Russell Hsiao is the executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute and the editor-in-chief of the Global Taiwan Brief.
In August, Andrew Hsia (夏立言), the vice chairman of Taiwan’s largest opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨), made a controversial tour of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Over a period of 17 days from August 10 to 27 (10 days were reportedly spent in quarantine in Xiamen), the second-highest ranking KMT leader traveled to the Chinese cities of Xiamen, Fujian, Guangzhou, Dongguan, Shenzhen, Kunshan, and Shanghai for what was billed as a “Care and Listening Tour“ (關懷聆聽之旅). Such a visit by a senior KMT leader to the PRC would normally not garner a great deal of local news coverage, as former KMT heavyweights frequently visit China. Yet, this visit in particular raised eyebrows and generated international attention. This is perhaps unsurprising given the extraordinarily tense circumstances surrounding the timing of the trip, which came at a particularly sensitive time in cross-Strait relations: at the time that the trip’s itinerary was leaked, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was still conducting military exercises in close proximity to Taiwan, raising tensions in the Taiwan Strait to arguably the highest peak in 25 years.
While fielding questions from reporters at Taoyuan International Airport as he was about to leave for Xiamen on August 10, Hsia tried to downplay his visit’s political repercussions in response to charges by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨)—and even from some within his own party—that the visit could be seen as an act of appeasement to Beijing. The opposition leader explained how the small-delegation visit had in fact been planned since June, but due to the COVID-19 situation the itinerary had not been finalized until recently. The delegation’s itinerary was leaked to media only a day before Hsia’s departure. The KMT’s five-member delegation included Lin Chu-chia (林祖嘉) and Teng Tai-hsien (鄧岱賢), the director and deputy director, respectively, of the KMT’s China affairs office; Kao Su-po (高思博), executive director of the 21st Century Foundation (二十一世紀基金會), and KMT Editor Lin Tzu-hsuan (林子玄). Hsia framed the visit primarily as an effort to engage Taiwan compatriots in China, but left open the possibility that he could also meet with Chinese officials. On the official side, the KMT vice chairman ended up meeting with the PRC’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS, 海協會) Chairman Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) and Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO, 國台辦) Deputy Director Chen Yuanfeng (陳元豐), as well as a number of Taiwanese business groups, professors, and students in China.
How the KMT Framed Deliverables and Optics
Criticized by both the ruling party and—perhaps more remarkably—even from some within his own camp, Hsia defended his visit in a post-trip media debrief by stating that he made a point of using the meetings with Chinese officials to convey the serious concerns of the Taiwanese people over Beijing’s recent military exercises in areas surrounding Taiwan. Hsia claimed that he told his Chinese interlocutors that the PLA’s disproportionate military exercises were unhelpful for the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations, and that the vast majority of people in Taiwan were concerned by the military exercises.
The vice chairman also emphasized the need for the two sides to maintain a channel for cross-Strait communication. It is indeed notable that there has not been a meeting between senior government officials since the DPP came into power, as Beijing unilaterally suspended official dialogues between Taipei and Beijing in June 2016. Hsia portrayed his trip as an effort on the part of the KMT to care for compatriots in China, while simultaneously presenting the KMT to voters as a responsible alternative to the DPP, and as the only party that the CCP is willing to talk to amid a steady rise in cross-Strait tensions since 2016.
According to Hsia, Taiwan compatriots in the PRC are particularly concerned by the limited contact between Taiwan and China in recent years, and specifically underscored their anxieties about the very limited number of cross-Strait flights as well as recent PRC economic measures aimed at punishing Taiwan businesses, farmers, and fishermen. The KMT’s press release on August 28 specifically noted how there is only one cross-Strait flight per week from Shanghai, while there are no flights from the Pearl River Delta area where 300,000 persons from Taiwan reportedly live. The Taiwan business community in the PRC—a traditional constituency of financial and political support for the KMT—also called for restoration of the “mini-three links” (小三通), which were suspended in February 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Discussion also reportedly covered speculation that Beijing could terminate the “early harvest” list, which covers 500 products that have been designed to receive early tariff reductions under the cross-Strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA, 海峽兩岸經濟合作架構協議). The agreement came into effect in 2010 and officially expired in 2020, although neither side has formally terminated the agreement. In response, the Chinese side reportedly conveyed hopes that ECFA-related cooperation would not be affected by cross-Strait tensions.
A Different KMT than the mid-2000s?
It should be noted that Hsia is not the first senior party official to visit China. In fact, leaders from the KMT have frequently visited China since the mid-2000s. Although high-level contact between party officials had been essentially nonexistent over the four decades after 1949, the political ice began to slowly thaw in the early 1990s. In a highly controversial trip in 2005, then-KMT Chairman Lien Chan (連戰)—now honorary party chairman—defied the then-ruling DPP administration of Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁, 2000-2008) and made a high-profile visit to China, where he met with then-CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao (胡錦濤). This marked the first such visit to the PRC by the top party official from the KMT in the history of cross-Strait relations.
It is instructive that in the 2022 meeting between Hsia and the TAO’s Chen, the two parties again agreed that the two sides should strengthen exchanges and communication, as cross-Strait relations have become more complicated and strained. At the same time, however, Chen defended the Chinese government’s military exercises, stating: “The countermeasures we have taken are legitimate and just. We hope that the majority of Taiwan compatriots will uphold national justice, jointly oppose Taiwan independence provocations and foreign interference, and jointly maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as well as their own security and well-being.”
