Tension across the Taiwan Straits about to go sky high
Taiwan is about to elect its fourth president since the first open election in 1996. With less than 100 days before Election Day, the chairman of Kuomintang (KMT), Eric Chu, is calling for extraordinary party congress for the purpose of making the rumor swirling around Taiwan’s political circles come true. Namely, he will replace KMT’s duly nominated presidential candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu, with himself.
At the regular nominating party convention in July, Hung was the only one to declare her candidacy for the presidency. By then, Tsai Ing-wen, the candidate for the opposition party, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), had become such an overwhelming favorite to win in a cakewalk that none of the KMT stalwarts were willing to run against her.
Hung’s credentials were less than stellar compared to her more seasoned colleagues in the KMT camp but she was willing and her straight talking, no nonsense style woke up some of the comatose rank and file. Her one China, one interpretation and pro-unification position certainly caught the attention of the Chinese diaspora in America, at least the part of the community that have always regarded Taiwan as part of China.
Unfortunately for Hung, her one China message was not what the Taiwan populace wanted to hear. Starting from a low base to begin with, the gap in the polls between Hung and Tsai widened. The KMT elders became alarmed. They were resigned to losing the presidency but now Hung presented a real danger of having a toxic coattail on those running for the legislature on the same ticket.
Previously even when the KMT lost the office of the president, they maintained a controlling grip on the legislative body. They now face the real prospect of losing both. Thus the call for the unprecedented extraordinary party congress on October 17 is to change jockey in the middle of the race. The KMT leaders do not foresee victory in the presidential election but they hope to salvage seats in the Legislative Yuan.
When Ma Ying-jeou won the presidency in 2008, the office returned to KMT control and the people in Taiwan along with leaders in Beijing and Washington expelled a collective breath of relief. His record was untainted by corruption, he promised economic reform and regular dialogue with Beijing and he won by a landslide against his DPP opponent. He was a popular and welcomed change from the two corrupt regimes that preceded him. So what happened? How have the KMT fallen so far?
To truly understand the devolution of the KMT to the current sorry state, we need to review its history since Taiwan reverted to the Nationalist government after WWII. In the early 1970’s Chiang Ching-kuo became the strongman of Taiwan gradually assuming increasing power from his father, Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader that lost the mainland to the Chinese Communist Party.
CCK’s position became official when he was elected President of the Republic of China by the rubber stamp legislature in 1978. He introduced measures to stimulate Taiwan’s economy and he also began political reform by allowing the formation of an opposition party, the DPP, and he picked Lee Teng-hui to be his second in command.
Lee was selected because he was not a follower of Chiang Kai-shek’s retreat from the mainland but a native born Taiwanese. CCK wanted to broadened government participation to include more native Taiwanese.
A member of CCK’s inner circle told me that LTH was considered a safe choice. A PhD agriculture economist by training, he was respectful bordering on being obsequious in the presence of his superiors and demonstrated all the attributes of a reliable and pliable official loyal to the KMT.
No one knew at the time about his having twice joined the Chinese Communist Party shortly after the end of the WWII. And it was much later that the people of Taiwan became aware that LTH was given an elite education and groomed for being part of a puppet administration by the Japanese government during their occupation of Taiwan.
CCK died suddenly in 1988 and Lee became the President of Taiwan. Gradually his true colors began to show, as his background became known. He skillfully formed “rotating” alliances with members of the old guards to gang up on others and remove them from power, one by one.
Lee began to publicly refer to Japan as Taiwan’s true motherland and that Taiwan has never been part of China but was a sovereign state. He skillfully ratcheted up the tension across the straits. In 1996 as Taiwan was about to stage the first popular election for the president, Beijing made a foolish mistake of firing missiles over Taiwan’s airspace. The threat did not intimidate the people of Taiwan but gave Lee the margin necessary to become the first elected president of Taiwan.
In 2000, Lee was termed out and Taiwan people prepared to vote for the next president. Lee cleverly split the KMT majority into two camps headed by James Soong and Lien Chan, both were one time Lee’s lieutenant in his administration. Thus, Lee made it possible for Chen Shui-bian of the DPP to win the election with just over 39% of the vote.
Once out of the office, Lee openly identified himself as Iwasato Masao and confessed that Japanese was his first language. He formed a splinter party called Taiwan Solidarity Union to promote Taiwan independence. He was accused of shipping illicit funds out of Taiwan but escaped conviction on charges associated with the “black gold” scandal.
