How KMT Rules Preclude Reform

Ever since 2000, the KMT chair has been in the hands of men with questionable political judgment, and the party has followed their lead into an electoral abyss
Photo: Alan C / Flickr

Everyone has ideas about how the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) should change, but first the party itself must become capable of change. The KMT’s very structure resists transformation and adaptation. Its rules, added to the recent election of 67-year-old Chinese nationalist Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) as party chair and other recent events, illustrate this.

Only insiders can run for chair

Eligibility and registration rules limit candidacy for the party chair to people who already owe their careers to the existing system:

1. A chair candidate must be or have previously been a member of either the Central Committee (which has 210 members) or of the relatively small Central Review Committee.
2. The members of the Central Committee are elected by the Party Congress members.
3. The members of the Party Congress are chosen by three groups: the Central Committee, the Central Standing Committee (the members of which are also elected by Party Congress members), and the party chapters.
4. Party chapters may be either regional or specially established by the Central Committee.
5. Central Review Committee members are appointed by the current party chair and approved by the Party Congress, with one exception: lifetime membership is given to CRC members who were appointed by Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), who is still officially party director-general (tsungtsai, 總裁).

An intuitive structure for a grassroots political organization would be for leadership selection to go in one direction: from the bottom up. In the KMT, however, the central decision-making bodies all choose each other’s members. The organizational chart is full of feedback loops. A number of people hold positions on all the aforementioned committees and congresses concurrently.

To be eligible for party chair you must already be in the upper echelons of a self-propagating hierarchy. The number of such people is most likely less than one thousand.

The candidate registration fee for this by-election was NT$2 million (US$62,000), the equivalent of 91 months of work on the typical college graduate’s starting salary of NT$22,000 per month. This further restricts the pool to relatively well-off individuals.

But paying this fee is nothing compared to the challenge of submitting endorsement signatures from 3 percent of party members just a week after registering to run. For this by-election, the party set the threshold at 9,600 unique signatures, which was generous because it ultimately counted 337,351 total party members.

Relatively few self-identified KMT members actually have valid party membership. Lee Hsin (李新), a candidate in this chair race, accused the KMT of intentionally obfuscating the official list and hiding it from “outsider” candidates. Moreover, a party member who endorses more than one candidate has his signature invalidated for all of them.

Thus candidates effectively need to collect at least two to three times as many signatures as they need. During his campaign for the KMT presidential nomination last year, former health minister Yaung Chih-liang (楊志良) collected 31,914 signatures of people he believed were party members. The party validated only 5,234 (16.6 percent) of them and disqualified him for failing to meet the threshold.

Collecting 10,000 signatures from anyone within a couple weeks is a colossal task. Getting 10,000 unique signatures of valid KMT members is Herculean. Career bureaucrats — the KMT equivalents of Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) — would not have that kind of organization without the patronage of another powerful politician. The chair is thus limited to people who already have strong political organizations, such as district legislators and present party chairs.

These are just the kind of people most likely to resist change due to self-interest.

The chair electorate is deeply blue

Arguably the biggest factor in who wins the chair race is the unique composition of the chair electorate.

On the one hand, the electorate is too large: If the chair were selected by a central committee, then a little-known but highly respected official could have a chance. However, with hundreds of thousands of voters, the candidate with the highest name recognition has the pole position. The voters already are familiar with that person and hence feel most comfortable handing him or her the party.

On the other hand, the electorate is too small: the 337,351 eligible KMT chair voters this year were equivalent to 1.8 percent of eligible voters in the 2016 election. The 140,358 people who voted were the equivalent of 0.75 percent of Taiwan’s eligible voters. If this cohort were a representative sample of Taiwan as a whole, that would not matter, but it is not, and it hasn’t been for years. The eligible voters tend to be the bluest of the blue.

The chair election is a “closed primary” in that one has to be a party member to vote. But it’s actually more restrictive: you have to have been a party member for at least four months already, and you have to be up-to-date on your annual dues (NT$200). Two groups of people are exempted from having to pay dues, and thus are party members for life: people age 75 and older with at least 40 years of party membership, and people designated by the government as members of low-income households (a group which presumably includes many veterans and their dependents).

