Ahead of chair election, a critical moment for Taiwan’s KMT

Foreign Affairs

Taiwan's main opposition party is electing a new chairperson on Saturday. Incumbent Johnny Chiang and former chairman Eric Chu are the frontrunners, but keep an eye on Chang Ya-chung, who favors reunification with China.

Four candidates for chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in Taiwan: Eric Chu, Chang Ya-chung, Johnny Chiang, and Cho Po-yuan

On Saturday, the 390,000 members of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) will choose their next party chairman. This election is crucial for the future of Taiwan’s oldest party. The new chairman will not only lead the party through the 2022 midterms, but also oversee the 2024 presidential and legislative elections, a key chance to prove the KMT’s relevance to contemporary Taiwanese politics and reorient the cross-strait relationship.

Four candidates have entered the race: current interim chairman Johnny Chiang (江启臣 Jiāng Qǐchén), 2016 presidential candidate Eric Chu (朱立伦 Zhū Lìlún), former Changhua County magistrate Cho Po-yuan (卓伯源 Zhuō Bóyuán), and head of the Sun Yat-sen School Chang Ya-chung (张亚中 Zhāng Yàzhōng).

The election comes at a difficult time for the KMT. After a stunning loss in the 2020 presidential elections, the party has failed to improve its standing. Additionally, with only 3% of party members under the age of 40, its future is in peril. Over the past year, the party has used various issues, including unpopular meat imports from the U.S. and a shortage of COVID vaccines, to attack the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文 Cài Yīngwén) government and ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). But according to polling from My Formosa, the KMT has failed to capitalize on the government’s failures. Tsai and the DPP’s approval have mostly returned to their positions before May, when the pandemic worsened. Most shockingly, the KMT’s approval has slightly declined since mid-May, even as the government was facing criticism over its response.

A confused party and ghosts of China past

The KMT has been trying to change. In 2015, months before the 2016 presidential election, an emergency party congress replaced then-candidate and party chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱 Hóng Xiùzhù) with the more moderate Eric Chu. Because of her views favoring unification and a closer relationship with China, Hung was seen as an extremist who would alienate voters. After its defeat in 2020, the party elected Johnny Chiang as its interim chairman, with the hope that his relative youth would inject fresh blood and ideas to the party, re-sparking a process to make the KMT “Taiwanese.”

It was with this backdrop that the KMT hoped to have a peaceful chairman election. The 2020 Party Chairman Election Candidate Agreement sought to limit personal attacks and construct a process that focused on policy. According to Kharis Templeman, a researcher at Stanford, most believed that the race would center on Chiang, who is perceived as a reformer, and Chu, an establishment moderate with a long career.

Everything changed after the first debate on September 4. It was there that Chang Ya-chung forced his way into the race. His direct and passionate speech played well on screen. He lambasted the party for being weak and straying from its Chinese nationalist roots. Chang directly criticized both Chiang and Chu, who have both served as chairman, saying that they shared responsibility for the decline of the party.

While both Chiang and Chu held that economic and social exchanges would have to act as the foundation of the cross-strait relationship, Chang emphasized that he would immediately look to organize direct talks with Beijing, creating a new peace agreement between the two sides. The agreement would act as a basis for the 2024 presidential election campaign, making choosing between the KMT and DPP a choice between “peace or war.” His message was clear: “save the party, save the country, save the cross-strait relationship,” and that “Taiwanese people are Chinese people.”

“Save the party, save the country, save the cross-strait relationship.”
—Chang Ya-chung

Chang is a figure who has worked for much of his life toward reunification. He was a founding member of the Democratic Action Alliance (民主行动联盟 mínzhǔ xíngdòng liánméng), an anti-DPP and pro-unification organization. He was also appointed by Hung Hsiu-chu to head the Sun Yat-sen School, an institution formed in 2016 to encourage the study of Sun Yat-sen’s philosophy and reunification.

Talk about Chang began to grow after the debate. A TVBS poll conducted from September 9 to 13 found him leading at 30.8%, with Chu closely behind. Chiang, who was seen as a frontrunner, polled around 10%. Cho Po-yuan faded into obscurity, polling below 3 percent. Talk of “abandoning Chiang, protecting Chu” buzzed in the media. Though the polling quality was shaky, the election had turned into a two-way race between the firebrand Chang and institutionalist Chu.