He was promptly drummed out of the KMT but Lee succeeded in getting a pro-independence candidate elected president. That candidate, Chen Shui-bian, ran on a platform of clean government and strong economy. He turned out to be more corrupt than his predecessor and had no clue as to how Taiwan can get out of its economic stagnation.
During Chen Shui-bian’s eight years in the presidential palace, everything was for sale for a price, if not directly into his pockets, it went to offshore bank accounts handled by his wife. After he left the government and tried for corruption, he even had the gall to negotiate with the presiding judge in court. He offered to repatriate millions of dollars from offshore accounts in exchange for dismissal of charges against him.
Chen answered his critics on his mismanagement of Taiwan’s economy by blaming everybody but his administration. During this period about one million of Taiwan’s best and brightest have taken up residence on the mainland, built factories and made their fortunes in China. Those remaining in Taiwan faced unemployment and dimmed career prospects and Chen channeled their frustration into antagonism against the mainland.
By the 2008 election, Chen Shui-bian had totally destroyed the credibility of DPP. Ma Ying-jeou ran as the KMT candidate and won by a landslide margin of 17%. He immediately began a dialogue with Beijing on economic cooperation and two-way tourism. He was to sign 23 agreements with the PRC and by 2010 Taiwan’s economy grew by more than 10%.
Under Chen, Taiwan tried to develop tourism. Even Chen recognized that tourism would stimulate the economy but he refused to look across the strait for tourists from the mainland. Ma did the obvious and opened Taiwan to Chinese tourists. China has become the world’s biggest source of outbound tourists and biggest per person spender and is by far the largest source of tourists to visit Taiwan representing approximately 10 billion dollar infusion to Taiwan’s economy.
Despite economic integration and closer cooperation, the feelings of the Taiwan people grew no closer to China but drifted farther apart under the seven years under Ma’s administration. I have not seen any analysis to explain this counter-intuitive trend but I have my own conclusions.
The twenty years under the control of Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian did a lot to poison the minds against China. Not often mentioned but they were abetted by the under covered Japanese living among them. After WWII about 300,000 Japanese were stranded in Taiwan and choose to remain. They adopted Chinese surnames and assimilated. They have multiplied and now number about 2 million out of Taiwan’s total population of 23 million. A certain portion of this group are likely supporters and agitators of Lee’s notion that Japan is the motherland.
Ma being a mainlander felt neither comfortable nor confident enough to exercise his leadership and explain to the people of Taiwan how their future is tied to China. Rather he was intimidated by the anti-mainland sentiments and backed away from taking any active role in explaining much less promoting the historical, cultural and traditional bond between Taiwan and China.
To make matters worse, in midst of his second term, Ma accused Wang Jin-pyng of corruption and then backed off and left the charges suspended in ether. Wang presides over the Legislative Yuan and is the leader of another major faction of the KMT. The acrimony between the two has further weakened an already divided KMT. Consequently, Ma’s leadership has floundered so badly that he had to resign his post as the chairman of KMT and to personify a true lame duck for the remainder of his term as Taiwan’s president.
In the meantime, not having any worthy challengers, Tsai Ing-wen was emboldened to take a jaunt to Tokyo and meet various leaders of the LDP. She and Japan’s Prime Minister Abe are old friends and they were seen entering and leaving the same Tokyo hotel around lunchtime. They both publicly denied that a clandestine meeting took place.
The US and UK-educated Tsai entered politics when she was appointed by Chen to head the Mainland Affairs Council, a position that gave her high visibility though she showed a total lack of enthusiasm for developing closer ties across the Taiwan Straits with the mainland.
Tsai ran for the mayor of New Taipei City (the area outside of old Taipei) in 2010 and lost the election to Eric Chu, the current chairman of KMT. She headed the DPP ticket against Ma’s re-election bid in 2012 and again lost.
Now thanks in part to the self-destruction of KMT, Tsai has emerged as the overwhelming frontrunner and poised to take control of Taiwan with a majority in the Legislative Yuan as well. Earlier this year, her mentor, Chen Shui-bian, was released from prison on medical parole on the grounds that he had become mentally unbalanced. I would not be surprised if he recovers from his psychologically disturbed state soon after DPP resumes control of Taiwan.
These ominous developments bode badly for peace and stability. For the next four years, Taiwan will once again become the conundrum for Beijing and Tsai can be expected to raise the stakes of the Great tug-of-war Game between China, Japan and the US.
Dr. George Koo recently retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is a member of the Committee of 100, the Pacific Council for International Policy and a director of New America Media.
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