Taiwan Brief: The critical KMT chair race, part 1

Welcome to Taiwan Brief, a deep dive look into Taiwan affairs. This is the same 10-15 minute show we’ve been calling Taiwan Report News Brief, but with a briefer name. I’m Donovan Smith, let’s jump right in!

The KMT finally has some dates for the chair race!
So today we’re going to do a deep dive on the race, the candidates–both declared, and possible–and their chances.
I think this may be one of the most important, if not the most important, KMT chair race in modern history.
The reason I’m watching it so closely is that Taiwan’s democracy at the national level is dysfunctional.
To a certain degree, that’s always been true.
In the 1990s, the dysfunction was the two main parties had very different ideas on what the country was, one was loyal to Taiwan, the other to the Republic of China.
That’s obviously not a normal situation.
However, in those days both the KMT and DPP could be relied on to defend the country.
The KMT was reliably anti-Communist, allied with the United States–and determined to maintain the Republic of China’s continued existence.
Since then, things have changed.
Starting with Lien Chan’s chairmanship, the party moved closer to China.
Interactions grew increasingly close, money got involved and a whole so-called comprador class entered the party.
This, combined with the party’s traditional “one China” stance and belief that Taiwanese were Chinese, led to a situation where many in the KMT were effectively collaborating with the enemy.
This started to become obvious to the general public during the Ma Ying-jeou years.
He let military spending dwindle, he risked hollowing out chunks of the economy with trade deals, introduced irritants in the relationship with Japan and met with Xi Jinping.
This led to a huge backlash in the form of the Sunflower Movement, which saw hundreds of thousands flood the streets in protest.
Since then, identifying as Taiwanese continued to grow–but more importantly, deepened for many.
Simultaneously, the PRC under Xi Jinping has grown increasingly hostile and threatening, launched a genocide in East Turkestan (aka Xinjiang) and in Hong Kong made a total lie of the very ‘one country, two systems’ that the PRC was offering Taiwan–and explicitly tied to the ‘1992 Consensus’.
These shifts meant that the majority of Taiwanese voters turned against the ‘1992 Consensus’ and any talk of ‘one China’, both of which the KMT espouses.
The party has bled support on the national level, and the party’s membership under the age of 40 dropped to just over 2%.
This has led to back-to-back landslide losses in the presidential race, and reduced only about a third of the legislature.
Worse for the KMT, the party is facing financial and demographic disaster.
So while they haven’t yet totally collapsed, and they remain viable in local elections, they’re facing a future of turning into a broke old folk’s home.
Meanwhile, the three viable opposition parties, the Taiwan People’s Party, the New Power Party and the Taiwan Statebuilding Party, have been only slowly gaining traction–and the NPP seems determined to shoot itself in the foot every step of the way.
This has left a lopsided situation where the DPP virtually has a lock on the presidency, barring a complicated multi-candidate showdown.
That’s not healthy.
The longer the DPP remains in power–as with any party anywhere in the world with a lock on power–the more corrupt and arrogant it will get.
There needs to be a viable opposition long-term.
That’s why this KMT chair race is so crucial, it will determine if the party has any hope of being viable again.
It has the experience, networks and people that the smaller third parties lack–but an ideology that is effectively toxic to the majority of voters.
Some in the party understand the writing is on the wall.
Current Chair Johnny Chiang does get it, and has tried to drop the ‘1992 Consensus’, move the party closer to what they were in the 90s, and closer to the US and staunch defenders of the ROC.
He’s been stymied in much of this, however.
Party membership under 40 has risen, but to only over 3%.
This election will also tell us a lot about where the party stands by their choice of chair.
The party tends to pick less influential chairs during by-elections–like Johnny Chiang and Hung Hsiu-chu–but this is a full term election, which they tend to take far more seriously and the candidates tend to be the kind of heavyweights with the kind of influence they can use to change the direction of the party.
So who they choose is hugely consequential for the future of not just the party, but the direction of Taiwan’s democracy.

