It’s election season in Taiwan once again, as millions of its citizens prepare to elect an astounding 11,300 local officials nationwide on Nov. 29, in what will be the largest election in the country’s history. With the prospects for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) of retaining control of the historically “blue” capital of Taipei looking grimmer by the week, familiar voices in the pan-blue camp have resorted to inflammatory rhetoric that, besides damaging their candidate’s chances, has shown just how out of touch they are with contemporary Taiwan.
Of course the blue camp has only itself to blame for the situation in Taipei. Sean Lien, the KMT candidate, has run a lackluster campaign in which blunders have been far more frequent than policy proposals and where personal attacks against his principal opponent, independent Ko Wen-je, have set the tone for the entire exercise. With a little more than a week left before the elections, Lien, the son of former KMT chairman Lien Chan, is trailing Ko, a surgeon-turned-politician, by about 13 points. Over several weeks of intense campaigning, every form of attack against Ko — wiretaps, accusations of corruption, of transplanting organs taken from Falun Gong practitioners, of abusing hospital staff, of having a secret contract with the opposition Democratic Progressive Party — has failed. Using wit, humor and, most importantly, evidence, Ko has deflected the volleys and succeeded in keeping the moral high ground, which has had great appeal among young voters and the 20 percent or so of voters who fall in the “undecided” category.
Ko’s most formidable weapon is also what has the KMT in a panic: a complete novice, he is not the sort of typical politician who will fight the KMT symmetrically. While having received the tacit support of the green camp, Ko, whose frugal lifestyle couldn’t contrast more with the Liens’ excessive wealth, has eschewed “color” politics (his chosen color is white, or the combination of all colors). Ko has positioned himself as a member of a civic resurgence, the origins of which can be traced back to the Sunflower Movement in the spring, or perhaps even the Citizen 1985 movement of 2013 which held large-scale protests over the mistreatment of conscripts in the military. Ko is therefore both the manifestation, if you will, of the mounting popular discontent with the island’s politicians, and a symbol of a possible alternative to a blue-versus-green system that is seen to be failing its people.
Just as the Ma Ying-jeou administration was incapable of meeting the Sunflowers on their ground, the KMT forces that have rallied around Lien have also struggled to find something that might work. With each new attempt failing, the Lien camp’s rhetoric — now in the hands of the KMT old guard — has become increasingly nasty. If those eleventh-hour interventions teach us anything, it is that the KMT will be unable to present itself as a party for the future of Taiwan as long as the dinosaurs continue to have sway over it. In fact this past week, many young commentators in Taiwan have observed that the recent remarks from the blue camp felt like Taiwan was back in the late 1940s, when the KMT, defeated by Mao Zedong’s communists in China, fled to Taiwan and launched its campaign of white terror against the local population
Three individuals with a long history of involvement in the KMT have come to the fore in the past week to help the struggling Lien: Hau Pei-tsun, 95, former premier and minister of national defense, and father of Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin; Lien Chan, 78, former vice president and KMT chairman, and father of Sean Lien; and Fang Yu, 71, spouse of Lien Chan and mother of Sean Lien.
Besides the fact that ethnic politics have nothing to do with governance of the city, the most striking aspects of the remarks made by the trio (and a few others in the Lien camp who joined them) are their lack of sensitivity, their divisive nature, and the fact that such language is oddly reminiscent of the things we hear across the Taiwan Strait in Beijing — in other words, anti-Japan screeds and the other side of the same coin, Han chauvinism. The acid brimmed over: Ko was a “traitor” to the Han race, someone who couldn’t be allowed to govern “the capital of China” (confronted with this, the speaker claims he misspoke). Even Ko’s ancestors were targeted, with Lien Chan claiming (wrongly) that one of his grandfathers was a willing official in the Japanese colonial government (Taiwan was part of Japan between 1895 until 1945). Hau Pei-tsun also weighed in with an even wider net to include those who’d had a privileged status under the Japanese system. By association, anyone who supports Ko’s run for mayor is a brainwashed Japanese colonial subject, which Hau maintains includes former president Lee Teng-hui, a man who ironically gave senior jobs in government to both Lien and Hau Srs.
