KMT Reform? We’ll Believe It When We See ItA former KMT spokesman argues in an influential foreign publication that the KMT is in the ‘throes of reform’. That would be wonderful, but don’t hold your breath
A recent article in Foreign Policy magazine penned by Charles I-hsin Chen (陳以信) has caused a bit of a sensation among some Taiwan watchers for its seemingly candid assessment of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) failures and need to reform. Chen, who until recently was the KMT spokesman and has now been elevated to the position of spokesman for the Presidential Office, is absolutely right when he argues that the party needs to change. Sadly, he gets just about everything else wrong.
Published on Feb. 17, Chen’s article, titled “How Taiwan’s Ruling but Reeling Kuomintang Can Win the Future,” sparked an odd reaction among some Taiwan specialists who saw in the piece the germs of true reform within the KMT, which since Jan. 17 has been headed by Eric Chu (朱立倫). A number of those experts, who up until then had been scathing critics of the KMT, regarded the article as a groundbreaking admission of mistakes by the party, a “wow” moment even. Undoubtedly there are many others overseas who will likely reach similar conclusions.
However, if we pay close attention to the language used in the article, it becomes clear that Mr. Chen’s blueprint for reform is not quite what it seems. It also helps to know a little more about Chen’s track record, to which we will turn in a moment.
Let’s begin with the article itself. Chen doesn’t lose time and sets the tone with the opening sentence. “Taiwan’s 120-year-old ruling political party,” he writes, “is in the throes of reform.” Though he isn’t explicit, Chen evidently associates the “throes of reform” with Chu’s replacing of the unpopular Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) as chairman of the party, which received a severe drubbing in the Nov. 29 “nine-in-one” elections and undoubtedly compelled Mr. Chen to write his piece.
“The resounding defeat,” he continues, was the result of several factors: “an unequal distribution of wealth, sluggish government reform, and the KMT’s perceived coolness towards youth and civil movements.”
We are still in the opening paragraph and Chen has already given the game away. Note the qualifier: perceived coolness.
Chen ascribes much of the KMT’s unpopularity and recent electoral defeat to slow economic growth and unequal wealth distribution. Those are unquestionably serious issues and a real source of grievance with the public. He later returns to that theme, saying that the party’s policies “clearly need to strike a better balance between growth and equality.” But as we shall see, the wealth gap and out-of-control housing prices are only part of the problem. And they are not necessarily the main sources of discontent. Tellingly, Chen situates the problem in the 1997-2013 period, ensuring that in the reader’s mind the former KMT administration under president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and the two-term Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) presidency are also guilty.
He then turns to civil society with remarks that seem to constitute an admission of failure by the KMT administration. Chen refers to the death of army corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘), a land dispute in Dapu, Miaoli County, and the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), three controversies that sparked major protests in recent years. Conveniently, he papers over important elements of the controversies and almost certainly succeeds in convincing anyone but the truly attentive Taiwan specialists that the KMT fully understands the grievances that fueled the protests and is doing the necessary adjustments to remedy the situation.
Perhaps a short op-ed wasn’t the most suitable medium to plunge into the intricacies of the three issues; still, Chen leaves out too much and it is difficult to imagine that this is simply by accident. Furthermore, his language is interesting: in his three cases, Chen never admits that the government’s policies may have been wrong.
For example, on the death of the 24-year-old Hung, which gave rise to the Citizen 1985 movement and two large protests in 2013, Chen attributes public anger to “allegations of abuse within the armed services” and to “People criticiz[ing] the investigation that ensued as biased.” [My italics.] Nowhere does he mention the several other unexplained deaths that had occurred in the military, or the fact that for more than a month KMT legislators blocked amendments to the Court Martial Law, or that the few individuals who were ultimately prosecuted over Hung’s untimely death got off with shockingly light sentences.
Turning to the Dapu case, which Chen disingenuously calls a “land confiscation case” — what happened there was forced eviction pure and simple — the author attributes the discontent to “town residents who felt that Taiwan’s Ministry of the Interior [MOI] had reneged on a 2010 promise not to confiscate the land nor demolish the homes on it.” Chen doesn’t place the Dapu incident in its proper context. Doing so would have necessitated mentioning the dozens of cases of forced eviction that emerged around the country during that period, resulting in a large protest on Ketagalan Boulevard on Aug. 18, 2013, where the many victims of the government’s rapacious land policies gathered on stage and eventually adjourned to the MOI building, which they occupied for 24 hours. Chen also doesn’t mention the deaths that directly resulted from the Dapu case, the suicide of Ms. Chu, who ingested herbicide, and the apparent suicide of Mr. Chang, one of the owners of the four homes that were demolished on July 18, 2013. He also skips the total callousness exhibited by the KMT administration over the suffering that was caused by the Dapu controversy, or the fact that the local architect of this man-made disaster, then-Miaoli county commissioner Liu Cheng-hung (劉政鴻), continues to enjoy the protection of KMT central.
Even more misleadingly, Chen writes that, “In the end, it took a Taipei court ruling for the Ministry of the Interior to return the confiscated land,” which for those who don’t know any better would suggest that the wrongs have been righted. That isn’t so. The land was never returned, and the Dapu Self-Help Group is still fighting with the courts to get the land back (it is now a parking lot) and secure compensation for the victims.
