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Nationalists formally approve pro-China candidate

TAIPEI -- Taiwan's ruling Nationalist Party formally, and unanimously, confirmed Hung Hsiu-chu, the pro-China deputy parliamentary speaker, as its presidential candidate at a convention on July 19 attended by 1,200 delegates.

     The nomination of a candidate who supports Taiwan's unification with China at some point and lacks executive experience reflects ongoing confusion at the top of the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT).

     Few observers in Taiwan regard Hung, 67, as a credible opponent to Tsai Ing-wen, 58, the candidate being fielded by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Tsai, the DPP party chairwoman, is a former trade negotiator with ample experience in government who wants to continue interacting with China while keeping Taiwan sovereign.

     Nationalist politicians with a more moderate stance on relations with China, including Chairman Eric Chu, are reluctant to run in January's presidential poll after the party was routed in key mayoral elections in November. The trouncing of the ruling party was attributed to widespread unhappiness with President Ma Ying-jeou's China-friendly policies and his poor handling of domestic issues, including a string of food safety scandals.

     On Sunday, Hung appeared to acknowledge her weak position in the upcoming campaign, which she characterized as "very challenging" in her acceptance speech.

     Hung told delegates that as president she will "push for peaceful development in cross-strait relations and help all Taiwanese benefit from peaceful ties between the two sides". The reference to "all Taiwanese" may have been intended to appease those who feel Ma's China policies have benefited big businesses at the expense of ordinary people and their livelihoods.

     In her speech, Hung did not repeat her earlier statement that Taiwan and China belong to the same country. Instead, she said her future dealings with Beijing will be based on the "1992 Consensus" -- an ambiguous understanding confirming that there is only one China but which Beijing and Taipei each interpret differently. During Ma's two-term presidency, both governments have invoked the 1992 Consensus to set aside political differences in favor of improved economic relations.

     Taiwan is a democratic, sovereign state that split from mainland China in 1949 after the communist takeover, but Beijing has always considered the island its own and never officially ruled out force as a means to re-unification.

     A former secondary school teacher, Hung was first elected in 1990 and has devoted most of her parliamentary career to education issues. Her nickname, Little Chili Pepper, reflects her slight build and feisty manner. Hung surprised everyone when she became the only candidate who signed up for the Nationalist Party's presidential primary in May. The central standing committee, the party's decision-making body, approved her in June.

     Over the past two months, Hung has expressed no interest in visiting the U.S., long considered to be Taiwan's most important strategic ally against possible aggression from China.

     "Why should I visit the U.S. if I am not getting a better reception than Tsai Ing-wen?" Hung asked reporters in June following Tsai's visit earlier in the month. Tsai called on senior officials in the Obama administration.

     Hung's advisers say they are evaluating the need to visit the U.S. but nothing firm has been decided. In early May, Hung told reporters that "both sides across the Taiwan Strait are parts of a complete China" -- even though most Taiwanese prefer the separate status quo.

     Hung has also said she wants to sign a peace agreement with China, an initiative considered by critics to be the first step to political integration between the two sides.

     With Hung's electability in question, there has been speculation that James Soong, the China-friendly chairman of the People's First Party, might join the presidential race. The charismatic 73-year-old politician is seen by many Nationalists as a moderate alternative to Hung.

     In a small poll in June conducted by Taiwan Indicators Survey Research, 37.1% of respondents said they would vote for Tsai, 24.3% for Soong, and 20.5% for Hung if all three run in January.

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