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Tea Leaf Nation
How Taiwan’s Ruling but Reeling Kuomintang Can Win the Future
It's time for the 120-year-old party to get more web-savvy and youth-driven.
TAIPEI, Taiwan – The Kuomintang (KMT), Taiwan’s 120-year-old ruling political party, is in the throes of reform. On Feb. 10, 54-year-old Eric Chu assumed leadership of the party’s think tank after having taken the party chairmanship on Jan. 17. Chu is aiming for major restructuring after the KMT took a drubbing at the hands of the less Beijing-friendly Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan’s November 2014 local elections. As returns rolled in from more than 11,000 village and local level elections on this self-governing island of 23 million, the damage became clear: The KMT emerged having secured only six out of 22 local seats and six of the 15 counties it had previously controlled. The party of current Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou even lost the capital city of Taipei, which had been under the KMT’s aegis for 16 straight years. The resounding defeat was the result of many factors converging at once: an unequal distribution of wealth, sluggish government reform, and the KMT’s perceived coolness towards youth and civil movements. The question now is what the KMT, of which I am the spokesperson, can do to turn things around.
In retrospect, it’s hard to miss the major reasons for the KMT’s recent losses. The party’s driving policy has long been the pursuit of economic growth, but Taiwan’s people have not enjoyed the fruits of that growth equally. From 1997 to 2013, Taiwan’s economy grew at an annualized rate of over 4.3 percent. But real wages were just over half a percent higher at the end of that period than they were at the beginning, even as daily commodities and homes have become more expensive. The housing price-to-income ratio is now higher in Taipei than in Hong Kong or Singapore, both known for wealth inequality.
Meanwhile, our party has lately failed to satisfy the thirst that many civic groups have shown for greater involvement. In July 2013, the death of a 24-year-old Taiwanese soldier named Hung Chung-chiu while in military detention sparked public anger against army mismanagement and allegations of abuse within the armed services. People criticized the investigation that ensued as biased; resulting protests drew over 110,000, according to police estimates, and gave rise to what later became known as the White Shirt movement, a youth-led effort. That same month, during a land confiscation case in Dapu, a rural township about 70 miles from Taipei, protests gathered town residents who felt that Taiwan’s Ministry of the Interior had reneged on a 2010 promise not to confiscate the land nor demolish the homes on it. Young protesters directed their ire at the government and wore T-shirts with the printed slogan, “Today Dapu, tomorrow the government” — meaning if the government were to tear down the houses in Dapu, the protesters would tear down the government. In the end, it took a Taipei court ruling for the Ministry of the Interior to return the confiscated land. In both cases, protesters were angry and organized, and the KMT failed to satisfy their complaints.
Even worse, the KMT has sometimes chosen to stand against street protesters. This dynamic was on display during the “Sunflower Movement” of March and April 2014, when thousands of mostly young people protested the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), which, if passed, would open much of Taiwan’s service sector to investment from mainland China. Protesters claimed that the KMT had pushed the CSSTA through the legislature without following proper democratic procedures. They feared that the agreement would harm Taiwan’s economy and give Beijing too much leverage, a notion international media did nothing to dispel. But it was the KMT-led government’s sometimes harsh response – including the police’s forceful evacuation of students intruders into the Executive Yuan, the government’s headquarters, a week after protests occupied the legislature — that most alienated voters, particularly young ones.
What can the KMT do to win the future? The party’s policies clearly need to strike a better balance between growth and equality. The KMT also must improve its relationship with civic opposition groups – instead of opposing them or freezing them out of the decision-making process, we need to actively communicate with them, and channel their appeals into actual reforms. The party also needs to recruit more young talent. This election has shown the passion of many young people who want to engage in public issues. Some even ran for office and got elected while still in their 20s, like 26-year-old named Wang Hao-yu, now on city council in the northern city of Taoyuan. The KMT must actively encourage more young candidacies like this, or risk letting young talent get away.
Finally, the KMT needs to change the way it communicates in the online world. Instead of treating the Internet as a platform promoting policies we’ve already decided upon, we must use it to proactively engage and encourage public participation at the policy shaping stage. To date, our party has not yet fully realized the power and influence of new media. The KMT has worked hard on online public relations — President Ma Ying-jeou’s Facebook page exceeds the DPP’s in numbers of fans and likes — but communication has been from the top down, not from the grassroots up. The KMT’s current approach barely scratches of the surface of the cyber world and is largely ineffective at mobilizing supporters.
There’s no question many other factors also helped account for KMT’s defeat in the past election, and the party understands them. What matters most now is our ability to turn things around. It begins the humility to accept criticism, and the courage to reform. Recognizing our faults is only the start.