Since its defeat in the January 2020 presidential election, observers have been anticipating reforms to Taiwan’s main opposition party Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) to its cross-Strait policy. On June 19, the KMT revealed a set of new proposals for cross-Strait relations that insists on safeguarding the sovereignty of the Republic of China (ROC), protecting democracy and human rights, prioritizing Taiwan’s security, and building a win-win situation and prosperity on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Interestingly, the four new principles for KMT’s “possible” cross-Strait policies didn’t include the so-called “1992 Consensus,” the centerpiece of the party’s cross-Strait policy over the last few decades. The consensus is an implied agreement reached between Beijing and the Taiwanese government headed by the KMT in 1992. It states that Taipei and Beijing acknowledge there is only one China, but each side can freely interpret what that “China” is.
Traditionally, Taiwan interprets the “one China” as the ROC, which remains Taiwan’s official name internationally, while Beijing would interpret it as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Yet Beijing has never publicly recognized that nuanced position. This so-called “consensus” came into crisis when current president Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) refused to formally endorse it in its entirety when she was elected as president in 2016. Tsai has referred to the acceptance of the consensus as losing Taiwan’s sovereignty and freedom, but the KMT has been trying to refute Tsai’s arguments by emphasizing that such scenarios did not happen during former president Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) time in office.
When KMT’s Reform Committee revealed the new proposals last week, some veterans in the party immediately criticized the decision, calling it a total abandonment of the only policy that had allowed Taiwan to peacefully coexist with China over the last few decades. Two former chairpersons of the KMT asked the current party Chairman Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) to listen to opinions from all sides and publicly address the criticisms made by members in the party. Former Vice President and KMT old guard Lien Chan (連戰) also issued a statement to refute Johnny Chiang’s claim that “the ‘1992 Consensus’ was an important mechanism in history for both sides of the Taiwan Strait to seek consensus while settling differences.” Lien wrote in the statement that the “1992 Consensus” has always allowed Taiwan to create a space for expressing its own view on cross-Strait relations while dealing with Beijing, and its historical importance should not be erased.
KMT’s Youth League Defends Reform
In response to criticisms from the party’s veterans, KMT Chairperson Johnny Chiang highlighted the generational gap within the party and said the party needs to face the reality in order not to let the reform efforts go in vain. Chiang said the misunderstanding around the “1992 Consensus” among Taiwan’s general public was brought about by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨) and Beijing’s actions.
He also reiterated that the KMT needs something other than the “1992 Consensus” to create more space for the party to redefine its interactions with Beijing. Chiang thinks the important thing is for the KMT to let Taiwanese people know its goals in cross-Strait relations, while emphasizing that the consensus has been “seriously defamed while losing its appeal to Taiwan’s society.”
KMT’s youth participation task force also voiced their support for the recommendations made by the reform committee, reiterating that the four new proposals were not a move to abandon the “1992 Consensus.”
A member of the youth task force, Taichung City Councilor Luo Ting-wei (羅廷瑋), said that while some members of the party, who rely on history for a sense of presence, might think their contributions to the party are erased, the committee’s suggestions were hoping to add more content to KMT’s cross-Strait policies.
Taipei City Councilor Hsu Chiao-hsin (徐巧芯) said the KMT shouldn’t focus on whether or not the party still wants the “1992 Consensus,” but it should focus on the challenges that the consensus has faced while supervising the ruling DPP.
On June 27, several KMT veterans expressed their views on the internal debate about the role of the “1992 Consensus.” Former President Ma Ying-jeou, who called on the current administration to return to the “1992 Consensus” on June 26, said he had shared his views on the debate with Johnny Chiang, while former Chairperson Eric Chu (朱立倫) said he believed the KMT will find a way to agree on the consensus.
Despite the momentum in the new KMT chairman’s effort to spearhead reform, it seems very clear that there is still a deep generational gap on the direction of KMT’s cross-Strait policies. Clearly, the Party’s veterans haven’t openly endorsed the four new proposals put forward by the reform committee while the younger generation expressed their clear objection against dwelling on the party’s traditional stance and argument on cross-Strait relations.
An Existential Identity Crisis for the KMT
The new proposals are coming at a time when the KMT is frantically trying to boost its morale and support among Taiwanese voters. Earlier this month, its member, Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), became the first politician in Taiwan’s democratic history to be recalled, after more than 930,000 eligible voters in the city casted the “Yes” vote. The recall election is the latest of a string of defeats in recent elections for the KMT, including losing in both the presidential and legislative elections in January this year.
Feeling the urgency to launch a much-needed reform, KMT Chairperson Johnny Chiang, who represents the reform faction within the party, proposed the four new principles for the party’s cross-Strait agenda. At a time when the party is struggling to deal with its deep generational divide as well as the power struggle between different factions within the party, it seems like Chiang is having a hard time trying to get all sides within the party on the same page.
A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that more than two thirds of Taiwan’s population identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese, which reflects the gradual changes in Taiwanese voters’ political identities as well. As the DPP firmly occupies the space that appeals to voters who identify themselves as Taiwanese, the KMT is left with the awkward position of “safeguarding the sovereignty of the Republic of China,” a political idea that has become less appealing to voters over the last few years.
With the situation in Hong Kong continuing to deteriorate, the awareness and sentiment of safeguarding Taiwan’s sovereignty has become stronger than ever. Beijing’s ruthless encroachment of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and democratic way of life is a reminder of the risks that would come if Taiwan chooses to build closer ties with Beijing.
Under such circumstances, Johnny Chiang and his reform faction are faced with the tough task of distancing the KMT from the traditional pro-China cross-Strait stance while finding ways to convince Taiwanese voters that the party is also committed to safeguarding democracy, freedom, and Taiwan’s sovereignty in its traditional sense. But with political veterans in the party retaining a certain level of influence, Chiang will have to strike a difficult balance between their demands of not throwing away KMT’s essence while sticking to his reform agenda.
As a result, Chiang and his faction are now caught in the middle of two opposing forces, and the KMT remains in search of a new identity that can remain connected to the evolution of Taiwanese voters’ political identity. Chiang will likely need to display more authority if he wants to break away from the historical baggage of the KMT and successfully launch a fundamental reform. Yet, as the party falls to another unprecedented low point in terms of its morale, popularity, and public image, it will be extremely difficult for the new chairman to gather enough support to make that decisive first step. The key question is whether he can win the trust and support from political veterans in the KMT and convince them that a fundamental reform is what the party needs in order to resurrect the party.
The main point: Following a string of defeats in recent elections, Taiwan’s main opposition party Kuomintang has launched a fundamental reform by electing a new party chair and introduced four new proposals for the party’s cross-Strait policies. However, challenges remain as new party chair struggles to strike a balance between his reform agenda and pushback from veterans in the party.