FEATURE: The KMT’s Long, Slow Road to Reform

FEATURE: The KMT’s Long, Slow Road to Reform

What you need to know

Can a more than 100-year-old dog learn new tricks? A young party official’s take on the future of Taiwan’s Kuomintang.

The Kuomintang (KMT) was hammered in Taiwan’s general election in January, losing the presidency and its long-held majority in the legislature. Despite the historic results, and the hopeful anticipation of political bloodletting among many commentators and presumably pro-reform KMT members, heads have, for the most part, yet to roll.

In its first few months in the opposition, KMT legislators have resorted to filibustering and the party has threatened legal challenges to the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) popular move to investigate the assets the KMT illegally acquired during its decades of at-times brutal authoritarian rule over the nation.

As Taiwanese writer Lee Min-yung (李敏勇) said in the Taipei Times this month, the party has been an “unwilling participant in the process of its own political cleansing.”

At least one KMT politician, however, knows the party’s reaction is bad for business.

Eric Huang (黃裕鈞), 30, is chief of the foreign media and International Affairs sections at the party’s Central Committee. In an interview at Kuomintang headquarters in Taipei, he told The News Lens International that he understands the assets issue is political “baggage.”

“I believe this is a PR, an image issue, more than anything,” he says. “I agree, in terms, of public perception it doesn’t look good for us. I, personally, do believe that they [the DPP] have the moral high ground.”

Possibly torn between toeing the party line and knowing it is on the wrong side of history, he adds that an argument can be made that he DPP has advanced “unconstitutional laws” and acted outside “due process."

Moving back to the middle

At 30, Huang is part of the new generation of KMT members. During the election he was the international spokesperson for former party chair Eric Chu's (朱立倫) failed presidential campaign. Having watched the election result unfold firsthand, Huang puts the loss down to the population’s sentiment over the economy – as opposed to the view that the government was moving Taiwan too close to China.

“It is a matter of fact that KMT lost due to domestic issues. Cross-Strait [relations], not so much,” he says. “People are unhappy with the economy. That is why we were voted out.”

Subsequently, the party is not planning major policy changes.

Huang says the KMT will remain conservative and "center-right," but it will shift its focus to appeal to the middle class and “focus on social justice, welfare and such.”

“We recognize in the past few years, maybe we were too much in favor of big corporations,” he says. “This is something we need to look into.”

He suggests that the 2014 Sunflower Movement – which saw a massive civil society uprising and cemented the party’s demise under then-president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) – tied the country’s economic problems, of stagnant wages and high housing prices, to the KMT’s dealings with China. But he doesn’t see the link enduring.

“These two things might not go together,” he says. “If that is not the case, and we can redeliver our message, saying ‘the KMT is the party for the middle class,’ with the new talent we recruit, I think the message could stick.”

Towards 2018

What needs to change, Huang says, is the people delivering the message. He points to the U.S. presidential campaigns of John Kerry in 2004 and Barrack Obama in 2008. The pair he says had almost the same policy platform, but Obama was the superior “messenger.”

“A different messenger can say things from a different perspective, and maybe that can appeal to the voters more,” he says. “It is very important for the KMT to recruit new blood.”

The party, however, has a reputation for old dinosaurs clinging to power, chewing youthful challengers and spitting them out. Take the case of former spokesperson Yang Wei-chung (楊偉中) who was close to Taiwanese civil society, and expelled for "tarnishing the party's image" after appearing on TV talk shows criticizing the KMT. Or KMT Grassroots Alliance founder Lee Zheng-hao (李正皓), who quit the party after a sex scandal – it is speculated that someone from the KMT leaked the video material to the media.

So, how easy will it be for new faces to emerge, and for the party to shed the "baggage" which continues to alienate it from many Taiwanese?

Huang suggests the picture should be clearer by 2018 – when Taiwan’s next round of local body elections takes place – and he is expecting “new stars” to rise through the party ranks.

“Once they [the older generation] can’t win elections, once they realize they are not on the right side of history, I think it is just a matter of time, fast or slow,” he says. “Once the voices of reform become bigger and louder, I think that will happen naturally.”

Still, Huang, surely a politician in the making, appears to be hedging his bets, perhaps unwilling to go totally against the old-guard, which still holds much of the power at the KMT.

