Does the KMT Still Have a Cross-Strait Role?
Former KMT Chairman Lien Chan no longer has a central role in the party, but he was invited to meet with Xi Jinping rather than the KMT’s incumbent chairman. What happened and does it signal the marginalization of the KMT in cross-strait affairs?
Does the KMT Still Have a Cross-Strait Role?By Amber Lin
In a meeting in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, he was described by Chinese President Xi Jinping as “an old friend who I haven’t seen in a long time.” The old friend was Lien Chan, a former Kuomintang (KMT) chairman who also served as Taiwan’s vice president and premier.
The 81-year-old Lien and incumbent KMT Chairman Wu Den-yih both stressed that Lien was making the visit in a personal capacity and not as a representative of the KMT. But the presence of Wu’s top advisor on China issues, Chou Jih-shine, in Lien’s delegation couldn’t help but give the impression that the visit was more than just a personal one.
Lien’s nine-day itinerary kept him busy. In Beijing, he met with Liu Jieyi, the head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office and gave a speech at a seminar, and he also traveled to Shenyang to pay tribute to his maternal grandparents at a memorial park. There was no doubt, however, that the trip’s highlight was the meeting with Xi on July 13.
It was Xi who took the initiative to invite Lien to their fourth “Lien-Xi meeting,” and before the encounter Chinese media stressed its importance at a time when cross-Taiwan Strait relations are at an impasse. Many believed that with the tensions seen in U.S.-China relations, Xi needed to keep relations with Taiwan under control to prevent more “variables” from arising.
In his remarks at the July 13 meeting, Xi stressed that because of China’s strong rise, its “two centennial goals” and the revitalization of the Chinese nation are closer to being achieved than at any time in history, which has given him a strong sense of national and historical responsibility.
‘1992 Consensus’ No Longer a Panacea
Many have wondered, however, why Xi decided to meet with Lien rather than Wu Den-yih. The annual forum between the KMT and Chinese Communist Party has not been held for two years, and in the year since Wu became party chairman, the prospects of a “Wu-Xi meeting” have been nothing more than talk. Why would Xi pass over Wu to meet with Lien?
“That basically indicates that after eight years of the Ma administration, mainland China is dissatisfied with the Ma-Wu approach,” observes a senior member of the KMT-led blue camp, referring to President Ma Ying-jeou, who was very conciliatory toward China while in office from 2008 to 2016.
Relations have been gridlocked since Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party took power in May 2016 and refused to recognize the “1992 consensus.” The consensus, which says there is only “one China” but with different interpretations of what that means, was at the foundation of Taiwan-China relations during the Ma years.
After reviewing the situation, Chinese agencies involved with Taiwan came to the conclusion that the main tenets of the Ma-Wu approach – “one China, different interpretations” and “first economics, then politics” – were out of step with Beijing’s line of “peaceful reunification.”
The Chinese have gotten tougher in insisting that the two sides adopt the same stances before allowing exchanges. Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je’s statement that the “two sides of the Taiwan Strait are one family” is now seen as closest in tone to China’s position, while “one China, different interpretations” has become politically incorrect.
Thus, Wu’s repeated emphasis of “one China, different interpretations” since taking over as KMT chairman in May 2017 and his use of the term in responding to Xi’s congratulatory message at that time were major taboos in Beijing’s eyes. Though Wu has recently adjusted his line and tried to mend fences, China feels it can no longer trust him.
“Many mainland Chinese officials or scholars all complain that ‘one China, different interpretations’ can be said anywhere. The only place it can be said is to their faces. Ma Ying-jeou did not bring it up in his meeting with Xi, but they felt Wu’s response was extremely impolite. That’s why a Wu-Xi meeting has not yet been arranged,” the blue camp source says.
On Nov. 7, 2015, former President Ma Ying-jeou and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Singapore. It was the first time in history that the leaders of the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China met. (Image:Ming Tang Huang)
China Desperate to Wade into Politics
Though the five-point agreement that emerged from the historic meeting between Lien and then Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2005 became the cross-strait agenda for the Ma administration, Lien was the one seen as setting the line on the KMT’s China policy.
But after Lien was harshly criticized for going to China in 2015 to participate in events to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and China’s war of resistance against Japan, he gradually grew distant from the Republic of China faction within the KMT and his “stance” no longer was representative of the party’s.
Yet the recent Lien-Xi meeting suggested that it is the KMT that is being marginalized, a phenomenon that was already hinted at when the KMT and CCP held their most recent forum two years ago.
The KMT-CCP Forum had served as the official framework for exchanges between the two parties for many years, and it was organized by the KMT and its think tanks. But for the last conference held, China designated for the first time an alliance of 10 social groups to organize the proceedings, a clear sign that the KMT’s role was being diluted.
