VOTE 2016: Why Beijing Should Worry About 小Soong’s ‘Rebirth’

Politically expedient or heartfelt, James Soong’s transformation is a reflection of a consolidating identity in Taiwan. And that’s bad news for Beijing
J. Michael Cole

What a difference a decade can make! On the night of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) presidential candidate Lien Chan’s (連戰) defeat to incumbent president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan’s 2004 presidential election, Lien’s discombobulated running mate, James Soong (宋楚瑜), was caught on video vowing to an angry crowd that he would “head to the Presidential Office and ‘kill’ president Chen,” who had just been re-elected by a razor-thin margin. A year later, Mr. Soong visited China to deliver a “secret message” to then-Chinese president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤). Occurring a little more than a month after Beijing had ratified the Anti-Secession Law, which contains language “authorizing” the use of force against Taiwan to prevent its formal independence, the visit did little to dispel Mr. Soong’s image as a politician who would not hesitate to “sell” Taiwan out to China.

Fast-forward 11 years and 2016 presidential candidate Soong, a savvy politician who played an instrumental role in the oppression of Taiwanese during the nation’s dark past, has adopted a completely different political persona: He is now ostensibly pro Taiwan, speaks the language that the agency he headed under Martial Law, the now-defunct Government Information Office, had systematically repressed, waxes eloquent about transitional justice, and sounds very much like Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), the current presidential candidate for the DPP who is well ahead in the polls.

Last week, Mr. Soong issued an “apology” for the state-sanctioned crimes that were perpetrated against the Taiwanese under Martial Law, which was lifted in July 1987 after four long decades. The party that Mr. Soong has headed since he was expelled from the KMT, the People First Party (PFP), is now a Noah’s Ark for KMT members who have suffered a similar fate in recent months or who have walked away from the ruling party over their fundamental ideological disagreement with KMT presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu’s (洪秀柱) worryingly “pro China” stance. Rather than cooperate with the KMT as it has done in the past, the PFP today is much more closely aligned with the DPP, and Soong’s participation in the race seems certain to split the “blue” vote and ensure defeat for Ms. Hung, who is already trailing Ms. Tsai and Mr. Soong (requests by the KMT and Beijing that Mr. Soong abandon his presidential aspirations fell on deaf ears).

Granted, Mr. Soong’s “apology” came after he reportedly received some pressure from within his party. It is also said that he initially refused to do so. And yes, Mr. Soong said that he was “honored” to apologize on behalf of the former authoritarian regime, a rhetorical sleight of hand that was widely regarded as self-exculpatory.

Be that as it may and political expediency aside, Soong’s “rebirth” (he now wears light blue with rolled-up sleeves, slacks, and wants to be referred to as 小宋 or “Little Soong,” echoing Ms. Tsai’s own nickname, 小英) is nevertheless a sign of the times and a reflection of changing attitudes in Taiwan. The pressure on the proud politician to apologize came from PFP legislators who were well aware that if he didn’t admit some guilt over his role in Taiwan’s sordid past, their chances of being elected in the concurrent legislative elections on Jan. 16 would be slim indeed. Taiwan’s increasingly activist civil society, added to youths’ uncanny ability to unearth and disseminate information about politicians, has largely contributed to the consolidation of a new Taiwan-centric identity among ordinary people, a form of “civic nationalism” that emphasizes liberal democratic ideals and a break with oppressive Confucian values while playing down longstanding ethnic notions of citizenship. Although those elements have always been there, those memes exploded into the nation’s consciousness last year, in large part as the result of the Sunflower Movement and subsequent groups, such as those that took action over changes to textbook curriculum guidelines recently. Everything that politicians say nowadays is scrutinized au peigne fin, including their commitment to democracy, transparency, and good governance, which undoubtedly had an impact on the outcome of the nine-in-one local elections last year.