Only people who have been valid party members four months can vote, and the by-election must be held within three months of the previous chair stepping down. Thus it is impossible for a candidate to follow Jeremy Corbyn’s example and inspire a bunch of new members to enter the party or restore their status by paying back fees in advance of the election. If you are going to take over the party by growing it, you have to do that while the outgoing chair is still in power, inviting suspicion of insurrection. And because KMT chairs by custom only step down after losing elections that also means creating the impression you are betting against the party. So it’s typically not done, though Hung is thought to have brought a smattering of new members into the party during and after her presidential campaign.

Consequently, the voters in the KMT chair election are the party’s oldest and most loyal members, those who pay their dues year after year even knowing how wealthy the party and its leaders are. And a huge proportion of these individuals — likely more than half overall — are active or retired soldiers, civil servants, or teachers, or their dependents. Members of the Huang Fu-hsing (retired soldiers) chapter alone have for years been estimated to constitute roughly one third of the entire chair electorate.

The aging military and public servant bloc of the KMT is the most invested in Chinese nationalism. There are many reasons for this. Joining the KMT was once a necessity for them, and now they have devoted their careers to the cause. Many came from China or were born to parents that did, and their family, friend, and work networks all identified as Chinese. The hostility many in the green camp have expressed about them over the years has only deepened their sense of solidarity. Whatever the party may have done, even to them personally, it feels like a family and a home to them. Their exemplar is Hung Hsiu-chu, who likens her relationship with the KMT to a marriage even though her own father’s career was ruined by false imprisonment on Green Island during her childhood. Because you have to break 50 percent of the vote in either the first round or the runoff to be elected chair, you absolutely have to have at least some of their support.

The results by region tell the tale. Huang Min-hui (黃敏惠) had the keys to the party as the acting chairwoman, and she united the local Taiwanese factions, Vice President Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), and even the Hau military clan’s network behind her campaign. Lee Hsin and Apollo Chen (陳學聖) ran as reform candidates who promised to bring the KMT into a new generation. If the election were open to all registered voters or even to all KMT voters, they would very likely have performed better. They instead finished with 33.0 percent, 5.4 percent, and 4.8 percent of the vote, respectively.

Huang successfully mobilized her Chiayi base, with the city and county both placing in the top three overall in turnout. She did best in areas like Nantou and Hsinchu County where blue local factions are strongest. Lee and Chen each performed best in the regions they personally represent as city councilor and legislator, respectively.

Hung dominated the major cities that have large military and civil servant communities, as well as the ROC cultural strongholds of Kinmen and Lienchiang. She also received four fifths of the overseas absentee votes despite Huang sending mailers to those voters; one can surmise most of them also identify as Chinese (for instance, as Chinese-Americans or mainland-based Taiwanese businessmen).

Since Hung largely owes her victory to the present electoral setup, why would she reform it? Just a year from now there is another KMT election, this time for a four-year term, and having worked so hard to get this job it’s natural she’ll want to keep it. Given her strength among the old soldiers she has no incentive to make the KMT electorate more representative. It’s the same story for anyone elected chair.

Custom of post-defeat resignation encourages short-term thinking

One of the few restrictions a KMT chair faces is the custom of resigning after an election defeat. While Lien Chan did not resign after the party’s losses in the 2001 legislative or 2004 presidential elections, losses did spell the end for Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝), Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九), and Eric Chu’s (朱立倫) tenures.

The good news about this is the party can push underperforming leaders to step aside. The bad news is this forces each chair to view the coming election as a must-win, discouraging painful long-term reform efforts.

For example, because the present KMT coalition requires the turnout of public pensioners, the party cannot appeal to young voters by pursuing civil-service pension reform to make the country’s finances more solvent in the future. And because it depends on local factions and construction businesses for rural turnout, it cannot take a hard stance on corruption, land expropriation, vote buying, and so forth.

It is hard to even devote a significant amount of time to issues besides winning the next election. When Eric Chu became KMT chairman the presidential and legislative elections were already just a year away, and people were asking him about running for president. In fact he was a consensus choice not because people thought he’d be the best reformer, but because he looked the most like presidential timber.

