Like It or Not, the KMT Is No Monolith

Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
Why you need to know

For all its faults, today’s KMT cannot be accused of being a ‘stooge’ of Beijing, as an opinion maker in Hong Kong argued recently.

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In an otherwise well intentioned June 20 editorial in the Hong Kong Economic Journal, Joseph Lian Yizheng (練乙錚), a former editor in chief at the journal, likens Beijing’s “stooges” in Hong Kong to Taiwan’s Kuomintang (KMT).

The author argues that KMT “bigwigs” have many things in common with pro-establishment parties in Hong Kong. “The city’s government and business sector,” he writes, “have come to bear all the hallmarks of today’s Kuomintang in Taiwan when dealing with cross-border affairs.”

The KMT, he writes, has lost the anti-communist essence that distinguished it from its nemesis across the Taiwan Strait. “Today’s KMT is everything other than what it was during patriarch Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) rule, as the KMT historically saw commies as its mortal foes.”

Turning to the business community, and again seeing parallels with developments in Hong Kong, Lian writes that Taiwan’s businesspeople “are rushing to kowtow to those on the other side of the strait.”

“[E]ven the just retired Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is so eager to show that he is still useful to Beijing after leaving office,” he writes, presumably in reference to his attempted, and ultimately failed, visit to Hong Kong last week.

The author then quotes “a KMT whip,” who recently wrote in his blog that “Taiwan must be reunited by the Communist Party and now is the best timing for decisive actions when opportunities present themselves.”

The problems with Lian’s argument will be apparent to anyone who has followed recent political developments in Taiwan. While it is true that there are elements within the KMT and the business community who seemingly have no compunction in dealing with the Chinese Communist Party in a way that could be detrimental to Taiwan, to state that Beijing’s “stooges” in Hong Kong have common attributes with “the KMT” is invidious, to say the least.

For one thing, no doubt the KMT is no longer the anti-communist force that it was under Chiang Kai-shek. Among other things, the party has shelved the silly idea of “retaking the Mainland.” Moreover, dropping the strident anti-communism doesn’t mean that the party has embraced the People’s Republic of China or the repressive political system that prevails there. Quite the contrary; the KMT has localized over the decades and has been transformed by the liberal-democratic ideals that are now inextricably tied to Taiwan’s identity. Yes, today’s KMT is everything other than what it was during patriarch Chiang — and that’s a good thing.

As to the view that Taiwanese businesspeople are “rushing to kowtow” to Beijing, the author seems to be a few years late and furthermore seems to confuse a desire to make money with support for political unification. Those are two very different things, and the majority of the Taishang who have set up business operations in China did so as a means to contribute to building a prosperous Taiwan. Very few among them would wish the PRC’s political system on their families back home; and many of them have also learned the hard way what it’s like to live in China, where many of them are discriminated against, intimidated by local authorities, and often stick with other members of the Taiwanese expatriate community. Lastly, many of them have brought their businesses back home in recent years or, for various reasons, intend to resettle their operations somewhere else in Southeast Asia.

Whether former president Ma wants to demonstrate to Beijing that he is “still useful” to them is anyone’s guess. Mine is that what motivates him is much more a fear of irrelevance after leaving office than a desire to do Beijing’s work. Above all, Ma wants to leave his mark on history and, due to circumstances in Taiwan (the Sunflower Movement among them), was unable to do so while in office. Yes, his Hong Kong gambit was an irritant and likely was planned so as to cause the incoming administration a major headache, but that was Ma the politician unable to keep his vindictiveness in check. These deplorable traits notwithstanding, it’s one hell of a leap to go from that to Ma wanting to be “useful” to Beijing.

Finally, the quote from the KMT “caucus whip.” The KMT member in question is Alex Tsai (蔡正元), who is not, as Lian claims, caucus whip but rather director of the KMT’s Central Policy Committee (although the director used to double as caucus whip, this practice was abandoned earlier this year). Additionally, Tsai didn’t write the comment on his blog; he reposted an article by Liu Yi-hung (劉益宏), a media personality, on Sina Weibo, China’s largest microblogging web site.

More importantly is the fact that Tsai is a clownish figure, an object of entertainment, who not only doesn’t speak on behalf of the KMT, but speaks on both sides of his mouth. If he were so enamored of the party in Beijing, why would he compare President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) to the CCP when he was criticizing her earlier this month after her administration refused to grant former president Ma permission to travel to Hong Kong? Alex Tsai will say just about anything to make headlines, and the strategy (sadly) works. That being said, to consider his views, such as they are, as reflective of “the KMT” is intellectually irresponsible.

For all its faults — and there are many — the KMT is no analogue to the “stooges” in Hong Kong. Rather than being a monolith, it is factionalized and of great diversity, with many voices, particularly in the south, that act as a counterweight to the few remaining dinosaurs who have retained an emotional attachment to China. The plurality of voices that now characterizes the party is cause for optimism. Even under its current chairperson, Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), the KMT faces immense pressure to rejuvenate itself so as to be more competitive in Taiwan’s democratic landscape. It’s only a matter of time before the few who espouse views that are reflected by less than 10% of the population in Taiwan are cast aside and replaced by politicians who are more current in their policies. We should also remember that when Hung was the KMT’s presidential candidate last year, it was her own party that sidelined her because of her “pro Beijing” views, replacing her with the more palatable Eric Chu (朱立倫).

I know what Lian is aiming for, and no doubt his efforts are well intentioned toward Hong Kong, but the parallel with the KMT is an unhelpful one and creates an image of the KMT in Taiwan that simply doesn’t stand scrutiny.

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