KMT must tackle the new reality

By Alfred E. Tsai 蔡而復  / 

Tue, Feb 04, 2020 - Page 8

After crushing defeats in the presidential and legislative elections last month, a desperate and heated debate has unfolded within the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to re-examine its China policy and rejuvenate its leadership. Prominent calls have included abandoning the “1992 consensus” (whereby Taiwan and China acknowledge the principle of “one China,” but maintain respective interpretations of what that means) and dropping “China” from the party’s name altogether to reclaim popular support.

However, conservatives within the KMT argue that doing so would run contrary to the party’s core values and the Republic of China Constitution.

The age-old KMT is facing a crisis of continued survival for losing touch with the younger generation in Taiwan. For many years, the party has failed to inject new blood and been ineffective communicating with young voters. On the other hand, the KMT has persistently been tagged by its opponents and international media as “pro-China” for taking more cordial positions on cross-strait relations. Around election time, political events related to China have almost certainly been exploited to the party’s disadvantage.

Once trailing in the opinion polls, but recently re-elected by a landslide, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) reversed their political fortunes in large part thanks to voters’ growing fear of China. Protests in Hong Kong conveyed a renewed urgency to voters of preserving Taiwan’s democracy and way of life in face of the powerful neighbor across the Strait.

Besides the economy, at the heart of this year’s elections was arguably the key issue of national identity. Beijing’s actions, as well as political changes within Taiwan, have changed how people identify themselves. Many more people now see themselves as Taiwanese instead of Chinese or both. This is particularly true among the younger generation, including first-time voters this year, who are sympathetic to a separate identity and Taiwan as an independent country.

To be fair, the KMT’s cross-strait policies based upon the “1992 consensus” enabled Taiwan to maintain peaceful and stable relations with the Chinese mainland during the administration of former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) from 2008 to 2016. Under president Ma, Taiwan preserved its democracy, while building stronger economic ties with the mainland, culminating in direct flights, increased tourism and the 2015 leaders’ summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in Singapore.

Strategically, it is becoming ever more difficult for the KMT to sustain the “1992 consensus,” because of changes in Taiwanese identity and stakeholders involved having increasingly divergent interpretations as to what it means. Since 2016, China has only become more assertive and dominant, hardening its insistence that Taiwan accept the “one China” principle and eventual unification under a “one country, two systems” formula (which has eroded freedoms and led to large-scale protests in Hong Kong), establishing diplomatic relations with eight countries that previously recognized Taiwan, and stepping up military aircraft patrols around Taiwan.

The recent outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus demonstrates how Beijing’s continued isolation of Taiwan in the international community creates a significant loophole to global health and harms the interests of Taiwanese.

In light of new realities, the KMT must articulate its positions effectively to convince Taiwanese voters, especially the younger generation, and like-minded countries such as the US. The KMT must also reposition its cross-strait policy in light of new global politics and mainstream opinion within Taiwan. The party should revise its cross-strait policy discourse suited to a new era. Doing so will make the KMT a more compelling alternative to the incumbent DPP and improve the KMT’s overall prospects in Taiwan’s electoral politics.

First, the KMT should make a more compelling case for national identity by expounding why Chinese culture is an indispensable asset to Taiwan and how Taiwanese identity and Chinese nationalism can be mutually inclusive and coexist. Central to this argument is that “China” and “Chinese” need not mean or be represented by the People’s Republic of China. Additionally, more than 95 percent of Taiwan’s population is of Han Chinese ethnicity, whose ancestors descended from the mainland.

While there are certainly indigenous, Japanese and Western influences, Taiwan remains a predominantly ethnic Chinese society. Many foreigners are attracted to Taiwan because of the convergence of traditional Chinese culture and Taiwan’s modern and creative characteristics.

In addition, the KMT should strengthen the narrative on its contributions to Taiwan’s development. It was the Republic of China that successfully ended five decades of Japanese colonization and defended Taiwan against communist invasion. After the nationalist withdrawal from mainland China to Taiwan in 1949, the KMT took successive steps to modernize Taiwan based upon Sun Yat-sen’s (孫逸仙) vision of a constitutional democracy.

Although some local Taiwanese did suffer repression under authoritarian rule, Taiwan’s economic development under the KMT led to substantial prosperity widely shared among the population. The equitable distribution of wealth became the basis of a modern public education system, which supported the development of the information technology industry. The lifting of martial law, freeing of the press, and establishing elections for the legislative and executive branches completed Taiwan’s transition to a representative democracy.

Finally, the KMT should rectify its lack of clarity and certainty on cross-strait relations. This demands more assertiveness on Taiwan’s sovereignty, but also identifying common ground with China to shelve political controversies and pursue meaningful exchanges. The KMT should explicate to voters the benefits of a pragmatic, less confrontational approach to cross-strait relations and be honest about the party’s ideal of eventual Chinese unification based upon a democratic political system.

The KMT should tackle the new realities and seize the opportunity to reform. Taiwan needs the KMT to remain a viable party prepared to defend Taiwan as a beacon of Chinese culture and democracy, strengthen the economy, and further cross-strait and international relations.

Alfred E. Tsai is a juris doctor candidate at the University of Wisconsin Law School and editor of the Taiwan Weekly e-mail newsletter.