The next election is never more than a year away: at present the four-year national, KMT chair, and municipal election cycles are nearly evenly spaced out. The national election is at the beginning of Year 1 of the cycle; the scheduled KMT chair election is in the summer of Year 2; and the municipal elections are in the late autumn of Year 3. Three chairs every four years may become the party’s new normal, with every chair fighting for his own survival rather than looking at the long term.

The establishment has broken faith with the rank and file

The party chair election is not the kind a Lee Teng-hui type who challenges or subverts the established order can win. And that may be the point. KMT chair elections were instituted by Lien Chan (連戰) in 2001, the same year he purged Lee. Lien’s chairmanship was the beginning of the Chinese nationalists’ retrenchment within the KMT. In that first election, Lien ran unopposed and received 97.97 percent of the vote. In the second, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) crushed Wang Jin-pyng (王金平). The current KMT election structure may have been designed to block change agents by giving the nationalist loyal soldiers the decision-making power.

That said, it’s not impossible for an ethnic Taiwanese candidate to triumph: Wu Po-hsiung (吳伯雄), who is Hakka, took 87 percent of the vote against Hung in the 2007 by-election. In that race the party establishment backed Wu. A big difference between now and 2007 is that much of the rank and file has lost faith in the establishment.

That is why American observers have made an intuitive connection between this KMT chair race and the current Republican primary. Hung Hsiu-chu is the KMT’s equivalent of Ted Cruz. She has argued the party can only succeed by being convincingly ideologically pure, and she has made a virtue of the establishment’s rejection and mistreatment of her (which dated back to the very first time she ran for Legislature, appealing directly to the people against the resistance of her party chapter director), using her experiences to connect with voters who feel the party has done the same to them.

Eric Chu and the local factions legitimized Hung’s case by driving her out of the race for positions that were truer expressions of the classic KMT ideology than they were comfortable with. The average Taiwanese voter may not have agreed with Hung was saying, but the average KMT chair voter probably did.

The chairman’s office got that move through the party by using the Huang Fu-hsing apparatus to warn old soldiers Hung’s candidacy would doom the ROC. But the subsequent Jennifer Wang (王如玄) military housing scandal did immeasurable damage to establishment credibility. KMT supporters learned their new vice presidential candidate had gotten rich by flipping the properties the state had given to old soldiers — whom she may have bamboozled out of their homes — and the party leaders all had to hold hands with her at campaign events for a couple months and say “this is fine.” It showed the “iron blues” that they too were marks. What authority did the establishment have left to say that Hung was unacceptable?

The party charter’s meaning twists in the wind

Hung’s replacement by Chu as candidate epitomizes another problem with the KMT structure, which is that the party charter is reinterpreted at the leaders’ convenience rather than establishing firm rules for everyone to obey.

Though the charter empowers the party congress to nominate the party’s presidential candidate, it does not grant the power to rescind a presidential candidate’s nomination. The charter only allows for a candidate’s nomination to be rescinded if he has committed one from among a list of disciplinary violations, none of which Hung had done. The October 2015 party congress created the right to cancel Hung’s nomination out of thin air, not even amending the charter first to give itself the right to do so.

That wasn’t even the most egregious problem with the Oct. 17 party congress. Article 18 stipulates a party congress must be called at least two months in advance. But the congress where Chu was nominated was called just ten days in advance, on Oct. 7. The rule was apparently ignored. The only justification that comes to mind is a new interpretation in which the notice requirement for a party congress does not apply to a “provisional party congress,” which is what the October meeting was called. That said, two months’ notice seems to have been given for past provisional party congresses, and the charter makes no explicit distinctions between party congresses and provisional party congresses.

Some have argued even Eric Chu’s and Hung Hsiu-chu’s accessions to the party chair themselves violated the party charter. Article 17 includes the clause, “When a member of the party is the president, the day he becomes president he also is to hold the office of party chair, and when he steps down as president he is to no longer serve as party chair. The regulations in this article regarding the chair election results and term do not apply.” This seems to imply President Ma is entitled to the party chairmanship throughout his presidency. After Ma resigned as chair in 2014, however, the party began interpreting the rule to mean the president must take the chairmanship at inauguration and step down on his last day in office but can also give up the chairmanship in between. Nevertheless, as the end of Chu’s recent term approached media speculated Ma could try to assume the chair again by default using this rule.

