Hung Hsiu-chu’s Uphill ChargeAlmost everything the prospective KMT candidate believes in goes against the public opinion. Does she really have a shot at the presidency?
Judging from her statements this week, the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) — who the KMT Central Standing Committee has just vetted — will be fighting the presidential campaign on the highest possible difficulty setting: Advocating positions an outright majority of voters oppose while likening the hated president to a father and calling herself the wife of a party at the nadir of its popularity. Rather than coming to the center, Hung will try to reverse the nation’s political momentum and move the center rightward. Victory would require a historic campaign.
At present, only 10% of Taiwanese believe the economy is in good shape while 80% believe it’s in bad shape, and 16% approve of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) performance while 67% disapprove, according to the Taiwan Indicators Survey Research (TISR). According to TVBS, disapproval of the president’s performance in specific areas ranges from 49% to 78%, including 55% disapproval of his cross-strait policy, and a majority believes the KMT does not understand public opinion and that it puts the good of the party over the good of the public.
Ma and the KMT were duly punished in last November’s “nine-in-one” elections. These are the questions Hung asked herself afterwards: “Is it that we were vague where we shouldn’t have been? Did we compromise where we shouldn’t have? Did we appease where we shouldn’t have? Did we give up where we shouldn’t have?”
So she says in her June 10 speech to the KMT Central Committee on the eve of her primary poll, publicized nationwide. Hung followed up with the following diagnosis of the KMT’s problems: “Over these past years, we have lived as if we are inside the framework established by our opponents. When it comes to basic principles about the position of our country, and the core ideals of our party, we have fearfully forfeited the right to speak. We can only repeat the phrases of others and mimic their rituals … We have become timid because we’re afraid of being labeled, and because we don’t have self-confidence. So we don’t dare to persist. We constantly retreat, and retreat so much citizens begin to doubt we have the ability and will to lead the country and suspect our path has become vague.”
She has promised not to attack President Ma for votes, saying that if she did she would be like a child disowning her parents for doing something she disagrees with. Ma has had good policies and achievements, she says, but has managed poorly. Since Hung has never held a local or national executive position, we do not yet know if she would be a better manager, but she at least needs to explain what she would have done differently and how her administration would differ from his.
Hung promises to go even further than Ma in cross-strait rapprochement. In fact, she is staking out the most dovish (or hawkish, depending on who you ask) position on cross-strait relations of any major candidate since 1996, when Lin Yang-kang (林洋港), like Hung, called for a cross-strait peace agreement, and Chen Li-an (陳履安), like Hung, advocated a Greater China ideology. While a number of Taiwanese believe that recent candidates Ma, Lien Chan (連戰), and James Soong (宋楚瑜) all favor some kind of unification with China, each of the three approached the issue very carefully on the campaign trail, understanding the limits to its electoral appeal. Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), after all, won 54% of the 1996 vote amid a missile crisis, while another 21% went to independence advocate Peng Ming-min (彭明敏).
Hung instead seems set on trying to convince a majority to become Chinese nationalists. This week she told Storm Media that China and Taiwan should formulate a EU-style arrangement. She also stated that Taiwanese independence is “unconstitutional,” that the Republic of China (ROC) Constitution is a “constitution of unification,” and that democracy should be used as a tool to win the hearts of China’s 1.3 billion souls rather than as a weapon with which to attack them. But according to TISR, 61.6% of Taiwanese do not believe China and Taiwan are parts of one China (26.7% do), and 56.2% oppose any eventual alliance or confederation between the two (24.7% approve of one).
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) says that 59.1% of citizens believe that the benefits of cross-strait development are monopolized by a small number of people. Whatever the actual number, this belief was widespread enough to support the Sunflower Movement last year. Hung’s economic development plan, however, is predicated on more trade with China. She aims to make Taiwan wealthy and spread the benefits thanks to the “peace dividend” that would be derived from the peace agreement, including membership in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) (disclaimer: U.S. officials have said that China’s approval or disapproval has nothing to do with Taiwan’s TPP entry).
Basically, Hung is repeating Ma’s past campaign promises, just replacing the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with “peace agreement.” The ECFA was supposed to make Taiwan rich, give it international space, and lead to more trade deals. It didn’t work, so the magic word is being changed. Polemicists on both sides will just copy and paste their past works to support or oppose her points.
At first glance, the peace agreement idea doesn’t have much depth anyway. Naturally everyone in Taiwan would like to have peace with China, but the devil is in the details. China threatens violence because it considers Taiwan’s annexation a necessity and Taiwan’s independence a casus belli. Therefore, under what terms could China forswear violence, other than terms of annexation?
Over the next seven months we will surely hear what Hung has to say about other policies. She would do well to distinguish herself in education, for example; Ma has 14% approval and 74% disapproval there, and education policy was one of Hung’s special focuses in the legislature.
