Welcome to Taiwan Brief, an in-depth look at topics impacting Taiwan’s future. I’m Donovan Smith in Taichung.
This is part two on the topic of the KMT chair race.
Part one introduced why this race is a crucial one for not just the party, but the future of Taiwan’s democracy.
We also looked at the four already declared candidates.
In this show, we’ll look at the three candidates widely rumoured to about to enter the race: Sean Lien, Dan Han Kuo-yu and Eric Chu.
I’ll also talk a bit about three other players to watch who might enter the race, but aren’t being as widely discussed–but I think have probably at least been considering a run: Hau Lung-pin, Chou Hsi-wei and Ma Ying-jeou. I’ll finish on who the CCP might prefer to see win.
The other day Sean Lien was quoted in the papers as saying he was “considering the pros and cons” of running for KMT chair.
Then, on Sunday, a NOW News report said that he’s also in talks with Eric Chu about cooperating, though it didn’t say it was a done deal, nor were the sources of this information entirely clear.
But likely one way or the other, he’s going to be a player on some level.
Lien is the son of former Vice President, former KMT Chair and twice failed KMT presidential candidate Lien Chan.
Lien Chan is famous for being out of touch with voters, outrageously rich and for reaching out to the Chinese Communist Party, and deepening ties with them.
He’s also the one, although he didn’t create it, who made the 1992 Consensus the cornerstone of the KMT’s approach to China.
Sean Lien’s image is as a rich KMT princeling who was educated in law at Columbia University.
He had a career in investment banking for awhile, and then was appointed by then Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-pin to run the company that manages Easy Card, but he retired soon after for “health reasons”, and didn’t leave with a great reputation.
The year after that he was shot in the face while campaigning for a New Taipei City councilman candidate.
It was a mild wound and he recovered, but it did get him a lot of press.
In 2014 he ran for Taipei Mayor and, like his father, developed a reputation for being out of touch, in spite of accounts I’d heard from people he’s a pretty affable character.
He lost in a landslide to then-independent Ko Wen-je, who then had the backing of the DPP…which would be unimaginable today.
Since then his only notable achievements are positions in the upper echelons of the party.
Being raised in the party, and have been in it’s bureaucracy for awhile now means he’s probably well versed in its in-and-outs, which could be useful for the party.
However, most indications–and what little polling is out there–suggest he doesn’t have much support, though he’s not a total nobody like three of the four already declared candidates.
It does appear that Johnny Chiang, Han Kuo-yu and Eric Chu have more support than he does.
My suggestion for his campaign is to pose him with his father with the slogan “bring your son to work day!”
One potential heavyweight who could enter the race is Daniel Han Kuo-yu, the KMT’s presidential nominee in the last election.
The one word that can be applied to Han across the political spectrum is “inspirational”.
On the pan-blue side, he was the key inspirational figure behind the stunning KMT sweep in the 2018 local elections that saw him elected as mayor of Kaohsiung, which only months earlier had seemed a DPP bastion.
He built an army of followers who were fervently loyal to his brand of ROC patriotism and nostalgia for the 1980s economic boom times–which also happened to be the waning days of KMT one-party rule.
He was no less inspirational to both pan-greens and Taiwan’s youth.
The horror and fear he provoked led to an outpouring of activism among Taiwan’s youth, leading to an astounding voter turnout among young voters that would have seemed improbable not so long ago–and gave President Tsai the biggest win in Taiwan’s history.
It also inspired largely young activists to build and successfully launch a recall campaign against Han as mayor that in the end saw him deposed.
To his supporters, who demographically were weighted heavily towards people who were young in the 1980s and especially towards women of that generation, he was a heroic figure who would magically restore the economic boom times and imagined simpler sensibilities of that era.
To his detractors he was at best an incompetent buffoon, at worst an authoritarian who would sell out Taiwan to Beijing.
He proved to be astoundingly effective at getting out the vote, both for and against him.
He managed to pull in more than 1.7 million more votes than Eric Chu got in 2016–but he also managed to mobilize 1.2 million more votes for President Tsai, who won easily that year.
Han had seemed like a relative nobody not so long ago.
He was a lawmaker back in the 1990s, but that was at a time when the number of lawmakers representing Taiwan was roughly the population of a country that diplomatically recognizes Taiwan.