Another recent charter mess was Chairman Ma’s KMT leadership’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to expel Wang Jin-pyng from the party on the grounds that Wang had “damaged the party’s reputation,” citing Article 35. The decision was so contentious Wang challenged it in court — and won.

This kind of ambiguity about rules encourages arbitrary governance.

KMT chairmen are virtually omnipotent

The original decision to expel Wang was approved by the KMT’s Central Disciplinary and Evaluation Committee. This committee makes all party disciplinary decisions (besides charter-specified automatic penalties for criminal convictions). And the committee’s members are all approved by the party chairman, who at that time was Wang’s nemesis Ma Ying-jeou.

The secretary-general gives the chairman a list of Central Disciplinary and Evaluation Committee members to approve. With Central Standing Committee approval, the Central Disciplinary and Evaluation Committee chooses the regional chapters’ Disciplinary and Evaluation Committee members, who in turn select the Disciplinary and Evaluation Committee members in the sub-chapters. Hence the chair indirectly controls discipline throughout the entire party structure.

This gives the party chair control over all the other party members, which is useful for silencing self-styled reformist and heterodox voices whom the chair considers saboteurs. The vagueness of the definitions of disciplinary violations makes political purges of the kind Eric Chu performed last year easy. These are the seven non-criminal actions which can be grounds for expulsion:

1. Violating the party’s ideology, charter, policy platform, or decision(s);
2. Damaging the party’s reputation;
3. Damaging party unity within the party organization;
4. Maliciously scorning the party and damaging its rights and interests;
5. Joining another party;
6. Leaking important party secrets;
7. Taking a political position from non-party member without party approval.

In fact the KMT chair appoints nearly all the party’s other major officeholders: the vice chairs; secretary-general; deputy secretaries-general; the Central Review Committee members; the whip of the party’s legislative caucus; the committees’ and think tank’s chairs, vice chairs, and some to all members; Huang Fu-hsing leadership; party spokesmen; a personal office with staff; and five of 39 members of the Central Standing Committee. The chair also leads the Party Congress, Central Committee, and Central Standing Committee, and officially directs all party business. The secretary-general approves all party central hiring (the Central Committee approves all local chapter hiring).

As if that weren’t enough, the KMT chair also has the keys to the vault: informal control over the party’s holding company and its billions of dollars of assets, including companies. This gives the chair not only great financial power but also a strong disincentive to cooperate with nationalization and divestment of these assets.

According to the party charter, the Party Congress and Central Committee have great decision-making power (such as the right to interpret the charter), and the Central Review Committee an important review and advisory role. However, they are all practically useless because they meet so rarely. The Central Committee and Central Review Committee only meet one day a year, and the Party Congress even less often. With so little time to meet and so many resolutions and appointments to approve, all the Party Congress and Central Committee do is approve of everything that’s put before them. As for the Central Review Committee, its membership is chair-appointed, and its highest-profile leader ever has been Soong May-ling (宋美齡) during the Chiang eras, indicating its real job is to review the rank and file, not check and balance the chair.

The Youth League and Youth Work Committee have their own infrastructure but no power to change the party’s direction. The elected leaders of each are merely guaranteed Central Standing Committee spots, where they are two of 39. And each KMT Youth League president can only serve a single one-year elected term.

The Central Standing Committee, which meets weekly, is seemingly the only functioning part of the central headquarters that is not under the chair’s thumb. It acts for the Central Committee, which acts for the Party Congress; 32 of its 39 members are elected to two-year terms by Party Congress members, and two more spots go to the aforementioned youth leaders. Its membership is typically static; in the August 2015 election, the first under Chu’s chairmanship, 26 of the 32 elected were incumbents and just one had never been a Central Standing Committee member before.

