OPINION-The return of Jaw Shaw-kong to KMT: Implications for Beijing-Taipei relations

The sudden return of Jaw Shaw-kong, to the Kuomintang (KMT) in Taiwan in February 2021 has significant implications for not only the factional politics and realignment within the KMT but also Beijing-Taipei interactions and directions in current transition leading to the presidential elections in the Republic of China (ROC) in 2024.

Jaw Shaw-kong was a famous KMT politician in the 1980s, directly elected to the Legislative Yuan and becoming an environmental protection official. He belonged to a “non-mainstream” faction of the KMT, opposing the “mainstream” faction led by the late President Lee Teng-hui. Jaw withdrew from the KMT and was one of the founders of the pro-reunification New Party in August 1993. In 1994, Jaw contested the Taipei mayoral position and lost to Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Since his “retirement” from politics in 1996, Jaw has become a very successful media commentator through radio and television programs, such as TVBS and the Broadcasting Corporation of China (BCC). 

Jaw revealed that Han Kuo-yu, the former mayor of Kaohsiung and former presidential candidate, lobbied him that he should re-join the KMT. Han was a highly popular major of Kaohsiung directly elected in 2018 with 53.8 percent of the vote, but he was defeated in the 2020 presidential election by DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen (Han 38.6 percent and Tsai 57 percent). Han’s chance of being elected was unfortunately undermined by the 2019 anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong, where political developments provided a golden opportunity for the DPP radicals to discredit him and defeat the KMT. Even worse, Han himself was later ousted from the position of Kaohsiung mayor in April 2020 during a recall vote.

Han was reportedly expressing his concern that if he runs for the party chairman position later in the KMT, such a move would split the party. As a result, he persuaded Jaw, a member of the pro-reunification faction, to return to the KMT and consider running for the position of party chairman.

However, the KMT party regulations state that, in order for a member to run for the position of the party chair, he or she needs to be a member of either the Central Committee or the Central Assessment Committee, and that one-year party membership is a precondition for participation in the election of party chair. Even though Jaw re-joins the KMT, it remains to be seen how the KMT Standing Committee would interpret the one-year membership strictly or loosely.

Amid all the political rumours and speculations, Jaw said graciously that while he fully respects KMT party chairman, Johnny Chiang Chi-chen, he himself has not yet decided whether he would run for the party chair election, and that he would follow all the rules and procedures. Clearly, Jaw wants to keep the media and his critics, especially those from the DPP’s radical faction, guessing his intentions, while simultaneously creating an image of unity within the KMT. On February 5, Jaw and Chiang took part in a press conference together, demonstrating their political solidarity in a KMT-backed move to oust a DPP city councillor Huang Chieh on February 6. The success in the recall vote against Han Kuo-yu has sparked a wave of retaliatory politics in Taiwan, firstly followed by the KMT success in winning a recall vote against Taoyuan city councillor Wang Hao-yu in mid-January 2021, and secondly another attempt to oust Huang.

It must be noted that there is a generational gap between Jaw’s “dark blue” faction, which advocates the need to admit the 1992 consensus reached by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the ROC side on the acceptance of one China but with the interpretation of its meaning left to both sides, and the “light blue” faction, which is epitomized by Johnny Chiang whose supporters tend to drift toward a more localist direction supportive of Taiwan’s interests. Chiang is 48 years old, while Jaw 70 years of age – a generational gap that illustrates the underlying tensions within the KMT. While the old party line sticks to the 1992 consensus, the rising Young Turks within the KMT advocates a more localist approach to dealing with the PRC.

In June 2020, the Young Turks under the leadership of Johnny Chiang came up with a slightly pro-Taiwan platform, advocating new positions without openly stressing the need to talk about the 1992 consensus. These positions include the necessity of attaching great importance to the ROC before any cross-Strait consensus, and of recovering the ROC’s “reasonable status” in international organizations. These two positions, according to a critic named Zhu Suiyi in a commentary on Hong Kong’s Ta Kung Pao on February 4 (page A15), constituted a move to create “two Chinas” and were “no different from the DPP’s line of ‘one China one Taiwan.’” Zhu further criticized the KMT’s factional direction of advocating the “diplomatic return between Taiwan and the US.” Clearly, the faction led by Johnny Chiang is now perceived by the pro-Beijing Hong Kong media as tantamount to not just “light blue” but also having shadows of “light green.” As such, the return of Jaw has been seen by Zhu as the return of “dark blue” to KMT politics with the implication of witnessing a “fierce struggle” in the KMT’s party chair election in late 2021.

Jaw’s return to KMT has important implications for Taiwan politics in several aspects. 

First and foremost, the return of Jaw as a member of the “dark blue” camp may not lead to factional rivalries within the KMT, but a golden opportunity for the KMT revival through a closer collaboration between the “dark blue” and “light blue” factions. Recently, public opinion surveys have pointed to a popular resurgence of the KMT; many of its localists and “light blue” activists, such as Taichung mayor Lu Shiow-yen and Taoyuan mayor Hou You-yi. Lu and Hou have recently tipped by the Taiwan media as potential candidates of the KMT in the 2024 presidential elections. 

