The KMT Implosion and Historical InevitabilityThe real roots of the KMT’s breakdown go back to the party’s failure to redefine itself after it renounced its goal of returning to China
When future historians consider the demise of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), they will have plenty of material to sort through. Some will likely start with the role of Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who surely has a lot to answer for. They will shake their heads in wonder at the insistently imperial style he brought to bear upon his signature venture of drawing Taiwan and China ever closer together, to say nothing of his implacably tin ear on sensitive communal matters — particularly his persecution of legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平). They will tell themselves that had there been a better choice when Ma was selected as party chairman in 2005, the Nationalists would never have gone the way of the horse and buggy and the rotary dial telephone, but hung on longer instead, leveraging their prodigious wealth to cling to political power.
Or perhaps they will point their fingers at Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), citing her headlong embrace of pro-China polices and her conspicuous failure to recognize that the vast majority of Taiwanese people no longer wanted anything to do with Beijing politically, if indeed they ever had. A little more discretion, the historians will say, and she could have ridden out the storm, if not necessarily as the new Taiwanese president, then at least as a serious figure, who would win her share of votes by engaging in the same misleading ambiguity that Nationalist candidates have traditionally used to hoodwink the public on the relentlessly looming Chinese challenge to their hard-won democratic freedoms.
To be sure, both of these arguments have a lot to commend themselves and they should not be blithely dismissed. But future historians would be doing us a disservice if they failed to recognize that along with Ma and Hung there was another crucial factor that also contributed to the Nationalists’ demise — a factor that with the benefit of hindsight they should have cottoned onto well before these two unfortunate figures commenced their respective flameouts in the early 21st century. That factor is directly related to the failure of the Nationalists to recover from president Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) momentous decision in the early 1990s to effectively renounce the party’s four-decade long determination to return to China and replace the Communist administration there with a functioning KMT government. Every political party needs a defining mission (over and above feathering its own nest) and after Lee’s decision the Nationalist had lost theirs, just as surely Marie Antoinette lost her head in the French Revolution. This was because they seamlessly replaced the recovery of the mainland with a course that few Taiwanese could willingly accept: negotiating the terms of surrender with the communist enemy. Particularly in light of the rising tide of non-Chinese identification that began in Taiwan in the late 1990s, this was a move that would ultimately do it in.
In the Nationalists’ 111 year history (if one begins with the establishment of the Tung Meng Hui in 1904) the party has had at least four different missions that were seen as legitimate in the eyes of its members, and to a greater or lesser extent, in the eyes of the public as well. The first of these (taken on by the imperial-era Tung Meng Hui) was to overthrow the Ching dynasty and substitute it with a republican government. This was a roaring success. Over the next 20 years or so, the mission gradually morphed into warlord extirpation and nation building, which didn’t go so well for it. The Nationalists performed rather better at confronting the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s and the war against Japan in the 1940s, when national salvation was obviously its first priority. But its well-deserved reputation for financial and administrative corruption and the wiliness of its Communist enemy put paid to its authority on the Chinese mainland in 1949, and it skedaddled across the Taiwan Strait in a desperate attempt to keep itself afloat.
That it did so for the next six and a half decades was more the result of the U.S. intervention in the Korean War than its own achievements on Taiwan, which while impressive in an economic sense, were nonetheless accompanied by brutal political repression and dictatorial rule. The turning point for it came in 1991, when Lee made his China decision, quietly acknowledging what everyone had already known at least from the mid-1970s anyway — that the communists were going nowhere soon. With this fact established, the KMT no longer had a mission that its members could relate to and that the public — or at least its pro-Nationalist segment — could accept. From that day forward, its days were effectively numbered.
When he was first elected president in 2008, Ma did his best to cover this fact up, indulging in the kind of creative ambiguity that will likely stand as his single greatest legacy. His designated tool for this was the “1992 Consensus,” which however fictive it may have been, still allowed him to parley with the communists on Taiwan’s eventual absorption into China. To be sure (and in patently marked contrast to the prospective approach of Hung), he did this under the table, mostly amid a series of far-reaching measures designed to bring Taiwan and China ever closer together economically — the vast expansion in cross-strait flights for example, or the white-hot support he provided for the landmark trade agreement that was signed with Beijing in 2010. From time to time he slightly tipped his hand — by speaking out forcefully in 2011 for example in favor of a China-Taiwan peace treaty (what he really meant by this of course was a Communist-Nationalist peace treaty) or by distancing himself from Taiwan’s traditional U.S. foreign policy tilt in favor of a subtle tilt toward China. But these were the exceptions that proved the rule, and at least through early 2013 he had charmed the Taiwanese public into believing that he was sincere about keeping China at bay politically, in line with his earlier promises. People believed what he said, not least because they wanted to.
Then things began to fall apart for him. The key event here was his decision to press forward with his Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement, despite encountering strong opposition to it from the Taiwanese public. But he moved ahead anyway — no doubt motivated by intense Chinese pressure to do so — and by early 2014, the opposition to the agreement had swelled dramatically, piggy-backing on a rising sense that Ma was in cahoots with a shamelessly opportunistic cabal of Taiwanese uber-capitalists to sell their island’s birthright to the communists. This then was the beginning of the Sunflower Movement. It was the clearest sign to date that the Taiwanese public finally understood that Ma and the KMT were effectively engaged in surrender talks with the Chinese Communists. Once they picked up on this the game was really up and the Nationalists’ fate was sealed, much in the same way that the fate of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was effectively sealed after Mikhail Gorbachev began his far-reaching program of reforms.
None of this means of course that multiparty politics in Taiwan is now over. On the contrary, sometime over the next several years a cohesive Taiwanese opposition will almost certainly arise to challenge the newly installed Democratic Progressive Party on key issues affecting Taiwan’s future — not so much the ones involving national identity and relations with China (for those, in the main, will already have been decided), but rather the ones involving social and economic policy, which is very much as it should be. After all, no one in Taiwan but a few scattered Neanderthals wants the island to revert to being a one party state. Those days are over and done with.
So what should this new Taiwanese opposition party most properly be called? Several options appear to present themselves. The Taiwan Liberal Party is one, and so too, for that matter, is the Taiwan Nationalist Party, which for all it unfortunate associations, at least has the virtue of familiarity. The point is, it really doesn’t matter much, as long as it’s Taiwanese. That’s the only test for it, the test that really counts.
Peter Enav was head of The Associated Press bureau in Taiwan from April 2005 to April 2014.