So let’s dive in.
This is from the KMT press release:
“The Kuomintang’s (KMT) Central Standing Committee (CSC) passed an amendment to the 2021 election operation schedule for the chairmanship election and the 21st National Party Representatives’ election.
Prospective candidates can obtain registration forms on August 12 and 13, while candidate registration is on August 16 and 17.
The campaigning period will take place from September 11 through September 24.”
The press release continues further down with this:
“Voting will be held on September 25, from 8 AM until 4 PM.
The election results will be announced before September 28, and the results will be verified by the CSC on September 29.”
The vote had been scheduled for July, but was delayed due to the level 3 lockdown.
One thing the press release leaves out is that current chair Johnny Chiang’s term ends on August 18.
He has already announced that once he registers to be re-elected, which is the 16th or 17th, he will immediately take a leave of absence.
Though some other names have been floated in the press, most likely current KMT Secretary-general Lee Chien-lung will serve during that transition period.
There are four already declared candidates: Current chair and lawmaker Johnny Chiang (江啟臣); Chang Ya-chung (張亞中), president of the KMT’s Sun Yat-sen School; Wei Po-tao (韋伯韜), former head of the Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics; and former Changhua County Commissioner Cho Po-yuan (卓伯源).

Let’s start with Wei.
He’s a largely faceless bureaucrat who was born in China in 1949, and who is most famous for being on his third wife who is 30 years younger than himself.
He’s such an unknown that when he announced he was going to run, former president and KMT chair Ma Ying-jeou commented “who is that?”
He’s headed up various government departments and state-owned Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor, and claims if he wins he won’t take a salary and won’t run for office.
In his announcement, his promises were nondescript, vague to an extreme–advocating among other things “clean government” and “peace”.
Good to know he’s not running on a platform of corruption and bloody mayhem in the streets.
Usually in local commentary they don’t even bother to mention him.
It’s totally unclear why he is running, and doesn’t appear to have even enough support for other candidates to court his support.
Maybe he wants to impress his wife.
My suggestion on his campaign is to pose with his wife with a big grin and a thumb’s up, with the slogan “Wei to go!”

Former Changhua County Commissioner Cho Po-yuan (卓伯源) is someone I’m more familiar with from reporting on him for ICRT’s central Taiwan news.
Mostly, the reporting was on various corruption scandals involving his family members, including his brother, who went to jail.
From memory, one of the scandals was kickbacks over orders of garbage bags for the county EPA and another was mishandling of funds for Ma Ying-jeou’s second presidential run–something that Ma apparently had nothing to do with and was the victim of.
He supports the 92 Consensus and better relations with China.
He’s another candidate who also lacks widespread name recognition, though Ma definitely wouldn’t have to ask who he is.
He’s not even all that popular in Changhua.
After being term-limited out of the commissioner post, he ran for a legislative seat that saw a violent primary, and he went on to lose anyway.
He is probably a long shot, but perhaps he’s hoping the run will raise his profile for the future, something that Han Kuo-yu did to good effect after losing in his KMT chair run.
My suggested campaign for him is him sitting in a pile of cash with the slogan “Cho knows how to handle campaign funds!”

So, what about Chang Ya-chung (張亞中), president of the KMT’s Sun Yat-sen School?
He’s a bit of a gadfly, whose main claim to fame is running for KMT chair and contesting the KMT presidential primary–and getting absolutely slaughtered.
And now he’s at it again.
He’s a mainlander with strong ties to the PRC, going there often, and supports a policy of “one China, three constitutions”–in other words a variation on “one country, two systems”.
He’s close to, and reportedly had much to do with forming, Hung Hsiu-chu’s China platform during her eventually aborted presidential run.
And of course that turned out to be so popular the KMT kicked her off the ticket.
When she was party chair, she created the Sun Yat-sen school, and put him in charge.
He’s also frequently quoted in that charming CCP mouthpiece Global Times.
And he recently was part of a group that sued President Tsai, Premier Su and Health Minister Chen Shih-chung for “politicalizing the pandemic to benefit themselves.”
In short, he’d be a total disaster for the party.
He’s considered–once again–a total longshot.
For his campaign, I’d suggest posing in front of a map of China including Taiwan, and the slogan “Surrender in three, two, one country two systems!”