The lack of sensitivity in those statements boggles the mind. Taiwan was “ceded” to Japan in 1895 under the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which concluded the First Sino-Japanese War. Its people were not given a choice, and for the next half century, Taiwan was part of the Japanese empire, becoming by far its most modern colony. Many opposed the colonial imposition, and quite a few paid with their lives. Others complied and some benefited, while the majority did what people under such circumstances would do and tried to make a living. There is no doubt, however, that this period played a formative role in the creation of a distinct Taiwanese identity, even as their outward existence became increasingly Japanese.
The Japanese era ended after Tokyo was forced to “give back” Taiwan after its defeat in World War II, whereupon the KMT took over, launching decades of plunder, repression, murder, and forced re-Sinicization that made many a Taiwanese look back to Japanese colonialism with something close to melancholy. The 228 Massacre of February 1947, as KMT soldiers fired indiscriminately at the population, and the subsequent campaign of white terror that almost wiped out an entire generation of educated Taiwanese, broke all illusions that some Taiwanese might have had as to their status as equals in this Chinese society and deepened their sense of identity as distinct. Still, the KMT maintained that the Taiwanese were Han Chinese, only they needed to be re-educated.
In their remarks, Hau and the Liens completely glossed over an entire century, during which Taiwanese identity not only survived but indeed flourished, both by deepening the idiosyncratic aspects of its society and by amalgamating those with the inevitable external influences. In other words, Taiwanese identity was a melting pot; it succeeded in being indigenous, Japanese and Chinese. To claim, therefore, that Ko and his supporters — who as we saw may represent the first iteration of a “third force” in Taiwanese politics — are mere Japanese colonial subjects who refuse to recognize their existence as Han Chinese misses the point altogether. Nobody in Taiwan has any interest in returning to the Japanese colonial era, despite the fact that many continue to have a certain respect for that period (the horrors that fell upon them after the KMT took over certainly compounded such perceptions). By disparaging the Ko camp as Japanese, Hau Sr. and the Liens are denying Taiwanese a voice and disregarding their existence as a people whose future is theirs to decide.
The other accusations focused on the “improper” education that young Taiwanese — young people overwhelmingly support Ko — received during eight years of DPP rule (2000-2008). Here again, Lien Sr. led the charge, with claims that changes to the education system under the Chen Shui-bian administration meant that students didn’t receive a proper Chinese education, with Confucian notions of deference to elders and avoidance of conflict at its core. Thus the Sunflower Movement and the “chaos” that occurred in recent years, which were not, according to Lien (and many in the KMT) the result of bad governance under an increasingly disconnected and paternalistic administration, but simply bad education. Again by association, anyone who supports Ko somehow condones disorder and violence. Somehow Lien doesn’t seem to appreciate the contradiction in his statements: he berates Taiwanese for not standing up to their Japanese rulers but in the same breath accuses them of disrespect and unruliness when they oppose government actions that threaten their way of life.
While we can debate how influential the old guard is on contemporary KMT politics, it is nevertheless revealing that the Lien camp, or the more “moderate” members of the KMT, have done nothing to distance themselves from the rhetoric. In fact, Lien Jr. has defended his parents’ comments. Hau Jr., probably the most moderate voice in the KMT at this point, has remained silent, as has Ma, who doubles as KMT chairman and who, we would expect, should be striving to keep his party’s language from reaching such lows. Theirs is therefore a voice from the past, based on old hatreds congealed in time over issues that ordinary Taiwanese — especially younger generations — left behind long ago. Through his simplicity and inclusive nature, Ko epitomizes the future for Taiwan, one in which people of different backgrounds, shaped by the vagaries of Taiwan’s experiences at the hands of foreign forces, can walk down the same road. It is this break with the past that has the dinosaurs in the KMT, who are probably too old to adapt to new realities, in a panic, forcing them to say things that in all likelihood are turning off many KMT supporters.
Despite its great wealth, the survival of the KMT as a viable political party in Taiwanese politics will be contingent on its leaders’ ability to break with the past and to flush out Precambrian influences such as Lien Chan, Hau Pei-tsun, and a few others. Otherwise, barring an unlikely return to the white terror or direct intervention by Beijing, it will be left behind as Taiwanese society moves on.