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KMT's pro-US pivot on very wobbly foundations

What Americans need to know about Eric Chu's pro-US moves

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KMT chairmanship election poster. (Image from official Hung Hsiu-chu Facebook page)

KMT chairmanship election poster. (Image from official Hung Hsiu-chu Facebook page)

This is part three 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, and part two “When pro-China elements took over the KMT” is here.

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — Predictably, when Kuomintang (KMT) Chair Eric Chu (朱立倫) returned from his trip to the United States to reassure Americans that the KMT has “always” been pro-U.S., anti-Communist and not pro-China, he faced a backlash from the pro-China, pro-unification “deep blue” hardliners. The President of the KMT’s Sun Yat-sen School, Chang Ya-chung (張亞中), was one of the most vocal and high-profile.

After claiming, incorrectly, that Taiwan and the U.S. have not signed any bilateral agreements, and touting the administration of the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) signing 23 agreements with “mainland China,” he went on to describe U.S.-Taiwan ties as a “master-servant relationship.” He described Chu’s trip as “kowtowing in front of the U.S.” and “unworthy.”

Regarding Americans knowledgeable about Taiwan, Chang made one point that is spot on: “But because some people in the KMT stand for cross-strait unification, from the standpoint of the U.S., of course they will favor the Democratic Progressive Party more.” Chang also made a prediction that I also think is entirely possible: “If the 2022 (local) elections don’t go well, then Eric Chu’s trip to America will have just been a personal show.”

What Chang means by this is that after a major election loss, it is customary for the party chair to resign to take responsibility. Chu won the chair position in what I term a major, heavyweight election–which is for a full term.

Usually these full-term elections attract serious, heavyweight candidates who then are generally given considerable sway over the party, though in this case Chu won only with 46% support in a four-way race and has not had the kind of authority an outright majority winner would have. By-elections for chair following a major electoral defeat, by contrast, are viewed as essentially an interim chair and often only attract party middleweights (though heavyweights will be more likely to consider running if the timing is in the runup to a presidential election).

The winners are frequently a consolation prize of sorts, often to the wing of the party that disagreed with the failing electoral strategy. Following the disastrous 2016 national elections, the party elected hardline pro-unificationist Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), who was recently in China praising the genocide there and blaming the U.S. and the West for “smearing” China.

Her choice was a consolation prize for her being the party’s presidential candidate after no one else wanted the job, but then was sacked by the party and replaced mid-campaign (by Eric Chu, incidentally). Similarly, after the last national election landslide loss led by the deep blue Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) in 2020, the party elected the very light blue Johnny Chiang (江啟臣), who argued that Han and the party were alienating young voters by being too close to China.

So what Chang is really saying is that if the election goes badly this year, the party will likely swing hard in the opposite direction from Chu’s push to rebrand the party as pro-U.S., anti-Communist and not pro-China, in this case to the deep blue pro-China camp. It’s too early to say how the election will turn out, and the KMT has some advantages going into it, but because they won in a landslide in 2018, they have an unusually large number of regional governments to defend, which could be difficult.

It’s possible the election may go well enough that Chu survives, and if he goes on to lead the party to a much better showing than in the last two national elections, then his attempt to move the party to this new pro-American, anti-Communist stance may well succeed. However, if I were a betting man, I would not place any hard bets on Chu and his agenda being around next year.

If he falls, the most likely candidates to take his place are mostly far deeper blue. This includes the aforementioned Chang Ya-chung, who led an insurgent campaign in the last election that saw him come in second and deny Chu an outright majority win.

This incoming chair will not likely have the heft and power to accomplish much in changing the party, however. The deep blue Hung Hsiu-chu managed to get the Sun Yat-sen School set up and her buddy Chang installed as president, but otherwise did not leave much long-term impact.

Similarly, though some thought it was a big deal when resolutions proposed by the KMT under Johnny Chiang calling for U.S. military aid in combating aggression by China and a resumption of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Taiwan, both passed unanimously in the Legislative Yuan, it really was not. It was a consolation prize to Chiang by the party for defeating his attempts to drop the 1992 consensus as party policy, and the resolutions were just show.

One thing Chiang did succeed at was preparing to re-open an office in Washington, D.C., though the pandemic slowed his efforts. That’s the office that Eric Chu formally opened on his trip, while also claiming credit for it.

But how pro-China is the party? In Chang’s quote above, notice how he says “some people in the KMT stand for cross-strait unification.”

We’ll look into that in 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.