“What happens if all the reformers don’t get elected? What if all the ‘old dogs’ get re-elected? That could be the case.”

After the January election result, Huang says, today someone without a political background has a better chance of succeeding in the KMT than ever before. But that doesn’t mean it is easy to advance through the ranks.

“Is it still difficult? I would say yes,” he says. “Within the party there are opportunities to succeed. But you still have to consider the culture that has existed for such a long time."

“Once you are in here, you still need to practice patience, and you still need to take the opportunity that is offered to you.”

For those looking for the KMT to change, patience, it seems, is a prerequisite. A move to democratize the party selection process – by having the heads of local chapters to be directly elected by local chapters, rather than appointed by the party – has been promised by successive leaders and not yet implemented. After fresh calls for the change to be made, KMT chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) appeared to be delaying the move earlier this month saying she hoped the proposal could be put on hold again “until several necessary complementary measures were completed.”

Playing the internal factions, Huang suggests, is “complicated.”

“People talk about loyalty, people talk about whether you follow the right person.”

Turning ‘blue,’ and the China question

With the overwhelming popularity of the DPP – President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) swept to power winning 56 percent against Chu’s 31 percent – and the emergence of the somewhat youthful New Power Party, questions remain as to from where will the KMT’s new blood emerge.

Huang was born in Taiwan to a traditionally “blue” family, but says that growing up he identified more with the DPP at times. His family was among the millions who fled China for Taiwan with the KMT in 1949, and one of his grandfathers, after retirement, worked for the local KMT chapter in Yonghe, New Taipei City. While the family was “very blue” it wasn’t strongly political, he says.

He received most of his education in Canada and the U.S. before moving back to Taiwan in 2010 and initially working as a reporter for the pro-KMT China Post. He likes to tell a story of how, as a child, he “suffered” while supporting his Taiwanese identity.

“My father thought he needed to correct me [saying], ‘We are Chinese, and we are from China.’”

This, he says, was his first taste of the “identity issues” common between different generations. Despite his father’s stance, Huang says he “felt the difference” between himself and his Chinese classmates and as a “rebellious teenager” for a time “maybe” even identified with the DPP. It was at college at the University of Virginia where, after first “having a reputation” for challenging his classmates on questions of Taiwan’s independence, he “started to realize the international reality.”

“Everything you deal with in Taiwan goes back to this cross-Strait issue. We need to be pragmatic. That is basically our party’s policy platform,” he says.

“What is most important, not only for a person but also for a state, is survival and existence,” he says. “That tells you why I identify with the KMT more than with the DPP.”

Looking to the future, realism, acknowledging China’s global economic importance, and being pragmatic is key, he says.

Huang disagrees with the proposition that under the last KMT-led government, which pushed for closer economic ties with China, that political leverage on Beijing may have been lost. He states that trade dependency on China was actually higher during former DPP president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and believes the KMT actually diversified Taiwan’s economy. China, including Hong Kong and Macau, makes up about 40 percent of the country’s GDP, down from 43 percent under Chen. More importantly, he sees closer economic ties as necessary; China is the world's second-largest economy.

“We don’t just want to see China as a competitor,” he says. “Even without considering the history between us and Beijing, [it] is such a big market. With this flow of capital, passing right next to us, how do you not see it as partner?”

Right now, the best thing is to “survive.”

“Maybe our formula is under the ‘1992 Consensus’ with the ‘one-China’ principle. But in future we believe that anything could be possible,” Huang says of the way the younger generation in the KMT think about cross-Strait relations.

Asked about an end-game between Taipei and Beijing, Huang says that talk of independence and changing Taiwan’s official name from the Republic of China is premature.

“I just don’t see that being possible, without maybe causing a war. Should that be an option? I think most of us are not ready for it yet,” he says. “That is why we don’t use this language officially when we are dealing with Beijing.”

Still, he acknowledges Taiwanese identity has grown in the past 20 years and he believes the longer it goes, the more Taiwan will consolidate.

“That gives us more leverage to deal with our country’s future internationally, or with Beijing,” he says.

“My belief is that time is on our side.”


First Editor: J. Michael Cole
Second Editor: Olivia Yang


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