At this moment, it is too early to judge which candidate from which faction of the KMT will run for the 2024 presidential elections. Interestingly, some commentators and reporters of the pro-PRC media in Hong Kong and the mainland have appeared to stick their neck out too early to point to the importance of Jaw Shaw-kong to “revive” the KMT – a position that has already been ridiculed by some Taiwan media commentators, especially those from the pro-DPP side. As such, the mainland reporters and commentators may have to exercise their caution to appreciate the return of Jaw to the KMT prematurely, because Taiwan’s political landscape is so hyper-politicized that any mainland media’s open praise of a Taiwan politician can and will likely portray him as a “pro-Beijing” candidate and yet undermine his chance in any election in the future. 

Second, Jaw’s faction belongs to Han Kuo-yu’s emphasis on the acknowledgement of 1992 consensus, but this line of thinking is, according to Han himself, belongs to one of the three line of struggles within the KMT in its policy toward the PRC. Han Kuo-yu revealed to his KMT friends that the party has three main directions in the future: (1) the insistence on the 1992 consensus; (2) the position advocated by retired military officer and KMT member Yu Bei-chen that the party should retain its “anti-communist, resistance to reunification, and opposition to independence” stance; and KMT legislator Lin Wei-chou’s position that the KMT should be “de-mainlandized.” Undoubtedly, the de-mainlandization position can be easily criticized as having shadow of “light green,” approaching the DPP stance. The most important position neglected by many mainland commentators and reporters is Yu Bei-chun’s status quo position, which is arguably an ambiguous position acceptable to the increasingly young voters who favour a localist approach to dealing with mainland China in electoral politics.

Thirdly, the KMT’s factional directions will have an important bearing on Beijing-Taipei relations. Beijing’s think tank members on Taipei should ideally hammer out the details of a Taiwan model of “one country, two systems” that incorporate the need to maintain the 1992 consensus on the one hand and integrate a political line increasingly acceptable to the Taiwan voters in the coming years. This line is perhaps Lin’s position of maintaining the status quo for some years to come.

To put it more starkly, Beijing’s think tank members, if they wish to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwan voters, may need to ponder a stage-by-stage model of reunion and reunification with the ROC in the coming decades. This stage-by-stage model necessities an acceleration of increased socio-economic interactions between the mainlanders and Taiwan people immediately after the fading away of Covid-19, followed by a stage of socio-economic union of South China embracing Taiwan, and then finally by a stage of political dialogue and negotiations over how the Taiwan model of “one country, two systems” would be made attractive to the people of Taiwan.

At the present, one has to admit that the Hong Kong model of “one country, two systems” fails to attract the people of Taiwan. The crux of the problem is for the mainland authorities to hammer out the attractiveness of the “Taiwan model.” Otherwise, the usage of the Taiwan model of “one country, two systems” to appeal to the ROC side will remain a difficult task in the coming years.

Fourthly, Jaw’s popularity remains high within the KMT supporters and he will stand a good chance of reunifying the party ahead of the county elections in 2022. According to Liberty Times on February 5, an internal opinion survey conducted by the DPP showed interestingly that, among the KMT supporters, 42 percent support Jaw, 35 percent support Eric Chu, and only 7 percent support Johnny Chiang. However, when asked who the preferred candidate would be representing the KMT in presidential elections, the respondents tended to support Eric Chu slightly more than Han Kuo-yu. If so, while Jaw is seemingly a favoured candidate within the KMT supporters for the position of party chair, the prospects of who should represent the KMT in the 2024 presidential election remains uncertain. If so, Jaw’s return to the KMT and revival of the party is one thing; the factional struggle for the presidential candidacy will be another matter that needs to be observed carefully.

Fifthly, mainland commentators and observes may have neglected the inevitable impacts of generational change in the KMT leadership. The more local the KMT leadership, the more distant they are toward the Beijing-Taipei relations. As such, the return of Jaw may signal the “last” battle of the dark blue faction in KMT’s factional politics. On the other hand, Jaw and other members of the dark blue camp, such as Han Kuo-yu and former President Ma Ying-jeou, can and will still play a role of intermediaries between Beijing and Taipei, if time will be politically ripe. In brief, time may not be on the side of the PRC authorities to seek to reunify Taiwan easily through the dream of hoping for an easy KMT dark blue victory in the 2024 presidential election.

In conclusion, the return of Jaw Shaw-kong to the KMT has very significant implications for not only the KMT’s factional politics but also Beijing-Taipei relations. Factionally speaking, Jam’s return may signal a golden opportunity to strengthen the solidarity of various factions in the KMT, improving the electoral performance of the 2022 county elections and paving the way for the significant 2024 presidential elections. However, Jaw’s return to the KMT triggers serious questions on how Beijing should map out the Taiwan model of “one country, two systems” for Taiwan’s political future. If the KMT is in a leadership crisis, the return of Jaw can turn such crisis into an opportunity. Nevertheless, such opportunity will have to be accompanied by contextual adaptation and strategic adjustment from the PRC side, if the “Taiwan model” of “one country, two systems” will really be made attractive to the people of Taiwan, and regardless of whether the KMT would return to the presidency in the landmark 2024 presidential election.