Chang is “supplying a position there’s a lot of demand for,” says Templeman, the Stanford researcher. “The KMT is stuck between a fundamentalist wing, which identifies as Chinese, and a pragmatist wing,” with Chang’s supporters belonging to the former. They are disproportionately first- and second-generation wàishěngrén (外省人), people who came from the mainland after 1949. Waishengren identify as Chinese or Chinese and Taiwanese, but live in a society that mostly rejects Chinese identity.

According to a KMT city council member who chose to speak anonymously, while the other candidates support an appeal to Taiwanese identity, Chang instead rejects this, connecting with the experiences of these people. “These people are tired of the deceptions of the Tsai government, its dictatorship, of being weak and powerless,” says the councillor. It is in Chang that they find their voice.

In search of consensus

After identifying Chang as his main challenger, Chu responded strongly. He cautioned the party from walking a path of extremism, a direct allusion to Chang’s China policies, warning that it would cause the annihilation of the party. He specifically criticized Chang’s “One China, Three Constitutions (一中三宪 yī zhòng sān xiàn)” policy, an adaptation of One Country, Two Systems (一国两制 yī guó liǎng zhì), as an abandonment of “Taiwan’s integral nature” to the Republic of China. To Chu, Chang believes in “red unification (红统 hóng tǒng), which is unthinkable.

The party also began to organize against Chang. On September 13, he was referred to the KMT’s Inspection and Discipline Committee for violating the election agreement by attacking his opponents. As a result, all candidate debates were temporarily suspended, and Chang could have had his candidacy vacated. After an outcry from the other candidates and important KMT figures, the case was dropped, but to Chang the message was clear. “They saw the direction of the wind was wrong before saying anything,” he said.

To Eric Chu, the KMT can’t become a “small green or small red,” referring to the DPP and CCP, respectively.

The two frontrunners also diverge on the role of the U.S. At a debate on September 19, Chang said that he would treat the U.S. “fairly,” though proceeded to criticize American officials for forcing Taiwan to buy expensive weapons. Chang believes that the DPP’s increasing investment in Taiwan’s national defense, including purchasing weapons from the U.S., increases the likelihood of conflict with China. In a Global Times article published in August, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) nationalist tabloid, Chang was quoted as saying that like Afghanistan, “the US may choose to abandon the island at any time according to its own core interests.”

Chu, an institutionalist who has previously been in contact with U.S. officials, has maintained a more moderate position. In a September 19 debate, he said that relations with the U.S. are “as important as relations with China.” He aims to re-establish a KMT office in the U.S. focused on combating a “Washington permeated with the DPP’s narrative.” To Chu, the KMT can’t become a “small green or small red,” referring to the DPP and CCP, respectively.

For Templeman, the researcher at Stanford, this reveals that “the KMT doesn’t understand the U.S.’s position toward Taiwan has changed.” Templeman believes that the Taiwanese society at large sees the cross-strait relationship as consisting of three parties, including the U.S., something the KMT doesn’t recognize. As a result, the debate over relations with the U.S. shows that the party “increasingly seems out of touch.”

Reconciling the irreconcilable

The unnamed KMT council member says that the “center of the KMT’s policy must be peace in the Taiwan Strait.” This isn’t possible without winning national elections, which involves appealing to younger voters, who have been “brainwashed into opposing China” by the DPP. That requires a practical KMT willing to encourage interactions with China but also wary of being labeled as “selling Taiwan.” Chang’s contributions to debate within the party are important.

But she says that because of Chu’s connections with the U.S. and executive experience, he is the most likely to return the KMT to power. Most KMT officials agree. On September 23, 29 KMT members of the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament, met with Chu to show their support for his candidacy.

Templeman, the Stanford researcher, sees it differently. He says the KMT “lives in an alternate reality where the China across the strait is more of an opportunity than a threat.” The fact that Chang is seen as a viable candidate is evidence of this, considering “it would be a disaster” for the party if he wins, delaying the day it must reckon with Taiwanese national identity.

A recent poll commissioned by the KMT showed Chu in the lead among KMT-leaning voters, with 46% believing him to be the best option for party chairman and only 18% favoring Chang. Still, Templeman says that because his supporters tend to be more reliable, and the polling has been flimsy, Chang still has a path to victory.

The KMT council member agrees. Though she sees Chu as the best option for the party, the idea of reconciliation with China, and even eventual reunification, is not as far-fetched to party members as it may be to outside observers. “We are like relatives that often fight. If the Northern Song and Southern Song were able to reconcile after 300 years, why can’t China and Taiwan?”

UPDATE: Eric Chu won the election with 46 percent of the vote, while Chang finished second with 33 percent.