That said, because the party chair leads this committee, can make five appointments to it, has so much party power, and can present plenty of allies with strong cases for membership due to being secretaries-general, committee chiefs, and so forth, the chair has plenty of influence here. The relationship between the chair and standing committee is much less dynamic and adversarial than that between, say, the president and Legislature.

With personnel control this strong, the party chair has more than enough power to implement his or her vision, and little need to compromise with anyone else’s. This in itself does not make the party incapable of reform, but it means the ideas of one person, rather than the ideas of many, guide the party. The rank and file must hope the chair knows what’s best for them. But as noted above, the nature of the party chair election makes reformists hard to find.

Information formally flows out of the party, not into it

The charter-enumerated duties of party chapters and cadres give the impression the KMT is still the Leninist revolutionary vanguard party envisioned by Sun Yat-sen (孫中山), who is still officially the KMT’s premier (tsungli 總理), rather than one among many parties in a free democracy.

Regional party chapters are instructed by the charter to carry out orders from above, organize and instruct the chapters below them, supervise party members to ensure they carry out party policy, contact and unite people at all levels of society to support party policy and carry it out, cultivate and manage cadres, guide party members to develop social relationships and advance matters of local interest, guide party nominees, enforce party discipline, and collect and allocate expenses and fees. Their leaders may be either elected by their committee members (who consist of the leaders of lower chapters) from among themselves, or appointed from above. Their disciplinary committees are appointed from above.

District party chapters are instructed to enforce the orders and decisions made above them, establish party organization, direct its support activities, develop service work, promote social construction, cultivate and manage district cadres, implement party member education, cultivate party character and morality, increase “organization mentality,” advocate the Three Principles and party policy, reflect citizens’ feelings, grasp the “social pulse,” expand the unity of the public, assist party-nominated candidates, enforce discipline, and collect and allocate expenses and fees. Their leaders may be either elected by party members or appointed from above. Their disciplinary committees are appointed from above.

Party cadres, which may be established in any institution (including schools), are to carry out the Three Principles and party policies, and to unite party members and the general public to complete and fight for the party’s mission by bringing excellent people into the party. Cadre selection, training, appointment, and evaluation are determined by the Central Committee.

These grassroots units are not tasked with providing feedback to the central headquarters about what public opinion is. Nor is party central obliged to listen to them. Their official task is to unite the citizenry around the party’s goals. The exigencies of winning democratic elections make it reasonable to assume the grassroots are informally passing information upward. However, a party charter amendment making it clear that the party’s goal is to reflect public opinion rather than shape it, and to represent citizens rather than direct them, would be helpful at least as a public relations measure.

Can the KMT democratize?

The KMT structure was not designed to win votes and elections. It was designed to consolidate the power of the party-state’s supreme leader by preventing an internal coup. It was effective when the party was a revolutionary vanguard and then a colonial power. Lee Teng-hui even managed to subvert the structure’s purpose by using the chair’s power to support democratization and decolonization.

Ever since 2000, however, the KMT chair has been in the hands of men with questionable political judgment, and the party has followed their lead into an electoral abyss. Its Taiwanese opposition is now taking full governmental power for the first time ever and looking to dismantle the remaining institutions of the colonial party-state and strip the KMT of as many of its assets as possible. It appears the KMT must turn from the objective of maintaining the power it had gained and held by force to a new path of catching up with the democratization of the country in which it is based.

Given the sundry institutional obstacles and incentives described above, however, it is reasonable to doubt whether the KMT can ever reform in this way. It may instead stay the course and slowly disappear over the horizon.


Anonymous is a foreign translator based in Taipei. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone.

3 Responses to “How KMT Rules Preclude Reform”

April 12, 2016 at 11:43 pm, AR said:

Excellent, thank you.


April 13, 2016 at 10:28 pm, Zla'od said:

Rather than Cruz, I would compare Hung to Newt Gingrich.


April 16, 2016 at 1:01 pm, Shultz Lu said:

This article helps shedding light on KMT. Thank you!


Comments are welcome, but will be moderated. Remarks containing abusive language, personal attacks or self-promotion will not be published. We encourage healthy discussion and, above all, tolerance of other's views.