In the forum’s political discussions, Chinese scholars badgered the KMT to take the lead in signing political frameworks involving a “cross-strait military trust mechanism” and a “cross-strait peace treaty,” but the KMT wouldn’t budge, angering the Chinese side.
According to sources, the Chinese side believes that progress was made on the economic front during the Ma administration’s eight years but laments that no progress was made in delving into political waters. If a political agreement had been signed, it would have had a restraining effect on future governments, preventing the current deadlock, Beijing believes. At the time, KMT Chairwomen Hung Hsiu-chu’s key advisor on cross-strait relations, National Taiwan University political science professor Chang Ya-chung, had thrashed out an understanding with the Chinese side, but could not convince the KMT to follow the course.
Hung Hsiu-chu and Chang Ya-chung are now no longer core figures inside the party and therefore not in a position to influence the KMT’s China policy, but that doesn’t mean the KMT is not without concerns.
The biggest advantage the KMT has over the DPP in the eyes of voters is its “ability to handle cross-strait relations,” the blue camp veteran says. But during the Ma administration’s eight years, whether party to party, local government to local government, or even with ward chiefs, China built a tight network of contacts and can now deal directly with civil society without needing the KMT as an intermediary.
After the DPP took power in 2016, China’s approach toward Taiwan changed. It started targeting “one generation, one stratum,” referring to the younger generation and grassroots residents, in place of the “three middles, one youth” approach of the past, which focused on small and medium-sized companies, middle and low-income families, central and southern Taiwan, and youth.
Since the “one generation, one stratum” approach has taken hold, China has worked directly with family and clan associations and temple organizations and contacted farmers association heads to discuss the purchase of agricultural products, avoiding going through the KMT as much as possible.
Beijing hopes that by directly conferring benefits, the beneficiaries will credit the Chinese Communist Party rather than the KMT. At the same time, the KMT’s role as the “exclusive agent of cross-strait relations” is disappearing.
“They used to set things up for the KMT, but mainland China felt that in the end that not even its political message was being promoted and carried out, so why bother to give the KMT a boost? The Chinese side has more than once stressed that if the DPP is to govern Taiwan for a long time, it is prepared to deal with the DPP,” says a cross-strait affairs expert who keeps in touch with Chinese officials and academics.
The KMT’s Prisoner’s Dilemma
At the same time, China’s three-pronged approach toward Taiwan of “opposing independence,” “promoting reunification,” and “spreading warmth” is becoming increasingly clear.
Aside from Beijing’s initiative to lure Taiwanese talent and investment with 31 “preferential” measures, Chinese academics who study Taiwan have begun to call on the DPP to abandon Taiwan independence clauses in its party platform, and they are researching tangible programs for governing Taiwan under the “one country, two systems” formula.
These initiatives, which show “warmth” to Taiwan’s people, take a hard “anti-independence” line toward the DPP, and push “promoting reunification” to the KMT, hint at Beijing’s urgency to make progress on unification.
With Xi Jinping feeling a “historical responsibility to achieve peaceful reunification,” does the KMT have a role to play?
The source from the blue camp admits that China’s appetite is growing, and the KMT cannot return to the Ma-Wu stance focused on the “1992 consensus” and “one China, different interpretations.” The only role it has left vis-à-vis the CCP is as a conduit for united front propaganda through a political agreement.
That’s because only if the KMT returns to power is there the possibility of institutionalizing through the law a unification agenda under the Republic of China system and completing Xi’s historical mission. But the KMT faces a prisoner’s dilemma, because the more it wades into these political waters, the further away it becomes from a return to power, as the vast majority of Taiwanese are opposed to a political union with Beijing.
“It’s not something that can be ruled out over the long term, but it requires the necessary social conditions. Taiwan will not simply do what you want it to do,” the blue-camp source says.
“China’s logic is completely different. They see politics as being promoted from the top down and the people as sheep to be shepherded in the direction leaders want. They felt the KMT went with the flow and did not have the will or the ambition to convince Taiwan’s people. If politics and public opinion on the two sides of the strait are different, there’s not much to talk about,” the source says.
Ultimately, will the Lien-Xi meeting that highlighted the theme of the “Chinese nation” give a boost to the KMT?
“Elections are just around the corner. If the KMT and CCP get too close, it will only increase uncertainty,” the source says.
“The KMT should not be under the illusion that moving closer to the CCP will help its election chances. Right now, [the KMT] has had to cede ground out of weakness, because what [China] believes in is strength. The KMT would be better off doing well in the elections if it wants to have negotiating leverage in the future.”
Translated by Luke Sabatier
Edited by HanSheng Huang