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KMT's radical reform plan already faltering, and would Taiwan voters buy it anyway?

Facing an uphill battle to convince the public the KMT is no longer pro-China, it looks like Eric Chu is losing the war

The KMT's Eric Chu and CCP's Xi Jinping meet up in May, 2015. (KMT photo)  

The KMT's Eric Chu and CCP's Xi Jinping meet up in May, 2015. (KMT photo)  

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — According to a “party insider,” Kuomintang (KMT) Chair Eric Chu’s (朱立倫) trip to the U.S. in June was the launch of a plan to replace the party’s old “pro-U.S., peace with China” platform with a new “pro-U.S., love Taiwan” one. On that trip, he emphasized the KMT was “always” pro-U.S., anti-communist and not pro-China.

Chu is hoping to reposition the KMT more in line with mainstream public opinion to take a stronger pro-Taiwan line, and has even started copying some of the Democratic Progressive Party’s language (DPP). I went into the details in this previous column.

The changes proposed are radical for a party that has been oriented more toward China in the last two decades, and Chu got off to a bold start during his trip to the U.S. He even downplayed the "1992 consensus" as a “nonconsensus consensus” and, according to party insiders the plan was to “temporarily shelf” this deeply unpopular made-up construct.

It may have helped, a TPOF poll showed a nearly 4% jump in support for the KMT in late June following his U.S. journey compared to the same May poll. If he can pull off this course correction, he could save a party whose popularity has been sliding for years and stave off the growing Taiwan People’s Party (TPP).

It’s going to be a tough, uphill battle to achieve. First, he needs to get broader support for it in the party by the party’s Aug. 28 convention, but he’s a weak chair beset with controversies and internal opponents, which we examined in this column — and it’s already looking like a battle he’s losing.

Since that column was written, it’s already looking like he may be buckling and partially backtracking, presumably due to internal pressures within the party. That was evident at the first big test for the party, the 14th Straits Forum in Xiamen in China's Fujian Province earlier this month, which is essentially a big Chinese Communist Party (CCP) love-in for pro-unificationists.

Mixed blessings

There, the KMT sent mixed messages. Unlike at last year’s delayed event in December, Chu did not directly do a video address, but instead dispatched his Vice Chair Andrew Hsia (夏立言) to do it instead, which indicates a downgrade.

While the address did include mentioning freedom and democracy, it was full of things the CCP wanted to hear, or would at least find acceptable. Most notably they blamed the DPP for cross-strait tensions, hoped for more cross-strait interactions and underscored the importance of the "1992 consensus" and vowed they were against “Taiwan independence.”

So Chu has buckled on plans to “shelve” the consensus, and still had a party representative address a conference intended to bolster unification with China. They didn’t have to, Chu’s predecessor Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) canceled in 2020.

Another potential sign of backsliding appears in a local account of an interview that Chu gave to American TV channel CBS, though I have been unable to locate the interview in English. Some of it sounded like the new line Chu has been pushing, stating that the KMT stands with free, democratic countries, wanting to boost Taiwan’s national defense to protect the nation, but went on to add that at the same time the KMT wants to continue dialogue to reduce cross-strait conflicts and risks, seek peace and that this was the most important goal.

What was very noticeably missing was any mention of being “anti-communist” and underscoring that the KMT was not pro-China, both of which he’d stated every chance he got during his U.S. trip. Both at the Straits Forum and in this interview, the party did not come across as following the new “pro-U.S., love Taiwan” … but sounded very much closer to the same old “pro-U.S., peace with China” platform with some freedom, democracy and defense tossed in.

Party poopers

It is hardly surprising that he’s backtracked on the "1992 consensus." It was reported during his predecessor’s attempt to ditch it that over 80% of KMT members support it. Party elites, including the still powerful and politically active former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), have opposed Chu’s moves to weaken or remove it.

Chu is well aware that he has to convince voters the party’s stance is much closer to that of the mainstream voter, otherwise they will have no hope of returning to the presidency or regaining the legislature. I previously laid out the difficulties in getting broader support within the KMT, but even if he succeeds in that, he’s got the uphill battle of convincing the public.

Since the 2014 Sunflower Movement, much of the public has grown increasingly suspicious and cynical about the KMT because in the last eight years it essentially hasn’t changed. The DPP internalized the lessons of the Sunflower Movement and reaped the benefits at the ballot box.

To convince the public that the party really has changed, he has to demonstrate that he himself as party leader is sincere, that the majority of the party is behind him and marginalizes opposing voices within the party. All three will be very difficult. It’s theoretically possible, however, as the KMT has reinvented itself in the past.

On being not “pro-China,” or even not for unification, Chu's own record on this will be a problem. In 2015, during his first stint as KMT chair Chu went to visit Chairman Xi Jinping (習近平).

On the record

Among the things he said included his hope to “deepen the 1992 consensus,” “both sides of the Taiwan Strait are one China” and “both sides of the strait share a common destiny.” Last fall, in response to a message from Xi congratulating him on winning the party chair, Chu praised the "1992 consensus" and called for ethnic unity: ““People on both sides of the strait are the descendants of Yan and Huang (i.e. Chinese people).”

Chu’s newfound love of freedom and democracy may also be questioned. In both Chu’s response last fall to Xi and at the Straits Forum earlier in the month, he put the blame for cross-strait tensions and the changing of the status quo entirely on the current popularly elected government of Taiwan, when in fact the problem lies with the Chinese side.

If he does manage to get the party on board at the party conference, or enough support to project an image his party is behind change, he still has to deal with high-profile deep blue pro-unificationists in his party who will not keep quiet in their opposition. Every time one of them speaks publicly about unification and being pro-China, and they certainly will, the press will publicize with dramatic headlines.

Dealing with deep blues

That will undermine the image that the party really has changed. He’s somehow going to have to manage this and marginalize their voices, but he’s in a weak position to do so.

The top figures who are likely to cause him trouble are hard to purge from the party ranks. Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), who recently in a Facebook post described China’s genocide in East Turkestan (Xinjiang) as “anti-terrorism,” is a former party chair and presidential candidate who was ousted mid-race so Chu himself could run.

Then there is the President of the KMT’s Sun Yat-sen School, Chang Ya-chung (張亞中), who was the second place finisher against Chu in the chair race. Kicking out the head of the party’s own school and his rival for chair would look vindictive and petty, and alienate the one-third of the party that voted for him over himself.

Or KMT lawmaker Wu Sz-huai (吳斯懷), a retired lieutenant general. The KMT legislative caucus is small enough already, and he’d risk alienating the powerful veteran’s faction in the party, the Huang Fuhsing.

They would all be hard to remove, but will fight Chu every step of the way and keep the pro-China viewpoint in their wing of the party front-and-center.

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 ( and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce. Twitter: @donovan_smith.