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The Challenging Road for Taiwan’s Newest Presidential Candidate

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China Power

The Challenging Road for Taiwan’s Newest Presidential Candidate

KMT candidate Hung Hsiu-chu faces an uphill battle, thanks to a controversial approach to cross-strait relations.

The Challenging Road for Taiwan’s Newest Presidential Candidate
Credit: VOA/ Zhang Yongtai

On June 14, Taiwan’s ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT), announced that presidential candidate and deputy speaker of the legislature Hung Hsiu-chu passed the minimum polling criteria of a 30 percent approval rating, with an average of 46 percent approval. After gaining the approval of the Central Standing Committee, Hung was officially nominated by the KMT in the national party congress on July 19.

Nicknamed “Little Hot Pepper,” Hung is known for her straightforward speaking style in the legislature. She’s been equally fiery in her policy pronouncements. When Hung announced she would seek the KMT nomination, she proposed “one China, same interpretation” as the plank for her cross-strait policy. Under the “one China, different interpretations” of the1992 Consensus, the Republic of China (ROC) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) both claim to be the sole representative of China. Hung argues that this consensus has already served its purpose. She would like to upgrade the 1992 consensus to both sides having the “same interpretation” of “one China,” laying the foundation of a stable relationship between two sides. Hung has also championed a cross-strait peace agreement, which she says will ensure a legal basis for the peaceful interactions between Taiwan and the Mainland.

Taiwanese citizens, especially young people inspired by the Sunflower Movement, are highly concerned with this manifesto. The PRC’s Taiwan policy has always meant treating Taiwan as one of its provinces, and the PRC has long been regarded the representative of China internationally. Given this, the public is worried that Hung’s “same interpretation” policy would effectively place Taiwan as part of the PRC’s territory, the only “interpretation” of China the PRC is likely to agree to. The possible consequence would be that Taiwan becomes the next Hong Kong, unified under “one country” with “two systems” and different constitutions.

Meanwhile, the framework under which a peace agreement would be signed worries Taiwanese as well. It is almost impossible for the PRC to sign a state-to-state peace agreement with Taiwan since it does not recognize Taiwan’s status as a country. If the peace agreement defines the conflict being ended as the “civil war” between the Chinese Nationalists and Chinese Communists, it could legalize Taiwan as being part of China’s territory.

In response to these concerns, Hung rejected accusations that she is promoting unification. She explained that her formula of  “one China, same interpretation” is meant to urge the PRC to recognize the ROC on the international stage, with both sides under “one-China” framework. In this “interpretation”, even though the claimed territories of the ROC and PRC overlap, the two sides recognize each other’s sovereignty. As for the peace agreement, Hung said it can further enhance Taiwan’s legal foundation. She added that any such agreement would have to take into consideration the “equality and dignity” of both sides.

Nevertheless, for the PRC to recognize the ROC would be identical to abandoning a decades-old propaganda push. China has insisted, both to its citizens and to the international community, that the ROC ended in 1949, when the Chinese Nationalists were defeated and retreated to Taiwan. In 1999, Taiwan’s then-President Lee Teng-hui proposed the idea of “special state-to-state relations,” which conceptualized Taiwan-China relations as the relationship  between two states, rather than part of China’s internal relations. The PRC was infuriated by this proposal and halted dialogues with Taiwan. Since there has been no structural change in China’s Taiwan policy since 1999, some argue that Hung’s proposal will fare no better than Lee’s did.

In defense of her “same interpretations” idea, Hung explained that she is trying to make the PRC acknowledge the existence of the “government of the ROC” instead of the ROC itself. In turn, the ROC would also recognize the reality of the PRC government rather than the PRC itself. Hung explained that she “couldn’t say the ROC exists” lest her “one China, same interpretation” meet the same fate as Lee’s “special state-to-state relations.” Hung’s explanation, however, attracted yet more critics of her statement about the “non-existence” of the ROC. Meanwhile, from a policy standpoint, the PRC will not be likely accept a status as a regional “government,” side-by-side with Taiwan under the “one China” umbrella.

In addition to her cross-strait manifestos, Hung has also come under fire for her strong Chinese identity, which is out of step with the local Taiwanese identity claimed by many young people. Take, for example, the recent debate on the high school curriculum. The Ma Ying-jeou administration has been trying to enforce a China-centered curriculum drafted by pro-unification scholars. More than 200 high schools formed student committees protesting against the curriculum in what has been called the high-school version of the Sunflower Movement. Hung’s response to the debate was to say that the changes did not go far enough. Hung argued curriculum guidelines should be based on the Constitution of the ROC, which claims sovereignty over mainland China and even Mongolia. Her stance is not a popular one, as about 60 percent of the public support the high school movement.

As a result of these controversies, the latest poll result released by the Taiwan Indicator Research Survey indicates that Hung’s support has fallen from 27.8 percent in June to 19.5 percent in July. Meanwhile, her rival, Tsai Ing-wen from the Democratic Progressive Party, enjoys 54 percent support. The survey predicts that Hung’s support will dip even lower, to 15.5 percent, if the chairman of People First Party (PFP), James Soong, joins the election. Concerned about Hung’s impact on the legislative elections to be held on the same day, some of the KMT’s legislative candidates are even considering relinquishing their Party membership.

To reverse falling public support, KMT Chairman Eric Chu confirmed that the election platform of the KMT should be based on the 1992 Consensus, or “one China, different interpretations.” President Ma Ying-jeou added that the party has a common expectation of cross-strait policies being based on the 1992 Consensus. Hung has also promised not to mention “one China, same interpretation” in her campaign. Instead, she will emphasize “one consensus” (the 1992 Consensus) and “three connotations,” which are: facing the existence of ROC in reality, defending the ROC and confronting Taiwan’s independence, and hoping to establish a stable and long-lasting peace agreement. However, as part of the “three connotations,” Hung still maintains her hope for a peace agreement. The Ma administration, by contrast, believes that the Taiwanese people haven’t reached a consensus on a peace agreement, and that such an agreement may change the status quo.

Despite these issues, the KMT is closing ranks. The party announced that it would expel five local politicians for their criticisms of the KMT on political talk shows. These members include those who criticized Hung’s “one China, same interpretation” formula. Their expulsion might serve as an example for others who disagree with Hung.

It’s unclear if Hung will put her controversial agenda back on the table now that she has been officially nominated as the KMT candidate. Doing so could backfire against KMT legislative candidates. One thing we can be sure of is that she will continue to face strong challenges, not only from the DPP, but also from citizens, the PFP and even the KMT itself over the next six months.

Ricky Yeh is an alumnus of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He formerly worked as an Economic Analyst at the Japan Center For International Finance and is currently employed as a business strategy consultant.