In search of a boost, Taiwan’s oldest political party is turning to Chiang Kai-shek’s great-great-grandson

Between internal strife, muddled campaign messages, and the stance on China that has become a political liability, Taiwan’s oldest political party is going through a deep existential crisis.

The Chinese Nationalist Party, better known as the Kuomintang or Kuomintang, was founded in mainland China, but went into exile in Taiwan in 1949. It ruled the island for 50 years before losing its grip on power.

The party has long pushed for closer ties with China, a stance that has put it increasingly out of touch with a younger generation that identifies as Taiwanese and has grown wary of the Chinese Communist Party’s designs on the island.

Now the 110-year-old Kuomintang is looking to a rising star to revamp its image: Chiang Wan-an, who is favored to become the next mayor of Taipei — among the thousands of local offices that wind up in Saturday’s national elections.

The 43-year-old former lawmaker and lawyer has described himself as a thoroughly modern figure who can lead the party into the future. He supports same-sex marriage and lowers the voting age from 20 to 18. His handsome looks and young children didn’t hurt his cuteness either.

At the same time, he claims to be deeply rooted in the party’s past as a great-grandson of revolutionary Chiang Kai-shek.

It was under Chiang Kai-shek’s leadership that the party fled to Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War to Mao Zedong’s Communist Party. Waiting to one day restore the mainland, the KMT often uses brutal means to suppress any political threats, and finally lifted martial law in 1987 Taiwan has also begun to transition to democracy.

Now, it is the Communist Party who wants to take back Taiwan. In the face of increasing aggression under President Xi Jinping, who regards the democracy of 23 million people as part of China, much national political discourse has centered on how best to defend the island.

Chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party Tsai Ing-wen, or DPP, was re-elected in a landslide in 2020, thanks to growing Taiwanese nationalism and anti-China sentiment. But this year, the KMT has enjoyed a boost of support that can help it clean up the local races.

The Taipei mayoralty is often a stepping stone to the presidency. According to recent polls, Chiang is leading independent candidate Huang Shan Shan, a former vice mayor of Taipei, and Chen Shih-chung of the Democratic Progressive Party, who as health and welfare minister oversaw Taiwan’s pandemic response.

“He is the young, fresh, slightly modernized face that the Kuomintang needs,” said Lev Nachman, a political science professor at National Chengchi University. “But one candidate does not make a successful political strategy.”

In the local elections, cross-strait tensions have given way to more immediate concerns. The mayoral candidates have talked a lot about urban renewal, the rising cost of housing, subsidies for young parents, and ways to make the city more pet-friendly. Chiang wants to improve health insurance for animals and expand programs to allow them to ride on public transportation.

He also sought to capitalize on voter discontent with the Tsai administration, particularly pointing out the lack of transparency in the vaccine rollout early in the pandemic.

“This is a contest of values: democracy against the black box,” he declared at a campaign rally on Saturday night. “Hard work against laziness, integrity against lies, light against darkness.”

In the crowd that night was Mark Chu, a 30-year-old IT employee who found the event a moving morale boost for KMT supporters. However, he couldn’t help but notice a distinct lack of people his age.

“There is a sense of distance between the KMT and the youth,” Zhou said. “They are moving more and more away from the prevailing ideas.”

But Chiang managed to persuade Bernie Ho, a 33-year-old public relations officer who had supported politicians from various parties over the years.

His decision to support Chiang is in large part a vote against the DPP over its handling of the pandemic. He also expressed his admiration for Chiang’s performance during the mayoral debate.

“He has all the makings of a metropolitan mayor,” he said. “And he looks really good.”

However, even in the local races, the strained relations between Beijing and Taipei is an inevitable factor.

The ruling Democratic Progressive Party has leaned toward Taiwan independence and taken a confrontational stance on China, an approach that appeals to those who have come of age under Taiwanese democracy and rebukes Beijing’s calls for unification. These voters are wary of giving too much respite to an authoritarian regime that has threatened to satisfy its territorial claims by force.

The president, whose term ends in 2024, has recently stepped up efforts to capitalize on those concerns. But her calls for resistance to China failed to translate into broader support for the Democratic Progressive Party in this election.

“It’s a tricky balancing act,” said Song Wen-tee, professor of political science at the Australian National University’s Taiwan Studies Program. “The DPP has been riding the wave of its Taiwanese nationalist ticket since 2014 and is inevitably facing a degree of voter fatigue.”

The KMT wants to preserve the status quo of democratic rule in Taiwan, but prefers a friendly relationship with Beijing. Its support comes largely from older generations, who associate the party with their Chinese identities and roots on the mainland. A minority within the party still hopes to see reunification with China.

As the KMT grapples with how to appease its traditional base and reach out to a new one, Chiang could help bridge the gap.

His father, Hsiao Yan, a former vice premier and foreign minister, was born with the surname Zhang, but changed it after gathering evidence that he was the illegitimate grandson of Chiang Kai-shek. Although some still doubt the claim, his son also changed his last name.

Older KMT members revere the former general for his contributions to Taiwan’s industrial development and his experiences fighting Japanese and Communist forces. Younger Taiwanese consider him a symbol of the island’s authoritarian past.

Chiang Kai-shek’s legacy has come under increased scrutiny in recent years amid initiatives to compensate families of victims who suffered under his rule and to remove statues glorifying him.

Chiang Wan-an sometimes found himself caught in the middle. Earlier this year he called for Chiang Kai-shek’s name to be removed from a famous memorial hall in Taipei. But he dropped the proposal after KMT supporters criticized him for diminishing his Chinese history and identity.

Leaning so far away from his family background is a risk,” said Brian Hu, founding editor of Taiwanese media outlet New Bloom. “Now there is a lot of backlash against these second generations and political dynasties.”

The biggest challenge facing the KMT as it looks ahead to the 2024 presidential election may be convincing voters that it can deftly handle cross-strait relations without caving in to pressure from Beijing.

Watching Chiang greet voters in Taipei on Monday, Wendy Chang, 25, visiting home from studying business in the Netherlands, said he looked more modern than the traditional KMT candidates. However, she has a hard time swallowing the party’s friendly attitude towards China.

“I feel that Taiwan’s election is ultimately about cross-strait relations,” she said.

Yang is a columnist for The Times and Chen is a special correspondent.

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