FOSTER CITY, Calif. — “We are here. We are back,” said Eric Chu, the chairman of Taiwan’s largest opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), in a speech given to U.S.-based party members during a banquet in northern California on Thursday, June 3.
“The KMT’s pro-American stance has never changed since the founding of the party. The KMT is not only friendly with the U.S., but is more capable of communication and coordination on cross-strait relations to avoid war,” Chu said.
While the KMT has long been criticized as a party stuck in the past, the chairman’s 12-day trip to the U.S has leaned heavily – but selectively – into the party’s history to highlight the themes of consistency and American-friendliness.
The main purpose of Chu’s U.S. trip was to attend the plaque-unveiling ceremony at the KMT’s reopened liaison office in Washington, but critics across the aisle have called the trip one of “amending” the party’s soured relations with the U.S. after years of pushing an anti-American line.
The KMT’s role in backing a 2021 referendum against ractopamine pork imports, largely from the U.S., has often been cited as clear evidence of the party’s distrust of the country. Coupled with the KMT’s many instances of close association with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the pro-China and anti-America label has stuck.
In response to the criticism, Chu pointed fingers back at the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), rebuking the party’s “yearslong smear campaign” against the KMT in Washington, D.C. The KMT shut down its Washington office in 2008, when it re-took the presidency; the DPP, meanwhile, opened its own office in the U.S. capital in 2013.
According to KMT Vice Chairman Andrew Hsia, who is also part of the delegation, Chu’s mission includes demonstrating commitment to U.S. ties and dispelling lies that “the party is anti-American” by stepping up communication with U.S. politicians, local media, and think tanks.
Regardless of what the party claims, the pro-Chinese and anti-American label has been one that the KMT has struggled to shake. This was most evident in 2020, when President Tsai Ing-wen’s landslide reelection was interpreted as Taiwanese taking a stand against pressure from Beijing.
Using the media and official platforms provided to him now as the opposition party chairman, Chu repeatedly stresses that the KMT has been consistently pro-democracy, pro-America, and pro-stability.
Despite all the talk of consistency, there has been a notable shift in the party’s messaging on this trip. Touching down in San Francisco on the morning of June 3, the KMT delegation first paid respect to the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall of San Francisco. This was a selective and symbolic start to the party’s trip in the U.S.
During an interview, Chu highlighted the KMT founder’s deep connections to the U.S., where Sun spent years fundraising for the revolution against the Chinese Qing empire. Chu even compared the similarities between Sun’s political philosophy of the “Three Principles of the People (san min zhu yi)” and U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s notion of “government of the people, by the people, for the people” from the Gettysburg Address.
These references to the KMT’s origins are intended to highlight the party’s history of supporting democracy and standing up to authoritarianism, and later the CCP, both of which align with U.S. interests.
Similarly, Chu has repeatedly used phrases such as “since the beginning” and “consistently” in speeches and interviews to describe the party’s attitude toward the U.S.
“We are a pro-U.S. party – forever.” Chu said in his speech at the Brookings Institution on June 6, “we are not the so-called anti-U.S. party. That is totally wrong.”
Chu began his speech by describing the many changes in the international environment during what he calls “turbulent times.” From the rise of populism and Brexit, the China-U.S. trade war under the Trump administration, to the more recent COVID-19 pandemic and Russian invasion of Ukraine, what has not changed, as Chu claims, is the KMT’s pro-U.S. stance.
According to the chairman’s speech, the KMT has not only been pro-U.S. and supportive of democracy and peace, but has been deeply misunderstood after being mischaracterized by the media and other political players.
Of course, the narrative pitched by Chu runs contrary to the many instances in which the KMT has acted inconsistently with the values of its founder. Most notably missing from Chu’s cherry-picked history lesson on the party is 30 years of martial law under the KMT regime in Taiwan during the White Terror.
Similarly swept under the rug are the KMT’s party members who closely associate themselves with the CCP and support the cause of “reunification.” Recently, former KMT chair Hung Hsiu-chu visited Xinjiang and praised China’s “anti-terrorism” efforts in the region.
The party leadership could attempt to dismiss its pro-Chinese members as mere outliers, but the reverse could as easily be true – pro-American members may be in the minority. Despite Chu’s attempt to set the record straight, his grasp on the party can be tenuous at times, which is only further complicated by his hopes to maintain communication and coordination with China.
The single, consistent narrative the KMT puts forward is simply too good to be true. Even with the best intentions, the KMT cannot undo its complex history in Taiwan.
However, the party’s inconsistent past does not necessarily inform its future.
The KMT delegation members, apart from Chu, Hsia, and Head of International Affairs Alexander Huang, average an age of under 40, a significant deviation from the KMT’s past image of an aging party.
Restructuring the party has been one of the promises Chu campaigned on for chairmanship, which is seen realized in the “Same Boat” project, drawing nearly 50,000 people to the party, many of which are youths. Notably, another one of Chu’s campaign promises was revitalizing the party’s ties with the United States.
It’s too soon to tell how successful the KMT’s reinstated Washington office may be, but both the opposition party and the United States have much to gain in pursuing aligned interests: for the KMT, in shaking its pro-Chinese and anti-American label during elections; for the U.S., in limiting and monitoring Beijing’s influence.
The KMT’s re-engagement with the U.S. has not reflected consistency, but with more exchange of information comes predictability – and with predictability comes stability. Not so long ago, this was the very strategy the KMT incorporated for cross-strait relations, only now the players have changed.