His big claim to fame at that time was punching out then fellow lawmaker and future President Chen Shui-bian, hospitalizing him.
After years of obscurity in Yunlin County, he re-appeared as head of the semi-state owned Taipei agricultural marketing board, and in comments to the city council made a comment about “the rabbit goes with the moon” about his relations with Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je that went viral.
He then, rather audaciously, ran for KMT chair–but lost easily to Wu Den-yih.
My theory is that Wu, as punishment, banished him to DPP stronghold Kaohsiung to get him out of the way–but that put him right in the hands of the wily political operator and former legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng, who was busily uniting the KMT local factions and hungry for power in his own planned presidential bid.
Han, a mainlander (but not a princeling), now was backed by the Taiwanese factional pols and surreptitiously by China’s United Front.
He ran a positive campaign for mayor that was heavy on often unrealistic but very optimistic plans and nostalgia.
He became an overnight sensation, and campaigned across the country for other candidates, lifting many KMT boats in a crushing year for DPP local leaders.
Within months of taking office, there was already talk of him running for president–most notably coming from KMT Chair Wu Den-yih, who for long-standing reasons wanted more than anything to block Wang Jin-pyng.
In the end, Wu succeeded in splitting Han from Wang and getting Han to make a presidential run of his own.
Having stabbed Wang in the back, he went on to win the primary–with a lot of help from Wu, who repeatedly changed the primary rules to accommodate him.
Within the KMT rank and file, he continues to have support.
In most of the admittedly not terribly reliable polling he is either second or third in popularity, behind Eric Chu and sometimes Johnny Chiang–though that is more with the public at large, not KMT members.
But after his crushing defeat in the last presidential election, will he run?
Initially, he threw his support behind media personality Jaw Shaw-kong, but Jaw’s party membership is too recent to qualify.
With Jaw out of the race, Han began to be more active on social media, curiously leaning in heavily on Bible quotations.
We also know he wants the position, after all–he once ran for the position.
And ideologically, for a deep blue guy like Han, being KMT chair is highly prestigious–like being the pope in the Church of the Holy One China.
He hasn’t tipped his hand yet, but he’s clearly thinking about it.
If he were to run, and win, he’d energize the KMT’s dwindling base.
However, he’d pretty much alienate everyone else.
Probably one of the few things the Chinese Communist Party and Democratic Progressive Party both hope for is for him to take over as KMT chair.
The CCP has already made clear they favour him, and the DPP would love to see him wreck whatever support amongst independents is left for the party.
My suggestion for his campaign slogan is “Putting the terror in green terror!”
The clear frontrunner is Eric Chu.
According to a NOW News report on Sunday that came out after doing part one of this series, he is definitely going to run, and he’ll be making his announcement “as soon as this week.”
It also said he is in talks about cooperating with Sean Lien.
I don’t know how reliable that report is, but Chu has been acting like a guy planning to run.
Before the level three lockdown, he did a Ma Ying-jeou style “listening” tour of the country, taking lots of pictures of himself posing with farmers and “normal folk”.
Chu comes from a political family, and is considered half mainlander, half Taiwanese.
He was educated in the US, and was an assistant professor there, before taking up a post at NTU in Taipei.
He started his political career as a lawmaker, and then was a two-term Taoyuan County Commissioner.
After a brief term as Vice Premier, he ran for mayor of New Taipei and won, beating one Tsai Ing-wen.
He won again four years later by a narrow margin over the current legislative speaker.
In 2015 he was elected as KMT chair in a by-election, running unopposed.
Bucking tradition, he declined to throw in his hat to run for president.
He wasn’t alone, no one of any heft in the party was willing to run–it was obvious the KMT was going to lose this one.
So it was left to the relatively unknown and deep blue Hung Hsiu-chu to represent the party.
As the campaign wore on, it became increasingly clear she was a disaster as a candidate, and pressure mounted to have her replaced.
Under pressure from the party, she was de-nominated and Chu chosen to replace her.
That did nothing for the KMT in the polls, and in fact they continued to decline.
He went on to a landslide defeat not only in his campaign for president, but also his party in the legislature.
He then resigned as KMT chair, just shy of one year in office, to take responsibility for the loss.
