What you need to know
The DPP's recent successes have to do with its branding of its political stars. The KMT should take note.
By Chen Dong-shan
Since the Kuomintang’s (KMT) electoral debacle in Taiwan’s 2020 presidential and legislative elections and the potential recall of Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu, the KMT has sunk into a trough.
By contrast, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) gives off the impression of a deep bench of talent and swelling popular support. All kinds of bright individuals are undergirding Taiwan, overseeing the country’s latest foray onto the world stage. Besides the “Taiwan Miracle” years, when people were flush with cash “from their ankles to their eyes,” Taiwanese people’s faith in their government is perhaps at its historical peak now. It seems almost inevitable that the DPP will hold power for a long time.
What happened? In 2018, the DPP was on the precipice of collapsing. Two years on, it’s reborn and meeting its historical apex.
One of the main causes perhaps is the sudden emergence of many different political luminaries.
DPP is better than KMT at packaging political figures even if they share similar qualities
Whether in the pan-blue or pan-green camp, many of the political figures gained their prominence from ties to local factions or being born into a political family. The pan-green camp, however, is much more skilled at packaging and designing a public figure than the KMT.
Whenever we chat about the pan-green figures, most of them would be labeled so-and-so goddess or male god with a fetching appearance. Or they would be a “genius digital minister” like Audrey Tang, a heroic and capable health minister Chen Shih-chung, and a bright leader defending Taiwan’s autonomy like President Tsai Ing-wen. Every political figure has a clear and powerful “character design” that naturally earns public trust and confidence. Taiwanese may even feel that as long as these heroic figures are in government to shoulder the heavy responsibilities, the average citizen can live comfortably or even stand against China’s oppression.
On the contrary, the figures in the pan-blue camp have extremely vague features. You can’t even name the “characters” clearly. Those few who do have a persona usually have a negative label, including “bumpkin,” “CCP boot-licker,” “below average,” “second-generation politico.” Once they’ve established a negative image, they seem wrong no matter what they say. Their opponents, on the other hand, can only be perfect or even deified. Even if the DPP figures make a mistake, the general opinion leans towards rhetoric like “Don’t take it to heart” or “This can help Taiwan.”
Because of this phenomenon, pan-blue political figures are increasingly unwilling to explain themselves or respond to any attacks. They’re only trying to survive in their own territories instead of challenging the exalted ones of the DPP. Third parties are even less vocal about the ruling party, further minimizing the voices in the pan-blue camp.
KMT lacks a god whereas DPP has a pantheon.
The KMT is actually good at deifying its politicians as well, otherwise there wouldn’t exist the stories like “The little fish swims upstream” (小魚向上游) or “The South China Sea letter written in blood”(南海血書). Both pan-green and pan-blue supporters in Taiwan will always look for a savior figure. The abiding hope is that a wise sage-ruler will appear on the scene to lead everyone into the promised land.
A successful “god” who came out of the blue camp 20 years ago was former President Ma Ying-jeou. But in contrast with the current ruling party’s more oppositional policies toward China, Ma missed his promised economic targets. This goes to show that politicians should avoid throwing around promises that are quantifiable, or they would easily face criticism if they failed to meet their goals.
Recently, one of the rare pan-blue figures to have a clear character arc is Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu. He is adept at winning elections and ginning up an exciting atmosphere, a rare military style orator in the blue camp. However, the lack of refinement led to his expected fall from grace. In the aftermath of Han’s decline, the contrast with the numerous titans under the flag of the current ruling party leaves the godless KMT floundering about, not knowing its next move.
Today, political figures need to fit in with modern trends, using acceptable ways to package and market themselves, especially to youth audiences. If they keep on using the methods from 40 years ago, they would more likely become ridiculed in internet memes.
At the very least, politicians should learn to reconcile the negative labels. For example, politicians who advocate for maintaining a friendly attitude towards China are categorized as people who “bootlick the Communist Party and sell out Taiwan.” This should be the time for the politicians to clarify and argue for the advantages of being friendly with China and why Taiwan should do so. Unfortunately, the public has never seen KMT making any sensible arguments in this vein.
The KMT has finally hired a 30-year-old digital strategist, Chien Ching-yu, the founder of online forum Dcard. He has obviously tried to bring about changes after taking office. Scouting for new faces and creating a few new-age “god-like” political figures would be an important mission for Chien. This is undoubtedly an era that requires marketing and sales, especially in politics. The pan-blue camp is desperate for much more professional digital talent who are good at marketing and shaping someone into a well-liked figure.
However, the KMT consistently thinks that there should be no prominent figures other than the party leader. This has been the case since Chiang Kai-shek’s era, but the KMT’s conservatism has been seriously challenged by a party that keeps racking up its production of “gods.” It’s time for the KMT to review and change its almost century-old thinking and tactics.
This article was originally published in Chinese on The News Lens.
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)
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