The fourth declared candidate, current chair Johnny Chiang, is almost certainly the most reformist candidate of the bunch of the candidates–already declared or likely to run.
He’s also the youngest at age 49, and the one with the best electoral record–he has consistently won big in his Fengyuan District.
I’ve met him twice, and he took out nearly 30 minutes at an anti-pollution rally to chat with me when I was the Taichung AmCham chair.
We mostly talked about Taichung public transportation policy.
The other time I met him, when he came to speak at an AmCham dinner, I jokingly asked what it was about former heads of the Government Information Office that makes them want to run for Taichung Mayor.
He held that post, as did the then Mayor Lin Chia-lung and his predecessor Jason Hu.
He got the joke and laughed.
He was running in the KMT primary for Taichung Mayor at the time–a race he lost by less than 1%.
The primary was based on a phone polling, and in the end he lost by roughly 20 votes.
Surprisingly, he was a good sport about it, and despite there being ample grounds to contest the primary, he instead immediately threw his support behind Lu Shiow-yen.
Who knows, if he had instead worked the crowd at that rally instead of chatting with me, maybe he would have won.
His family has been in Taiwan for hundreds of years, and is associated with the local Red Faction.
Unusually, he isn’t related to the families that dominate the Red Faction, but apparently they didn’t have a good candidate to run in his district–a traditional Red Faction stronghold–so he approached them for their blessing.
He isn’t a strong ideologue, and clearly understands which direction the party needs to go to regain voters trust.
He tried, but failed, to get the 1992 Consensus removed from the party platform at the party congress last year–but has a little success in moving the party closer to the US.
He was defeated due to several factors.
Old school heavyweights in the party, like Ma Ying-jeou, worked hard to undermine him and no doubt will continue to.
Plus, he’s young and was elected in a by-election, so he’s considered a mere caretaker chair and not taken terribly seriously.
Apparently when the KMT legislative caucus–which he’s a part of–launched their raucous takeover of the legislature during their early racto-pork protests, he was totally caught unaware and had to race back to Taipei to join in.
So he’s not entirely in control of the agenda.
And over 80% of the party rank-and-file also supported the 1992 Consensus–in spite of it being overwhelmingly rejected by the electorate at large.
In short, he’s been trying to pull the party closer to the centre where all the cool voters are–but the party is like a drunk at the One China Dive Bar and doesn’t want to leave.
Still, he is considered one of the more serious candidates.
If he were to win this time for a full term, he would no longer be considered a mere temporary caretaker, which would give him more heft and influence.
Of the four declared candidates, he is by far the most popular and viable.
The threat, however, comes from who might yet enter the race.
Chiang has already declared that if he wins, he won’t–as is traditional in the party–run for president in 2024, but instead will work to be a “kingmaker” for another candidate.
This is almost certainly intended as a strategy to try and keep others out of the race for chair by leaving open a deal to be made whereby they support him for chair, and he supports their presidential run from the powerful position of chair.
As we saw in the last presidential primary, then chair Wu Den-yih managed to get the rules changed multiple times to pave the way for Han Kuo-yu to win the nomination.
His target is almost certainly specifically Eric Chu, and there have been stories in the local papers about secret meetings between them.
Chu hasn’t tipped his hand whether he will run or not, but he’s been acting like someone who is–but more on that later in the show.
If Chu throws his support behind Chiang, that would give Chiang a decent chance to win against all the widely rumoured candidates out there–though Han Kuo-yu might give him a run for it.
My suggestion for his slogan is “Electability, remember what that feels like?”

That wraps up part one.
In the next part we’ll go into the likely, and less likely, candidates who may enter the race–and what to watch for!

Image courtesy of Johnny Chiang’s FB

Related Posts