Reuters News Report


Taiwan Nationalists face identity, survival crisis

March 13, 2004

Reuters News report

TAIPEI - The Nationalist Party overthrew China's last emperor, fended off a Japanese invasion in World War Two and survived defeat by Mao Zedong's red army by retreating to the island of Taiwan in 1949. But it may never have faced a challenge as dramatic as that which looms if it loses Taiwan's March 20 presidential election.

Straining to reconcile decades of ideology built on the goal of reunification with China with the need to win votes from Taiwanese who feel scant connection to the mainland their ancestors left centuries ago, the party may collapse if it suffers a second successive defeat.

"If the KMT lost again it would be a major disaster (for them)," said political commentator Tim Ting, using the party's Chinese name, Kuomintang. "It would probably change its name to the Taiwan KMT," said Ting, chief consultant for Gallup Taiwan. "It would be the end of their careers for many senior politicians."

Those senior politicians -- many born on the mainland -- may be one of the party's greatest encumbrances as chairman Lien Chan fights a neck-and-neck race to wrest the presidency from Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Chen, 54, is playing to the emotions of native Taiwanese who make up 65 to 70 percent of the island's 23 million people, using the identity card of an aggressive claim that Taiwan is an independent country with the official name of Republic of China.

The 68-year-old Lien, also from a native Taiwan family, leads a party that many associate both with stability and a more conciliatory approach towards giant foe China but also with mainland roots and a history of five decades of authoritarian rule. In a dramatic gesture on Saturday during rallies of some two million supporters, Lien underscored his Taiwan identity by prostrating himself full length to kiss the soil.

"Every time they say unification is a long-term goal, the grassroots tell them they are losing votes," said Li Hsi-kun, a National Taiwan University professor who once ran for the legislature as a Nationalist.

The Nationalist policy towards China is schizophrenic. The party favours closer economic links with China and talks to ease tensions with a giant neighbour that threatens force to recover the breakaway province if necessary.

In trying to be more appealing by shedding its mainland Chinese image, it appears no longer dedicated to unification. Lien has said the issue of independence or unification should be set aside for now and decided by future generations.


"If we must say it out loud, then 'one China' is the Republic of China," Lien said in a televised debate -- a nod to the ideal of unification but not while China remains communist as the People's Republic of China.

The Nationalists much prefer not to mention the word unification out loud. The party needs to rethink its ideology and lure voters by severing its ideological ties to China, analysts say.

"They need to shed the label of being a 'foreign political power'," said Emile Sheng, professor of political science at Soochow university. "You can say the Nationalists represent 'gradual nativisation' if the DPP represents 'aggressive nativisation'," Sheng said, referring to the parties' stands on independence. However, it will be easier for the Nationalists to find a middle-ground stand that appeals to voters than for the DPP whose policies are entwined with Taiwanese identity, he said.

The Nationalists face problems besides identity. The party is led by a political and business elite that prospered from Taiwan's economic boom during the years of Nationalist rapprochement with China and a five-decade rule brought to an end by Chen's election in 2000.

The uneasy alliance between that elite and grassroots party organisations made up of native Taiwanese has created a network that helped to enrich the Nationalists and give them a reputation as the party of "black gold" -- or corruption in politics.

As one of the world's wealthiest political organisations, the party has worked hard to clean up its image, placing US$1.6 billion into a blind trust after Chen defeated it to take office in 2000 on an anti-corruption platform.

"They have made some reforms, but they have not yet changed their old habits," Sheng said. "Their power still moves from top to bottom, not from bottom to top."

Would-be Nationalist lawmaker Li agreed. "They've done a good job of presentation, but transformation is hard to see. They still don't have a modern political party structure."

Defeat could be catastrophic in the short term, but it could also give the party the jolt it needs. "If they are elected it will just extend their current life, and it is not a healthy body," Li said. "As a Nationalist member, it's hard for me to say, but it's true."

Li said defeat may offer the party its best chance to rid itself of the historical baggage of "black gold" and authoritarianism. And that would give the younger generation a chance.

"The Nationalists' ideology has been changing," said Sheng. "There is a force inside the party that does not want to give up on unification. But a larger force does not want the burden of this issue."