During a previous period of mounting cross-Strait tensions in the early- to mid-2000s under the prior DPP administration, the KMT and the CCP—once archenemies—established party-to-party talks that allowed the two parties to bypass official channels, and which undermined the effectiveness of Taiwan’s central government in negotiating with Beijing. The first KMT-CCP Forum (國共論壇) began in 2006. These talks became institutionalized through government channels when the KMT returned to power in 2008, and additional people-to-people channels were established to facilitate more avenues for exchange and cooperation between the two sides.
Generational Rifts and Internal Party Dynamics
While political support for former Chairman Lien Chan’s visit in 2005 was split along partisan lines, the reaction to the visit by Hsia has been markedly different. This reflects a different party at a very different period in cross-Strait relations. Several factors also suggest that the visit may have more to do with maintaining internal party cohesion among the various factions in the lead-up to Taiwan’s local elections in November. For one, this visit occurred several months after KMT Chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫) made his long-awaited maiden visit as chairman to the United States in June. The visit by the vice chairman to the PRC should perhaps serve to emphasize Chu’s foreign policy approach of “stay close to America, on friendly terms with Japan, and on good terms with the mainland” (親美友日和陸).
While the KMT’s stated reasons for the vice chairman’s untimely visit seems legitimate—though tone-deaf—there are other reasons to believe that the underlying motivations were geared towards managing internal party dynamics. In recent years, the internal pressure from the party’s pro-unification wing has grown increasingly pronounced. This dynamic was exemplified more recently by the criticisms of Chu’s US visit that emerged from the pro-unification faction. These political fissures were once again on full display during the Hsia visit. With only a few months before the local elections in November, the trip came at a particularly sensitive time politically. Before, during, and after the visit, differences of opinion emerged between generations of candidates running for office, many of whom saw the senior KMT leader’s delegation to China at an inappropriate time as a potential political liability. The concerns were so pronounced that several younger candidates running for office even issued a public letter to dissuade Hsia from going to China. The internal clamor was so notable that the KMT chairman and several other former party leaders had to quell such concerns by coming out to publicly support Hsia’s visit—thereby underscoring the party chairman’s difficult balancing act.
Since Chu’s trip to the US in June, pressure has continued to build from the unification wing of the party for the chairman to demonstrate the credibility of his commitment to maintaining “good terms with the mainland” (和陸). This difficult balancing act has also exacerbated the ideological fissure within the party, which was on further display in terms of the generational rifts in the overall pro-US or pro-China orientation of the party. Chu may also be attempting to present a contrast to former party Chairwoman Hung Shiu-chu (洪秀柱), who is a frequent visitor to the PRC and meets publicly with senior Chinese leaders.
It is notable that during the KMT National Congress held on August 28 (a day after Hsia’s return from his PRC tour), only former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), former Chairman Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), and former Chairman Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) attended the important conclave meant to demonstrate party unity and rally national grassroots support for the party’s candidates for the local elections. By contrast, former Chairman Lien Chan, Chairman Wu Bo-hsiung (吳伯雄), Chairwoman Hung Shiu-chu (洪秀柱), and Legislative Speaker Wang Jyn-ping (王金平) were no shows.
How Will the Vice Chairman’s Visit Affect November’s Local Elections?
Another important but under-examined dimension of the trip is its potential effect on the November local elections. Notably, this is the first official visit by a current senior KMT leader to China since Eric Chu became the chairman of the ailing party in October 2021. While the visit appears intended, at least in part, to put the new chairman’s stamp on the party’s approach to foreign policy, it is also driven by practical party interests.
Despite the poor optics of the visit in light of the belligerent actions taken by Beijing in response to US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in early August, these dynamics reflect a very different KMT from the days of the mid-2000s when Lien Chan led his delegation to China. The controversy over the KMT vice chairman’s China tour underscores the difficulty of KMT Chairman Chu’s balancing act as he tries to “stay close to America, on friendly terms with Japan, and on good terms with the mainland.”
This challenging domestic political context was on display at the party’s National Congress this year. During the event, the KMT chairman made a clear point to trumpet the mainstream credentials of the party’s candidates for local offices as an effort to draw in more youths and centrist voters, who are increasingly wary of China, to support the party. At the same time, however, he had to defend Hsia’s PRC tour in order to satisfy the pro-unification wing of his party as well as the Taiwan compatriot and business community in the PRC, which are traditional constituencies and provide both financial and political support for the KMT, despite the criticisms from within his own party for appearing to lean too close to China.
While cross-Strait relations do not tend to factor high in the considerations of voters in Taiwan during local elections, Beijing’s actions and Hsia’s tour are making it an electoral issue this November. Ironically, this is perhaps another one of the factors for Hsia’s apparent haste in making his China trip—waiting any longer would only serve to make it even harder to disentangle the policy from the politics. It is worth noting that hardline actions taken by Beijing in the past have had the counter-productive effect of antagonizing voters and driving support away from the PRC’s preferred outcome, however, it is not clear how these current circumstances will affect political behaviors in Taiwan and whether the KMT vice chairman’s visit could have a mitigating or aggravating effect. Time will soon tell.
The main point: The August visit to China by KMT Vice Chairman Andrew Hsia, ostensibly made to hear out the concerns of Taiwanese residing in the PRC, was awkwardly timed in the immediate wake of threatening military exercises conducted around Taiwan by Chinese forces. The trip by Hsia and other senior KMT officials reflects the party’s difficulty in maintaining a balancing act between its pro-unification and more mainstream wings in the lead-up to local elections in November.