are susceptible to the politics of emotion as Han Kuo-yu proved so powerfully by snatching the former DPP stronghold of Kaohsiung in November 2018.

To advocate going down the path of a peace treaty, “one country, two systems,” and eventual unification would big step into the unknown for a party that has always craved control. It would be a big vote loser with many people which is why more canny politicians like Wu treat the subject so carefully.

But he appears to be increasingly in the minority within his own party and those in the KMT party who are strongly advocating the so-called 1992 consensus and eventual unification with Communist China really should take a step back and think about what their predecessors and especially Chiang Kai-shek would have thought.

Would the Chiang who fought Communism with every fiber of his being and supported the democratization of the Republic of China really want modern Taiwan to be handed over to the CCP as the KMT are currently effectively pushing for? I, for one, severely doubt it.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The News Lens.

Read Next: OPINION: The False Promise of a Taiwan-China Cross-Strait Peace Treaty

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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