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When pro-China elements took over the KMT

What Americans need to know about Eric Chu and his claim the KMT has always been pro-US and not pro-China

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Former President Ma Ying-jeou meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore in 2015. (Presidential Office photo)

Former President Ma Ying-jeou meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore in 2015. (Presidential Office photo)

This is part two in a series on what Americans need to know about the KMT following Eric Chu’s visit and the re-opening of the KMT Washington office. Part one “What Americans need to know about KMT past” is here.

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — The Kuomintang (KMT) under chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫) has just finished a charm offensive in the United States where he reopened the party’s representative office in Washington D.C. He was at great pains to emphasize that the KMT has “always” been pro-U.S., anti-Communist and is not a pro-China party, claiming that was a false label applied to the party by Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

However, while Chu was in America, former KMT Chair Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) was in China defending genocide committed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and was quoted in China’s Xinhua News Agency as saying: “All kinds of facts have shown that accusations against China's Xinjiang fabricated by the United States and some other Western countries are totally smearing.”

This is a jarring disconnect in messaging by the current and former KMT party chairs. It underscores the reality that the KMT isn’t as pro-U.S. and anti-Communist as Chu insists: The reality is more complicated.

The previous column in this series explored how the party evolved in its early years, its past relationship with China, and the sometimes choppy relationship with the U.S. It noted, however, that up until the end of the 1990s, Chu’s description would have been a broadly accurate portrayal of the KMT’s stance.

This began to change after the party lost the executive branch of government to the DPP between 2000 and 2008. This shock to the party that had held power in Taiwan for 55 years caused considerable introspection and gave many previously employed KMT officials time to visit China, often setting up businesses there or visiting family members who were already there.

The China they found wasn’t the communist dystopia of the Mao Zedong (毛澤東) era. In fact, it was very similar to the Taiwan they had grown up in: Authoritarian, nationalistic, with a large corrupt state sector but also boosting a booming private sector with plenty of opportunities.

It is in this period that some significant pro-China elements began to arise in the KMT.

Follow the money

For some, it was all about money, which led to the rise of the "comprador" class in the party. Business people heavily invested in China (taishang, 台商) naturally wanted better ties across the Taiwan Strait, and they made their presence felt in the party, often including KMT figures in their business dealings. Smaller numbers of taishang existed in the more nativistic DPP, and they generally had far less influence.

The taishang and the compradors made a practical and economic case, which the KMT soon adopted and used in elections right up to the 2020 race: That opening up economically to China would cause the local economy to boom. As the KMT presidential candidate put it in 2020, everyone would “get rich.”

With wages having stagnated since 2000, it was a case that appealed to many voters. After years of a booming economy and ever-increasing wages, there was a sense that Taiwan had lost its economic way.

There were many in the KMT, often from families exiled from China after the civil war, who became pro-China for ideological reasons. These people, who self-identify as Chinese and hold a "Chinese chauvinist" (大漢族主義) worldview, take the restoration of China to the status of world power as natural, inevitable, and to be strived for.

For those born to this ideology, the rise of the pro-Taiwan DPP was seen as potentially a threat, and a betrayal of the ROC (Republic of China, aka Taiwan). DPP actions like de-emphasizing Chinese history in schools, prioritizing local history, reviving local languages, and dismantling elements and symbols of the KMT authoritarian party-state era were genuinely frightening to those believers.

Many discovered their own children were starting to identify as Taiwanese only, rejecting a Chinese identity. To the true believers, the threat of the “separatist” DPP was now viewed as worse than contemplating the once-unthinkable possibility of working with the CCP.

Enter the taishang

This striking shift in attitude toward China and the CCP came over the party fairly swiftly. It was far from uniform, however, and some remained wary of Taiwan’s giant neighbor.

Within the growing pro-China elements in the party, the range of opinions was wide. For the most part, the main objectives of the taishang were practical and centered around improving ties to allow for greater economic access, not necessarily with any greater political vision.

For the ideologues, however, there was a wide range of opinions, from attempting to work out some sort of confederation agreement, signing a peace treaty to normalize relations, or even joining the People’s Republic — though that last group was small and considered radical, even for the KMT. The majority wanted to retain some independence or at least autonomy for Taiwan, at least until China became more free and democratic.

In spite of this marked shift, the KMT still remained broadly pro-U.S. Many of the top leaders were educated in the States, and many had children with American citizenship.

Additionally, the taishang were often manufacturers who exported products made in China to the United States, and the ideologues saw little reason to spoil a good relationship. Some even touted a role for the KMT or Taiwan in general as a bridge between the U.S. and China.

In March 2005, a KMT vice chair led the first party delegation to China in over 60 years. This was followed in April by a 70-member delegation led by then KMT Chair Lien Chan (連戰), which included a meeting with the then CCP General-Secretary and national leader Hu Jintao (胡錦濤).

No, no, no ...

Campaigning on rosy economic predictions following a resumption of dialogue with China, the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) won the presidency in 2008. To placate concerns among the wider public, he also announced a “three noes policy” of “no unification, no independence, and no use of force” as well as talking up his love for Taiwan.

Ma scored some successes in his first term, including opening up direct flights between China and Taiwan that had been frozen since the civil war, and signing the Cross-Strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). In 2012, he won re-election, defeating future president Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the DPP.

The U.S. supported Ma and his dialogue with China. During the 2000-2008 period, the U.S. considered Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) administration to be “troublemakers” causing headaches in the U.S.-China relationship.

At the time, U.S. foreign policy establishment thinking was aligned with the taishang, having a rosy view of China’s future liberalization and a keen interest in boosting trade ties to get in on the huge Chinese economy. Former officials openly cast doubt on Tsai during the campaign, which was widely interpreted as the U.S. stance being delivered by proxy, so as not to be seen as officially interfering in the election.

As his second term wore on, however, the public — and even some in the KMT — began to grow suspicious that Ma was laying the groundwork for eventual unification with China. Defense spending steadily declined to below 2% of GDP, even as China’s skyrocketed, and conscription was cut from one year to a nearly useless four months.

Sunflowers

The hoped-for economic boom from opening to China didn’t materialize and wages continued to stagnate. Ma’s popularity plunged, famously in one poll to 9%.

In 2014, just after the KMT attempted to ram through an expanded trade agreement bill with China that many feared would hollow out Taiwan’s economy, a group of activists stormed and occupied the legislature. Hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets in a massive show of support for what became known as the Sunflower Movement.

Public distrust of the KMT as being too pro-China has continued to this day, with the party losing two national elections in a row by landslides. Opinion polling consistently has the party between 15-20% support, far short of the DPP and sometimes even falling into third place behind the new Taiwan People’s Party (TPP).

This has set off an internal struggle in the party between those who want to move closer to the mainstream of public opinion and embrace a more pro-Taiwan, anti-CCP and pro-U.S. stance, and those who continue to want to move closer to China.

So, how pro-China is the KMT today? That is the subject of the next column.

Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT FM100 Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report (report.tw) and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce.