Taiwan’s Opposition Struggles to Shake Pro-China Image

The Kuomintang is rethinking how it tackles relations—but Beijing will limit any real change.

Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang
Han Kuo-yu (center), the presidential candidate for Taiwan's main opposition party, the Kuomintang, gestures as he concedes defeat in the presidential election on Jan. 11. Hsu Tsun-Hsu/AFP via Getty Images

In the aftermath of an astounding defeat in Taiwan’s January presidential elections, the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) is reexamining its policy priorities under new party leadership. In a March 7 by-election, the KMT elected Johnny Chiang, a legislator from the central city of Taichung, as its next chair for the upcoming year, defeating former Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin with 68.8 percent of the vote.

The KMT has plenty of issues to wrestle with—but the international audience has focused on the party’s cross-strait policy with China and, in particular, whether the so-called 1992 Consensus will endure as the foundation for official mechanisms between the two sides. The KMT is by far the most pro-mainland of Taiwan’s two major political parties, with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) taking a much tougher stance on relations with Beijing. The KMT’s position stems largely from the legacy of the Chinese Civil War with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the complicated history of vying to represent “China,” as the Republic of China or the People’s Republic of China, which has underscored the notion of “One China” in the 1992 Consensus. In contrast, the DPP played a prominent role in Taiwan’s democratization and places a greater emphasis on a unique Taiwanese identity and history separate from that of China’s.

Notably, the Financial Times reported the day before Chiang’s victory that both candidates were poised to “discard” the 1992 Consensus, citing key party officials who believe that the consensus has lost its utility and undergone “distortion” when linked with the “one country, two systems” model of relations that Beijing uses in Hong Kong, which leaves Hong Kong technically beholden to Beijing as it retains its own political and economic structure. The January elections were seen as a mandate for maintaining the status quo as pursued by current President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP and as a rejection of China’s continued attempts to redefine it under its terms, such as by equating the 1992 Consensus with “one country, two systems.” Tsai and the DPP were adept at weaving a compelling narrative that tied together pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and the KMT’s insistence on revitalizing relations with Beijing, casting her party as the defender of Taiwan’s democracy, values, and way of life against those encroaching on it.

And yet a departure from the underlying substance of the 1992 Consensus seems unlikely—as the KMT is constrained by the inconvenient history of Taiwan, an electoral base that either benefits from or lauds enhanced cross-strait engagement, and, in some cases, unique access to the CCP through party-to-party ties. The underlying spirit of the 1992 Consensus would remain, even if the KMT were to move away from the appellation itself and repurpose it under a new name more palatable for Taiwan’s people. Under similar domestic considerations, the KMT is also attempting to stay ahead of the narrative, in light of China’s signaling that it aims to clarify specific elements of the consensus and move away from long-held ambiguities by demonstrating to Taiwan’s people that any shift in policy is proactive, rather than just a reaction prompted by policy changes on China’s end.

The whole of the 1992 Consensus is contentious in Taiwan, from its questionable origins to its fundamental contradictions. The 1992 Consensus was first officially advanced by that name under the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s president from 2008 to 2016, with Ma continuously crediting his recognition of the 1992 Consensus for bringing about the period of cross-strait rapprochement during his presidency.

The consensus was supposedly born of a 1992 Hong Kong meeting between the KMT and CCP through semi-official channels, during which time the two sides reportedly struggled to determine a mutually acceptable foundation off which cross-strait negotiations and agreements would be based. In the aftermath, the two sides only reached an oral agreement to state their respective, divergent views. The actual term, “1992 Consensus,” was not coined until April 2000, though the Ma administration insisted that the “content” of the 1992 Consensus—in each side holding its own interpretation—has endured since the meeting, even if the formal appellation came only afterward.