How much responsibility for that loss is on him is hard to say.
The election was essentially a repudiation of the Ma administration, which Chu wasn’t a part of.
He was also the most popular KMT politician in the country at the time, no one else came close.
That being said, his campaign was unimaginative and uninspiring.
Other than having vaguely KMT stances on issues, pretty much everything he said seemed to design to obscure what he thought rather than illuminate any vision for the country.
In many ways, Eric Chu is the opposite of Han Kuo-yu.
Chu is hard to excited about, or to hate–he comes across as a harmless, affable sort of guy.
His avoidance of taking clear stands on issues whenever he can means that it is unclear where he stands–or even if he stands for anything or not.
Perhaps under the surface he’s a hardliner, or perhaps a moderate, maybe a pragmatist…or perhaps a reformer, who knows?
In his previous term as chair he talked about reforming the party, but his short tenure and with the distraction of the election, not much got done or could have under the circumstances.
He seems to be acceptable to the old school politicians like Ma Ying-jeou, but he also seems to get along well enough with Johnny Chiang.
A guess is he is more old school than Johnny Chiang, but not quite another Ma Ying-jeou.
His current “appeal to all sides” approach–which has served him well–may evaporate if he has genuine power, but I doubt it as long as a potential run for the presidency looms on the horizon.
But there is no certainty in that, he may just plan to muddle through working on consensus.
He is still the second most popular KMT politician in the country, after Hou Yu-ih, but as noted–not so much because people are excited about him, but because he seems ok.
In the NOW News report, he plans to be close to the KMT membership, public opinion, rebuild cross strait communications, “deepen the beauty of the KMT” and build mutual trust with Japan.
He wants to have better relations with both Beijing and Washington/Tokyo.
All that sounds very much like his standard “all things to all people” approach.
My suggested slogan for him is “taking a firm stand for moms, dumplings, puppies and kittens!”
There are three others that the press hasn’t been speculating as much on worth keeping an eye on.
Former one-term Taipei County Commissioner Chou Hsi-wei is one.
He seems to have a passion for trying to revive his political career by putting his name out there.
If he joins the race, however, he’d be a long shot.
Another is former two-term Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-pin.
Traditionally, Taipei Mayor has been a stepping-off point for president, but his career has been a total flop since he left office.
He lost in a legislative race in Keelung, which was pretty humiliating.
He then pivoted to running for KMT Chair in 2017, but came in third.
He then tried again last year, but Johnny Chiang easily defeated him.
He’s a princeling of one of the deepest of deep blue families, and is the son of the former premier and top general Hau Pei-tsun.
If he decides to run, he’ll probably lose again.
He’s been beaten twice, but he may just be desparate enough to get his career back on track he may yet try again.
Speaking of reviving careers, another one to watch is former president and KMT chair Ma Ying-jeou.
He has been very active recently and keeping himself in the press and the public eye.
There are three possibilities as to what he’s up to.
The simplest is that he’s working to keep his influence in the party, so he can do things like undermine Johnny Chiang’s attempt to ditch the 1992 Consensus.
However, his deep dislike for the DPP’s China policies and his ego may just be large enough to contemplate running for KMT chair, or even president.
If he enters the race it would be very, very interesting to see how the party reacts.
Will the utter repudiation of his presidency in 2016 still be in mind, or will they be nostalgic for the “good old days” when they were in power?
I don’t know–but he’d definitely be a force to be reckoned with.
The other potential candidate looming large is New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih.
He’s the most popular politician in the country, and would probably win if he ran–but so far he’s shown no interest in doing so.
If he joins the race, he’d totally upend everyone’s calculations.
Finally, who would be the CCP’s preferred candidate?
The one thing we know for sure is it definitely isn’t Johnny Chiang.
He’s the only recent KMT Chair that the Chinese leader didn’t send congratulations to when he was elected, and the ever-charming CCP mouthpiece Global Times has repeatedly attacked him.
They would probably like someone like Chang Ya-chung, but of the candidates with a plausible chance of winning, they’d probably prefer Han Kuo-yu.
They have already heaped praise on him, and his ability to sow societal discord plays well into United Front tactics.
They may, however, realise how much damage he could do to the KMT–so to keep the KMT viable, they may prefer Eric Chu.