China Power | Politics | East Asia

Can the KMT Reform – and Remain Relevant?

A new leader has brought new ideas, including on the sensitive question of cross-strait relations, but the old guard remains entrenched.

By David G. Brown for
Can the KMT Reform – and Remain Relevant?

Past and current KMT leaders pose together at the Party Congress on September 6, 2020.

Credit: Facebook/Johnny C. Chiang

In January this year, the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party candidate Han Kuo-yu suffered a humiliating defeat in Taiwan’s presidential election. Han lost for a variety of reasons. He was seen as part of an older generation, a failed populist politician advocating China-friendly positions. The party itself was being run in the old KMT fashion as a fiefdom of another older generation leader, Chairman Wu Den-yih. And importantly, despite Chinese President Xi Jinping’s tough new policies on reunification and the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, the KMT continued to advocate closer ties with China under the 1992 Consensus on One China.

In the wake of the election setback, it is widely recognized that the party needs to change and reform. What is needed to accomplish this change is a new and more Taiwan-centered policy toward China, a more inclusive democratic decision-making process within the party and a generational change in leadership. The just-concluded KMT Congress offers an opportunity to assess the party’s progress. The issue is important because Taiwan needs a stable political system with a strong centrist opposition party. Without reform, the KMT will not be able to fill that role.

Wu has resigned as chairman, claiming responsibility for the election defeat. In March, the KMT held an election to choose an interim chairman to close out the remainder of Wu’s term. Legislator Chiang Chi-chen (or Johnny Chiang) and former Taipei Mayor Hau Long-bin emerged as the two leading candidates. Neither was a member of the KMT old guard, though Hau has deep party roots as the son of a former premier. Chiang emerged as the victor with 68.8 percent of the vote, in a low turnout election held during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Chiang, 48, was born in Taichung, educated at National Cheng-Chih University, and holds a Ph.D. in International Affairs from South Carolina University. He has been a university professor, director of the Government Information Office in the Ma Ying-jeou administration, and is a three-term legislator representing Taichung. In announcing his candidacy, Chiang advocated “core KMT values, generational change, collective leadership and local roots.”

Upon his election, Chiang moved expeditiously to appoint a new roster of officials at KMT Headquarters. Among his key appointments was veteran KMT organizer Lee Chien-lung (age 70), the former secretary general of the KMT organization in New Taipei City, who worked closely with city mayors Chu Li-luan (Eric Chu) and Hou You-yi, two likely future leadership candidates. In addition, Chiang established a new 11-member “decision-making platform” Advisory Committee, symbolizing his intention to consult within the party leadership. This he filled with a representative group of younger generation office holders, though no party elders.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

In addition, Chiang reorganized the KMT’s Huang Fu-hsing branch, long the conservative bastion of servicemen and families who had served under Chiang Kai-shek, into an organization for veterans under a new leader. He also revived the KMT training center, the Revolutionary Practice Institute, and appointed Taipei Council member Lo Chih-chiang as its director, tasking him with training young party leaders. Finally, Chiang appointed a widely representative 62-member reform committee to review policy in four broad areas: organizational reform, cross-strait issues, youth participation and financial stability. The all-important cross-strait policy subcommittee consists of 16 members, representing the full range of opinion within the party.

The KMT Party Congress on September 6 focused overwhelmingly on party organizational issues. The Congress decided that one half of Central Committee (CC) members must be city and county councilors and that the CC must approve the selection of the Legislative Yuan party list. In addition to existing gender and minority requirements, the Congress decided that 20 percent of the party list must be candidates under 40 and that party list legislators can only serve one term. The Congress adjusted the composition of the Central Standing Committee (CSC), ruling that its members could serve a maximum of two terms. As such, the Congress represents some progress toward ensuring that the party is younger, more inclusive, and more closely tied to its grassroots.

The Congress’ most controversial action involved cross-strait policy. Cross-strait policy is particularly difficult for the KMT both because of divergent policy views within the party and because of contradictory cross-pressures on the party from the Taiwanese public and Beijing. On becoming chairman in March, Chiang avoided mentioning the 1992 Consensus, saying only that, “My basic principle is to stick to the values of the Republic of China’s free and democratic system and strive for cross-strait peace and common well-being.” It has long been the practice for the CCP general secretary to send a congratulatory message to new KMT chairmen, but Xi did not contact Chiang after his election. Instead, Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) issued a statement urging Chiang to adhere to the 1992 Consensus on One China – a clear indication that Beijing has doubts about Chiang’s views on this core point.

