Tea Leaf Nation

Taiwan’s Ruling Party Just Booted Its Own Sarah Palin Off the Ticket

But that may still be too little, too late for the island’s struggling Beijing-friendly party.

Hung small

Less than 100 days before Taiwan’s 2016 presidential elections, the Kuomintang (KMT), the governing party on the self-ruling island, has voted to recall its candidate for president, party stalwart Hung Hsiu-chu. Her replacement will be Eric Chu, the centrist mayor of New Taipei City, adjacent to the capital city of Taipei. The KMT faces a difficult election season, made more difficult in no small part by Hung’s freewheeling campaign, which often veered in the opposite direction of public opinion. Compared to its more pro-independence rival the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the KMT is known for its emphasis on increased engagement and integration with mainland China, and holds that Taiwan, as part of China, has a “special relationship” with the mainland that necessitates a gradual deepening of ties. But the public mood has swung sharply against closer relations with Beijing, and Taiwanese have rebuffed current President Ma Ying-jeou’s pro-integration agenda, leaving the party reeling. The move to drop Hung seems to be a belated acknowledgment that the KMT must find a new message, or else face a historic loss in the upcoming election — or even, some analysts predict, extinction.

Whatever the KMT’s new message will be, the party decided Hung would be the wrong messenger. If the KMT was the U.S. Republican party, Hung would be its Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Sarah Palin rolled into one — a loose cannon few within mainstream ranks could be comfortable putting forth. A feisty pro-integration hardliner, Hung gained her nom-de-guerre, “little hot chili pepper,” for her time serving in Taiwan’s unruly legislature. The nickname elides her two most distinctive features: her fiery red hair color and combative, take-no-prisoner attitude toward politics. Hung joined the party in eleventh grade, and spent most of her career climbing the ranks, cocooned between party apparatchiks and core supporters. Her speeches bristle with stodgy, archaic party terminology. Hung defiantly stood by the legacy of the deeply unpopular outgoing president, in many cases even outdoing Ma’s inclination for engagement with Beijing, which considers Taiwan a rogue province. She called Taiwan a “model province” of China, and on one occasion characterized reunification with China as inevitable, calling for Taiwanese to take the initiative and self-integrate with the mainland. Such rhetoric clearly alienated a large swath of the Taiwanese electorate; before her ouster, Hung was polling below 20 percent while the DPP candidate for president, Tsai Ying-wen, was polling above 40 percent.

The unpopularity of Hung’s candidacy seems a rare exception for a party that’s used to having its way. Since the KMT fled to Taiwan with its leader, Chiang Kai-shek, in 1949 after losing the Chinese Civil War to the Chinese Communist Party, it has since ruled the island in various capacities, first as an authoritarian party-state, then as the dominant political party, with only an eight-year hiatus from 2000 to 2008 when the DPP under Chen Shui-bian won the presidency for the first time. (Chen was later sentenced to 20 years in prison for corruption, and is currently out on medical parole.) KMT has maintained that Taiwan is part of a larger China while positioning itself as the rightful steward of cross-strait relations, combining its message of cross-strait stability and peace with a pro-business agenda to considerable success. The KMT has never truly been in the minority — even while the DPP held the presidency, the KMT remained in control of the legislature.

But the KMT’s primacy might be nearing its end. The KMT has banked its future on an agenda of closer ties with mainland China, but Taiwanese today increasingly see themselves as distinct from the mainland. In 1994, 26.2 percent of the public identified as Chinese; today only 3.3 percent do. Today, a majority of Taiwan’s public consider themselves exclusively “Taiwanese,” and those that maintain a dual identity — both Chinese and Taiwanese — are dwindling, from 46.4 percent in 1992 to 33.7 percent today. Young people that have grown up in a democratic Taiwan have led the trend. Students have responded to textbooks focusing on Chinese, rather than Taiwanese, history with derision and even defiance. In August, high school students occupied the Ministry of Education in protest of a proposed revision that would insert more Chinese history into textbooks. It’s unsurprising, then, that only 9.1 percent of Taiwanese support unification, while a majority are fiercely committed to the status quo, if not outright independence.