Chen then turns to the CSSTA and opens with an admission, agreeing that, “the KMT has sometimes chosen to stand against street protesters.” The student-led Sunflower Movement, which the Ma administration has held in open contempt, mobilized thousands of supporters who “claimed that the KMT had pushed the CSSTA through the legislature without following proper democratic procedures … [and] feared that the agreement would harm Taiwan’s economy and give Beijing too much leverage.” [My italics.] Moreover, this was “a notion international media did nothing to dispel.” Chen leaves no room whatsoever for the possibility that the CSSTA policy itself may have been wrong; it boils down to public fears and claims, which were exacerbated by “international media,” the necessary external culprit in this whole affair. For a party that is supposedly in the “throes of reform,” this language is strangely reminiscent of the Ma administration’s claim that members of the Sunflower Movement were “irrational” and “misguided.”
The closest Chen comes to admitting fault is when he discusses policing action during the occupation — “including the police’s forceful evacuation of students intruders [sic] into the Executive Yuan” — which he argues is what “most alienated voters.” While he is right to point out the anger that the bloody eviction on March 24 aroused within the public, Chen makes no mention of the injuries, or of the fact that while a total of 119 Sunflower activists are being prosecuted for their role in the occupation, not a single police officer or government official has been punished for the undeniable excesses of force used during the operation, or for preventing journalists from documenting the incident. In fact, the Ma administration has refused to even identify the guilty police officers, those who smashed heads with batons, and those who gave the order. This inequitable use of the legal system plays just as important a role in fueling public anger than did the violent expulsion itself. And we must note that the announcement of the indictments against the Sunflowers occurred after Mr. Chu had become chairman of the KMT. In the “throes of reform,” as it were.
Ultimately, Chen’s omissions ensure that the reader only receives a narrow interpretation of recent developments in Taiwan which contributed to the KMT’s serious difficulties. The Sunflower occupation was the culmination of years of anger over systemic problems, many of them of the KMT’s doing, and frustrated efforts on several controversies that, over time, became interconnected. Thus, anger over the state-sanctioned theft in Miaoli, for example, cannot be dissociated from other issues in which the KMT administration behaved unaccountably, selectively or disproportionately (e.g., illegal wiretapping, the Huaguang demolitions, media monopolization, laid-off factory workers, corruption, law enforcement, use of the court system, and so on). The KMT was not perceived to be cool. It was, and it is now paying for it.
The concluding section of Chen’s article sounds more promising — or rather, it would be more promising, had he not discredited himself in earlier passages. “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.” He also notes that the party must recruit more youth “or risk letting young talent get away.”
There is no doubt that the party intends to “actively communicate” with youth, though at this point it is hard to imagine that this is more than the old KMT rhetoric about “better communicating” and “better explaining” its policies to a passive public. In other words, the policies are sound (according to the KMT); it’s the public perceptions that aren’t, and this can be remedied through more effective communication. Chen hints at this by suggesting that the KMT must “change the way it communicates in the online world.”
“Instead of treating the Internet as a platform promoting policies we’ve already decided upon,” he writes, “we must use it to proactively engage and encourage public participation at the policy shaping stage.” This is absolutely true, but the KMT’s track record leaves little room for optimism, and it is easy to conclude that Chen is merely paying lip service to the notion of civic empowerment. Chen also rightly points out that the KMT has barely scratched the surface of the Internet, only to unintentionally undermine his argument by mentioning that, “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.” It’s an open secret that in order to be able to read and comment on President Ma’s Facebook page, one must first “like” it. In other words, liking the Ma page doesn’t mean liking the president or his policies; just as many “fans” have clicked like simply to be able to leave criticism and abuse.
Mr. Chen is undeniably doing his job as spokesman, and he may well have succeeded in convincing people overseas that the KMT is indeed reforming. But the views expressed in his article would be more credible were it not for the fact that Chen, as good a KMT foot soldier as it gets and who is now spokesman for a president who will not admit to committing mistakes, has often argued the very opposite. For example, one week prior to the Nov. 29 elections, the man who here sounds the clarion of reform was on the record attributing negative perceptions on Dapu, Hung, the CSSTA and the trade in goods agreement to “manipulation” by the opposition.
Chen concludes with comments that are hard to disagree with. “What matters most now is our ability to turn things around. It begins [with] the humility to accept criticism, and the courage to reform.” There is no doubt that the KMT needs to reform — in fact, all the major political parties in Taiwan urgently need to reform. But it will take more than an article in an influential U.S. magazine to convince us that the KMT has recognized the fundamental flaws in its rigidly top-down structure and just as importantly, that Mr. Chu has the ability to turn things around and move the party in a direction that is more beneficial and accountable to all Taiwanese. It must also have the courage to accept that sometimes it is itself wrong.
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.
國民黨改革？口說無憑，眼見為實 (translation by William Tsai)
近日《外交政策》雜誌上由陳以信（Charles I-hsin Chen）撰寫的一篇文章，由於看來似乎對國民黨的失敗及改革需求做出坦率的評估，在一些台灣觀察家中間引發了震動。最近才卸下國民黨發言人一職，升任總統府發言人的陳以信，對於國民黨必須改革的論述當然完全正確。但悲哀的是，除此之外的每一件事，他幾乎全都理解錯誤。