The swift downfall of Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu was only the most recent setback for the Kuomintang (KMT) in 2020. After appearing ascendant in the 2018 elections, the party lost both the presidential and parliamentary elections to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in January, and watched on the sidelines as credit for Taiwan’s successful Covid-19 response redounded to the DPP.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Han Kuo-yu during his mayoral campaign in Kaohsiung, 2018.

A poll conducted by the Taiwan Brain Trust in April estimates that less than 10 percent of Taiwanese believe that the KMT best reflects citizens’ personal political ideologies. This sense of crisis is the context for the KMT’s new proposal on the 1992 consensus.

But the proposal doesn’t address the crux of the KMT’s unpopularity: its continuing fixation on cross-strait discourse, while Taiwan has largely moved on.

The background: 1992 consensus

The KMT’s cross-strait policy has in recent years rested on the 1992 consensus, which refers to the idea that there is an understanding between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in which each side acknowledges “one China,” but allows each party to provide its own interpretation of what China refers to.

Though the expression “1992 consensus” was invented well after 1992, the term has currency. The KMT and many Taiwanese believe there was a consensus reached in 1992, and China’s President Xi Jinping calls on Taiwan to adhere to it.


Photo Credit: CNA

China's President Xi Jinping

Upholding the 1992 Consensus was beneficial to the Ma Ying-jeou administration in building ties with Beijing, notably through the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement in 2010. More importantly, claiming the mantle of the 1992 consensus positions the party as the true protector of the constitution of the Republic of China.

The KMT’s proposed change

The 1992 consensus discourse has not aged well, with public opinion largely centered on a Taiwanese identity. Instead, President Tsai has proposed a “Taiwan Consensus,” which may be less historically grounded, but also more reflective of the political beliefs of many Taiwanese.

Seeing the writing on the wall, KMT Chairman Johnny Chiang has repeatedly pledged to reform the party, including a revision of its cross-strait discourse. However, the newest “four pillars” proposed by the party’s Reform Committee does not stray far from the 1992 Consensus; it still perceives the CCP as a friendly partner in building mutual success.


Photo Credit: CNA

KMT Chairman Johnny Chiang, June 19, 2020.

The KMT’s “four pillars” discourse paints a distorted picture of the CCP. In clause two, the KMT not only pushes for a “Cross-Strait Human Rights Agreement,” but hopes that China will “accelerate its implementation of a democratic system,” both of which view the CCP through rose colored glasses. There’s no reason, in 2020, to be optimistic that the CCP will respect the sovereignty of Taiwan in the long term or cooperate in pursuing joint interests, let alone agree to human rights reforms.

The proposal is not the long-awaited revision that centrist KMT supporters were hoping for. While many believe that a hardline anti-China cross-strait discourse is necessary to regain the party’s popularity, the weak reforms reveal how difficult it will be to make this happen.

The KMT will never be able to fully divest itself of its historical attachment to China. Given this disadvantageous position under the current political climate, the KMT needs to choose its battles more wisely. The only way it can do this is by de-emphasizing cross-strait relations.

Great potential as an opposition party if cross-strait discourse can be downplayed

The KMT caucus’s recent press conferences have shown the party easing into its role in the opposition. KMT legislators have astutely highlighted flaws within the DPP’s proposed legislation.

For example, the KMT proposed in April that Covid-19 relief grants should be proportional and issued in cash. This was turned down by the DPP in favor of a more complex program, which was implemented so chaotically that Premier Su Tseng-chang eventually apologized. In this case, the KMT has shown its potential to keep the DPP honest.


Photo Credit: CNA

Premier Su Tseng-chang explaining the government's Covid-19 stimulus, April 22, 2020.

Though KMT Chairman Johnny Chiang has great ambitions to reform the party, the odds are stacked against him. Hard work in the legislature will bring supporters back into the fold, but all kinds of problems remain unaddressed, from pro-unification political forces, populism, to factional divisions within the party.

If the KMT successfully commits to substantive reform by reducing the centrality of cross-strait relations to its self-conception as a party, mass reshuffling, if not an all-out exodus of party members can be expected. The DPP faced its own identity crisis not so long ago, but it was able to rally in time for the elections. The KMT may need to take a page from the DPP’s book, but the KMT does seem to be in worse shape than the DPP was after 2018.

The only certainty is that fixating on cross-strait discourse will not be in the interests of the KMT’s success. The KMT isn’t and shouldn’t be a one-trick pony as the party of China relations, but the proposed reforms only sidestepped the main obstacle.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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