The new Reform Committee subgroup on cross-strait issues published its proposals in June. It stated that the KMT rejected both Beijing’s “one country, two system” proposal for unification and Taiwanese independence. In a major break with the past, it recommended that the 1992 Consensus be seen as a historical position rather than a basis for future exchanges. It proposed that future policy be based on four broad considerations: upholding Republic of China (ROC) sovereignty based on the constitution; preserving freedom, democracy and human rights; ensuring Taiwan’s security; and fostering prosperous win-win cross-strait ties. These proposals were welcomed by young and reform-minded party members. However, most party elders including former President Ma Ying-jeou, former Premier and Vice President Lien Chan, KMT 2016 presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu, and Chiang’s predecessor as chairman, Wu Den-yih, criticized the proposals for not upholding the 1992 Consensus.

That the reform proposals rejected the 1992 Consensus on One China represented a serious challenge to Beijing, which continues to insist that acceptance of the Consensus is the necessary political basis for cross-strait dialogue. The TAO made that point crystal clear in its brief comment on the reform proposals. Given the stakes, one can only assume that Beijing has been active behind the scenes, via its ample personal and media contacts, in trying to encourage the KMT to adhere to the 1992 Consensus.

After June, the KMT’s CSC conducted extensive consultation on the reform proposal. About three weeks before the party Congress, Ma Ying-jeou charged that the DPP administration was taking Taiwan “to the brink of war” because it rejected the 1992 Consensus and was cooperating too closely with the United States. One implication was the KMT should not make the same mistake. The TAO in Beijing was also criticizing the DPP administration for relying on the U.S. to plot independence. These and other factors fed into the CSC’s deliberations.

The Congress adopted a revised eight-point “Cross-Strait Discourse” that is summarized as “continuing cross-strait interactions under the ROC Constitution-based 1992 Consensus.” The first four points elaborated this summary as follows: first, the ROC Constitution not only fosters democracy and freedom but also provides a legal basis for cross-strait exchanges. Second, official cross-strait dialogue must face squarely the ROC’s constitutional order and respect the existence of the ROC. Third, past KMT statements on the 1992 Consensus and “one China, respective interpretations” were based on the ROC Constitution. Fourth, the 1992 Consensus based on the ROC Constitution should be used to continue cross-strait exchanges. Although the Discourse avoided using the phrase “the 1992 Consensus on One China,” it represented a retreat from the reform committee proposal. It was clearly a compromise statement designed to maintain party unity. In sum, the Congress retained the 1992 Consensus but sought to redefine its content, emphasizing respect for the ROC Constitution.

Although all but one of the living former party chairmen joined the Congress, overall participation was embarrassingly low. Only half the seats in the conference hall were occupied. Although generational change was one congress theme, some news organizations chose to use a picture showing the former chairmen on stage with Chiang, implying skepticism about generational change at a congress that could be perceived as retaining outdated KMT policy. The pro-DPP Liberty Times reported that the congress had preserved the 1992 Consensus, a summation that likely reflects how the congress was generally perceived on Taiwan.

The initial brief reports in the Beijing media stated that the KMT congress had upheld the 1992 Consensus and rejected Taiwan independence. It is unusual that five days after the Congress, the TAO has still not released any official comment. The delay probably reflects Beijing’s concern that the Congress did not explicitly commit the KMT to “One China,” as well as the KMT’s redefinition of the 1992 Consensus and the Congress’ call for the acknowledgement of the existence of the ROC, which could be seen as advocating “two Chinas.”

The KMT has moved forward on reform under Chairman Chiang. However, the public remains skeptical. The decision to retain the 1992 Consensus will only feed that skepticism. There is clearly more to be done. The Congress’ resolutions must be implemented, and the issues the Congress did not consider must be addressed. Furthermore, the party’s finances must be stabilized.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The Cross-Strait Discourse is likely not the final word on this key issue. How the policy statements on cross-strait issues are implemented in practice will be important. The plan to adopt new regulations governing party members’ contacts with China highlights a particularly sensitive issue – how to coordinate the participation of party elders in the numerous cross-strait forums with the CCP. Former Legislative Yuan speaker Wang Jin-pyng’s participation in the coming Straits Forum in Xiamen will be an early test case and indicator of the status of KMT-CCP ties.

David G. Brown is a visiting scholar in the China Studies Program at the School of Advanced International Studies.