In the spring of 2015, when the KMT began the process of nominating a candidate, the party had just come out of a year of painful public setbacks. First, in early 2014 the student-led Sunflower movement galvanized public opinion against Ma’s signature trade pact with China, grinding his agenda to a halt. Then the party got trounced in the local elections, losing a historic number of legislative seats and critical mayorships to opposition politicians that leaned towards independence. Chu, newly selected Hung’s replacement, was elected chairman to help give the party a much-needed new image. On the first anniversary of the Sunflower movement, Chu said that the KMT would learn from its mistakes and build a more inclusive party; but he surprised many by declining to run for president. Meanwhile, the old brass of the KMT, including the outgoing president, were deeply worried that the future presidential candidate would drop the party’s core mission of integrating with the mainland. Rather than reorienting its message away from cross-strait relations, the party hunkered down by selecting Hung, a hardliner who wouldn’t win but also wouldn’t abandon party orthodoxy.

From the beginning, Hung seemed generally out of place in Taiwan, circa 2015. Hung blundered from misstep to misstep, to the elation of Taiwan’s notoriously gossipy, scandal-driven media. Rather than play down her differences of opinion with the Taiwanese public, Hung seemed like she couldn’t stop talking about them, much to the dismay of her party. She advocated intensifying engagement with the Chinese Communist Party, which rules the mainland, both on economic and political issues, warning that doing otherwise would end in disaster. She encouraged Taiwanese to embrace such a reality and move joyfully towards integration. “One China, two interpretations,” the mutually-agreed upon consensus that’s governed cross-strait relations since 1992 and allowed Taiwan to act with de-facto independence, she averred, should be “one China, same interpretation.” When accused of being part of the “unification clique,” Hung demurred, saying she was party of the “correct clique.” By August, Hung’s popularity had dropped precipitously.

But Hung’s problems only got worse as she held course. On Sept. 23, 10 KMT legislative candidates vowed to withdraw unless she bowed out. Taiwanese businessmen in China, the powerful taishang that are a backbone of KMT support, voted with their money, donating to legislative candidates rather than Hung’s campaign. As Hung became more isolated, her Facebook page became a bizarre repository of Hung’s reflections on Taiwanese society, where she bemoaned the shallow populism and superficiality of the public. If Hung’s enemies were attempting to encircle her, she provided whatever additional resolve they needed to finish the job when in early October, she called for unification: “At the end of the road, it is unification, be it in 50 years or 100 years,” Hung said. “However, it should be our initiative to unify [China], rather than being annexed by someone else.” One enraged taishang asked, “How can she poke at the hornets like that?” While the KMT is the party of integration, it had carefully steered away from being the party of unification. Hung had clearly crossed the line.

In the end, the real loser was the KMT. According to a poll on Oct. 8, a majority of the Taiwanese public disagreed with Hung’s removal: even if they didn’t support her in politics, they disapproved of the unceremonious ouster by her own party. The spectacle of Hung’s removal, more so than her campaign itself, seems to augur the fate of the party, at least in the near term. Chu will have trouble explaining to his New Taipei electorate why he broke his promise to serve out his term as mayor. There’s also a possibility that the KMT will continue hemorrhaging legislative seats, raising the possibility that the KMT, for the first time in Taiwan’s democratic history, will lose its legislative majority. Some analysts have even speculated that the party will not survive the election, especially if it fails to meet the one-third seat threshold required to introduce bills. Perhaps fittingly, while KMT members congregated to vote on Hung’s dismissal, some of Hung’s dejected core supporters gathered at the memorial to Chiang Kai-shek in downtown Taipei, for a final “farewell” to the KMT. Come election day, the rest of Taiwan might be saying goodbye too.

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Correction, Oct. 20, 2015: New Taipei is a city adjacent to Taiwan’s capital city of Taipei. A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that New Taipei was a county that includes the capital city of Taipei. 

Lorand C. Laskai is a Beijing-based writer who previously lived in Tainan, Taiwan. He tweets from @lorandlaskai.

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