Kuomintang (KMT) legislator Johnny Chiang was elected the party’s chairperson in a landslide on Saturday, winning nearly 69 percent of the vote to defeat former Taipei mayor Hau Lung-bin.
Chiang, 48, campaigned on promises of turning the KMT over to its next generation – one that is more skeptical of warm ties with Beijing and favors reconsidering previous bedrocks of the party’s approach to cross-strait relations, including the so-called 1992 consensus.
After winning the vote to chair a party tasked with picking up the pieces after the landslide defeat of its Beijing-friendly presidential candidate, Han Kuo-yu, Chiang promised to lead “a party that is more modern and swift to respond to demands.”
Younger voters in the KMT, which maintains more support from elderly voters than the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), have called for the 1992 consensus to be reconsidered.
The consensus – an alleged agreement that Beijing and Taipei agree there is “one China” but agree to disagree on what that means – was reinterpreted by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in early 2019 when he said the consensus mandated a Hong Kong-esque “one country, two systems” framework for Taiwan.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen denounced Xi’s statement and, as pro-democracy protests surged in Hong Kong, easily won reelection in January, buoyed by an electorate staunchly opposed across party lines to a one country, two systems model.
Han maintained support for the 1992 consensus despite saying that, as president, he would not accept a one country, two systems framework — “over my dead body,” he said. It wasn’t enough to prevent his defeat and send the KMT, desperate to win young voters, back to the drawing board.
Despite Chiang’s campaign of generational reform, however, he will enter into a party ecosystem still dominated by older, more conservative voices loathe to radically alter the party’s cross-strait positions.
In a Wednesday address to the KMT’s standing committee, Chiang declined to repudiate the 1992 consensus, saying there was not necessarily a problem with it and that it represented a spirit of finding common ground amid a landscape of tensions and political differences. Chiang also said he would not make a decision on the 1992 consensus alone and that it would be decided by a party committee.
The address left KMT members seeking clarity and suggested that Chiang, regardless of his intentions, may be stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Within the KMT, supporters of the consensus believe Xi has still left Taiwan room to enjoy its own interpretation of the consensus and retain it as a bedrock of the political status quo. They have accused Tsai of politicizing the issue by choosing to interpret Xi’s view of the consensus as it was stated in early 2019 by Xi: a one country, two systems model.
These supporters, however, lost credence among swaths of the electorate as Beijing intensified a pressure campaign against Taipei by forcing international airlines and corporations to list Taiwan as a province of China, flying military aircraft near Taiwanese airspace, and limiting Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, including the World Health Organization.
For the KMT, a rethink of cross-strait relations will be paramount to any true generational reform within the party. However, despite Han’s resounding January defeat, the KMT at large is not exactly in crisis. The party performed reasonably well in January’s legislative elections, although it failed to keep the DPP from retaining its majority in the legislature. The KMT gained three seats, revealing that some Tsai voters also voted for KMT legislative candidates – a clear sign that Han’s defeat was due to his weaknesses as a candidate rather than solely about his party affiliation.
The KMT will work to modernize at both the national and local levels, hoping to become a robust opposition party to the DPP. But cross-strait issues are central to every national election in Taiwan, meaning the party will have to develop a clear stance on its future engagement with Beijing before it can think about challenging for the presidency in 2024.