Much like Mr. Soong, political survival probably has something to do with the “rebirth” of the five KMT members who were expelled from the party last month. One, former KMT legislator Chi Kuo-tung (紀國棟), had been as ardent a defender of the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration during the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the Legislative Yuan in 2014 as could be found at the time. Mr. Chi, who regularly appears on TV talk shows, now sounds much more “green” than “blue,” as have Taipei City Councilor Lee Ching-yuan (李慶元), who will run as an independent in January, former KMT Central Committee member Lee Po-jung (李柏融), who participated in the protests against the curriculum changes last month, former legislator Chang Sho-wen (張碩文), who will run on the PFP ticket, and former Taipei City councilor Yang Shih-chiu (楊實秋), who intends to run in Taipei. All five have described their ideological transition in terms of “old” versus “new” selves (or brain). Recently asked which generation of “Mainlander” he was, Yang responded by saying that he was “a first generation Taiwanese.”

Convenience aside, we must nevertheless take into account the fact that the quintet was expelled because of what they had been saying for months prior to being forced out and because of their refusal to represent Ms. Hung’s brand of the KMT. It should also be noted that many other KMT members — including several “local pillars” who have been instrumental in ensuring the party’s ability to get elected following democratization, have remained with the party but are pulling out of the January race. Many of the politicians who are refusing to ally themselves with Ms. Hung are no angels and were notorious for using every trick in the book — including relying on local gangsters — to ensure KMT victories in local and national elections. Their break with Ms. Hung makes it clear that even they have an ideological baseline, and that baseline is Taiwan’s sovereignty and way of life, which the KMT presidential candidate and the forces she has allied with are seen to be threatening.

While the KMT has sought to discredit the young Taiwanese activists who have sounded the clarion call for a new national identity by accusing them of “irrationality” and “violence,” of being manipulated by political parties, and likened them to Mao Zedong’s Red Guards, al-Qaeda or Islamic State (IS), the rest of society, other political parties and former KMT members such as those mentioned above, have moved in the opposite direction by embracing the youths’ ideals. The pan-blue camp has made attempts at presenting its own youth front, but the effort has been rather disappointing and furthermore discredited by its connections to pro-unification elements such as gangster Chang An-le’s (張安樂) China Unification Promotion Party, a tool of the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office, and the New Party (NP).

All of these developments give salience to the notion that Taiwan has been developing a distinct identity that in turn has contributed to a steady drop in support for unification with China, which now stands at 9.1% — the lowest on record — and in self-identification as Chinese (3.3%, also a historical low). What this also tells us is that many politicians, from both the green and the blue side, understand that their electability is now largely predicated on their ability to reflect what society wants from them.

Notwithstanding the fact that Mr. Soong’s journey may be more the act of a chameleon than a bona fide spiritual rebirth, the old survivor nevertheless has demonstrated that he understands the necessity of appealing to the general sentiment and of respecting Taiwan’s baseline. By force of things, this meant getting closer to the policies proposed by Ms. Tsai of the DPP (the latest poll shows Ms. Tsai leading with 37.1%, against Mr. Song at 20.5% and Ms. Hung at 13.9%).

By doing so, Mr. Soong has made sure that he will remain politically relevant. And it also informs Beijing that it has lost yet another possible ally in its efforts to absorb Taiwan.

This is not the conclusion that the KMT seems to have reached. Instead of following the trend lines telegraphed by Taiwanese society, its leadership has chosen to align itself with the New Party — the pro-unification party of mostly elderly politicians that, in light of ongoing developments in Taiwan, is on the brink of extinction — in the January elections. This cannot but be disastrous for the KMT, which appears to have engaged in a downward spiral of self-destructiveness. The state-run Central News Agency itself made that clear in its reporting on the KMT-NP alliance: “The [New Party] had its heyday in 1995, winning 21 of the 164 seats in the legislative election, but began to wane in the late 1990s. In the 2008 and 2012 legislative elections, the party failed to win any seats.”


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. He is the author of Black Island: Two years of activism in Taiwan.

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