In essence, the 1992 Consensus endured during the Ma years as a tacit agreement between the KMT and the CCP, grounded in the understanding that there is one China and Taiwan is a part of that China. For China, it stops there—in line with the tenets of its “One China” principle. For the KMT, the “1992 Consensus” is caveated with the phrase “One China, respective interpretations,” holding that when Beijing says “China” it means the CCP-led People’s Republic of China and when Taipei says “China” it means the Republic of China government that fled to the island of Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War.

Until recently, Beijing has been careful in not only avoiding explicit acknowledgement of “respective interpretations” but also not refuting it. This approach allowed the two sides to operate in a gray zone of sorts between 2008 and 2016, while keeping a window open for plausible deniability on the part of Beijing, as well as latitude to redefine the 1992 Consensus if needed. That time may have now come. Signs out of China have suggested that Beijing may be moving to shift the acceptable parameters of the 1992 Consensus to be more in line with its own views and may no longer tolerate the “respective interpretations” the KMT espouses.

Since Tsai took office in 2016, there have been murmurs out of China that the “respective interpretations” of the KMT’s framing of the 1992 Consensus will perhaps no longer be permitted. This signaling, however, has always been through unofficial channels, such as in op-eds reposted to official government websites—as well as a rumored internal directive for state media. Statements from former officials pointed in the same directions. In January 2019, Wang Zaixi, a former deputy director of Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office, was quoted as saying that the KMT’s “respective interpretations” distracts from the “original meaning” of the “1992 Consensus” and that the “true 1992 Consensus” was clarified by Chinese President Xi Jinping in his New Year’s speech to include unification—assumedly under the “one country, two systems” rubric.

At the same time, however, China has stayed the course in official channels by continuing to avoid mention of “respective interpretations,” with Taiwan Affairs Office spokespeople stressing the importance of adhering to the 1992 Consensus and “One China,” commending the progress achieved under the 1992 Consensus during the Ma administration, and refraining from fully answering the question when asked at press conferences.

With China signaling that a future cross-strait framework for official contacts should better align with Beijing’s position of “One China” with no caveats and the KMT considering a more neutral, perhaps more Taiwan-centric, approach, the two sides appear increasingly at odds and further than ever from a consensus. Yet, a critical component undercutting any new formulation by the KMT is whether it would be accepted by the party’s counterparts in Beijing if the KMT takes office.

Signs out of China have pointed to an unwillingness to accept a more muted approach. For example, as the KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu’s team of advisors was coming together in the summer of 2019 and debate over whether he would stick to the party line on the 1992 Consensus continued, Taiwanese media reported that Chang San-cheng, a former premier under Ma who advised Han’s campaign, proposed an alternative formula under “a constitutional ‘One China’ that prioritizes Taiwan.” Chang argued that the 1992 Consensus has been stigmatized and equated with acceptance of “one country, two systems,” and he said it should instead be replaced with a “more neutral” term. His emphasis on the ROC Constitution was quickly rebuked as a nonstarter by media outlets with ties to the Chinese party-state’s top-level Taiwan policy organs.

More telling are responses from China following Chiang’s election as party leader. A spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office released a statement commending the progress achieved under “the common political foundation of the ‘1992 Consensus’” while voicing his hope that Chiang will “cherish and safeguard the existing political foundation between the two parties.” China’s state news agency Xinhua posted an editorial that took a harsher tone, claiming that “scrapping the ‘1992 Consensus’ to ‘steal votes’ from the DPP is political illusion of self-deception” and counter to KMT efforts to enhance cross-strait ties and serve the interests of the Taiwanese people.

The KMT urgently needs to redefine itself in the eyes of Taiwanese voters. But it may be impossible to find a cross-strait formula that can simultaneously reassure citizens increasingly nervous of Beijing’s attentions and maintain the ties with China that the party has prided itself on. Absent that, any reworking of the language is largely illusory—and effectively the same as the current DPP administration’s.

Jessica Drun is a Washington, D.C.-based Taiwan and China analyst. The views expressed here are her own.

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