Hung already took a strong stand on one domestic issue during her KMT speech: nuclear power. She opposes abolishing nuclear energy before the nation’s energy supply has been “absolutely” secured, and regarding the anti-nuclear movement, she said, “We cannot let ourselves be easily coerced by populism.” Here too she is swimming against the current. An April 2014 TVBS poll found that 60% of Taiwanese wanted to halt construction of the fourth nuclear power plant, and only 25% wanted to see it continue. The press and public should ask Hung whether as president she will try to bring the plant online.
Hung’s opposition to the Sunflower Movement is obvious and certain to be a campaign issue. In her speech to the KMT central committee, she traces the KMT’s malady back to March 2014 and asks: “When democracy becomes a tool for populist struggle that can paralyze democratic procedures, can the party steadfastly fight off this countercurrent? Given the flood of voices fraudulently using the name of democracy to advocate for Taiwanese independence, are the party’s discourses and policies for resistance not revealing their powerlessness? … Many people with noble aspirations are anxious because they have seen much disorder and chaos in Taiwanese society, and even more so, the kitsch and populism of its political parties and politics commonly causing a lack of distinction between right and wrong and the throwing of values into chaos. This is something the newly elected president must proactively improve, absolutely not allowing social morality to be bankrupted and populism to kill the country.”
She thus should be given the chance to answer this question: If she, not Wang Jin-pyng (王金平), had been legislative speaker, would she have approved of Chang Ching-chung’s (張慶忠) methods, invited the police and/or the military into the legislature to expel the students, and then pushed through approval of the services trade agreement?
If such protest movements are an illegal and undesirable way to express public opinion, how about enacting change through the lead opposition party? That’s no good, either; Hung despises the DPP. She called it a troublemaker using populist tricks that will destroy the foundation for peace, close off the country, incite social hatred, and lead the people into destitution. A common trope of hers is that popular protests against KMT prerogatives are not manifestations of the will of the public; instead they are incited by the DPP and its ilk. For example, when asked about the high school history curriculum controversy yesterday, she said, “Don’t use the pure hearts of students to manufacture conflict.”
Polling indicates both the Sunflowers and DPP have the support of the majority. Hung’s response is that the public has simply been fooled, or even worse, given into its base instincts. She uses the word “populism” pejoratively (as in, the DPP is undertaking a “populist rampage”). This attitude could persuade, say, the Hong Kong Election Committee. But to win the Taiwanese presidential election she’ll have to win over the very public she’s implicitly insulting with these words.
“I depend on the way, and not power; I depend on will, not force. I will unite the wills of the many into a single will that is as strong as city walls, with all united on the correct path,” Hung said to the central committee.
This rhetoric, reminiscent of a bygone era, is a reminder she will have to play ideological defense, as well. She has been a KMT member since the 1960s and first rose to prominence based on her oratory and writing, which won praises from her teachers, the media, and her fellow party members from childhood onward. Could she have won such fame without endorsing the party-state ideology? Did she believe the party, as the sole legitimate representative of the people, is the foundation of the state? Does she now? If not, why did she change her mind and what does she now consider the basis for governmental legitimacy? So far the media have just forwarded personal background information she provided them, but they now have seven months to read old newspapers and watch old tapes to find statements the general public now finds objectionable.
So the million-dollar question about the Hung campaign is this: How convincing is she? She’s made her career so far on the strength of her preaching to the choir. In her central committee speech she once again displayed impressive and increasingly rare command of historical KMT lingo, such as “advance comrades” (先進同志), “party morality” (黨德), “party soul” (黨魂), “save the nation” (救國), and “build the nation” (建國). But now she has to evangelize to people who have turned away from her faith or opposed it to begin with.
A key point of the Hung biography, a place she can turn to win neutral and pan-green sympathy, is the unjust imprisonment of her father on Green Island during the White Terror over a illusory communist plot. After his release, he struggled to find work the rest of his life because of his criminal record, so his family grew up poor. Therefore Hung, like many pan-greens, has suffered from state oppression, and she can use this story to build bridges and frame her reform agenda.
So far, however, she has told the story in a way that flatters the KMT faithful. In her words, she redeemed her father by winning the party’s nomination for Legislature and then being elected. She heard she won the nomination while she was at the mortuary, and regrets that her father couldn’t see her victory. The implication of Hung’s statement was that what redeemed her father’s persecution was not state reform to prevent such a thing from happening again, nor was it a state pardon; instead, it was the party embracing his daughter and presenting her as its representative.
Another telling vignette she recounts is that when the police visited her home as a child (which was often), her father told her it was because she and her siblings had been bad children. He never told his children the real reason: his past imprisonment. If this is true, then Hung’s father taught his children that the state is omniscient and that its harassment and punitive actions were the response to their own bad behavior, when all along the state was actually acting unjustly to consolidate its own power and control.
This kind of rhetoric won’t work in the general election. Hung has to speak to both the past and present in a way that resonates with the rest of society. If she wants to change minds, she needs to step up her game and reach out to the average voter like never before. She has seven more months to do so.
The author is an American translator based in Taipei.