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Taiwan's opposition Kuomintang struggles to shake pro-China image

KMT's old guard swats down proposals to drop 'One China'

Kuomintang's annual conference in Taipei on Sept. 6.   © Reuters

TAIPEI -- A Facebook post from Taiwan's main opposition party calling on young members to submit videos explaining why they joined for a chance to win dinner with the chairman, 2,000 New Taiwan dollars ($70) and a party T-shirt was met with ridicule online.

Netizens joked that wearing a Kuomintang T-shirt was a punishment rather than a prize, pointing to the party's full name which translates as "The Nationalist Party of China," and asking if it would be accepting entries from neighboring China, which claims Taiwan as part of its own territory and regularly threatens to take it by force.

The KMT -- which ruled China before losing a civil war to the Communists and fleeing to Taiwan -- says both Taiwan and China belong to "One China," a claim unpopular with many Taiwanese, particularly as Beijing ratchets up military threats against the island.

After an election defeat by liberal and social media-savvy incumbent Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party in January -- which the KMT Facebook post describes as its "darkest hour" -- the party is struggling to shake off what some see as a conservative, pro-China image and attract younger voters.

KMT members have pushed for reform that might attract the island's youth who increasingly view themselves as Taiwanese and not Chinese, but proposals to move away from the so called "1992 consensus" have been swatted down by the KMT's old guard.

"Overall, young voter support for the KMT has not increased significantly" since the election, said Chen Po-han of the Kuomintang Youth League, which has welcomed just 60 new members this year. He said the party's close association with the Chinese Communist Party and its "super conservative" image might put off new voters.

With just under 5% of KMT members aged under 40, the party faces an uphill battle to attract a demographic that favors formal Taiwan independence and is liberal on issues such as same-sex marriage -- both of which KMT has rejected in the past.

Sean Sun, a 34-year-old doctor living in the capital Taipei whose grandfather was one of the two million people to retreat to Taiwan with KMT forces in 1949, voted for the KMT candidate in presidential elections twice before switching to supporting DPP.

"The KMT is old and conservative, but Taiwan is a young democracy and society is evolving," he told Nikkei Asia, describing himself as a neutral voter. "They know they are losing support but they haven't tried to understand why they are losing."

As China ramps up its threats against Taiwan, including regularly buzzing the island with military aircraft, the KMT is "burdened" by its pro-China image, Sun said.

Kuomintang members wave the Republic of China (Taiwan) flag at the party's annual conference in Taipei on Sept. 6.   © Reuters

When Johnny Chiang, 48, took helm of the party in March, he promised reform.

But at the party congress in September, members backed the 1992 Consensus, an agreement between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party made in that year that acknowledges Taiwan and China as part of "One China" with each side free to interpret what that means.

Chiang later said a party name change was also not on the cards and the KMT maintains the consensus brings stable cross-strait relations.

Turning away from this heritage could be considered erasing past Kuomintang contributions to Taiwan, according to Pan Chao-min, a professor at Tunghai University's Graduate Institute of Political Science in Taiwan. "Not only did [reforms] fail to win the support of party members, they would not necessarily gain the favor of young people," he told Nikkei Asia.

Tsai, meanwhile, has defended Taiwan sovereignty and promoted its values of freedom and democracy on the world stage, garnering support from citizens concerned by a crackdown on freedom in Hong Kong and increased saber-rattling from across the Taiwan Strait.

China's apparent alignment with the KMT on other domestic issues is also unappealing to many Taiwanese voters. Chinese state media Straits Today shared a Facebook post from KMT lawmaker Lo Chih-chiang criticizing Tsai's decision to allow imports of U.S. pork containing a controversial leanness additive.

In July, DPP lawmaker Lo Chih-cheng called out the KMT chairman for referring to China as "the mainland" and said he was echoing Beijing's rhetoric in accusing the Tsai administration of positioning Taiwan as a bargaining chip amid China-U. S. tensions.

"It is much easier for the current KMT to criticize President Tsai's approach than to offer up a clear alternative vision," said Maggie Lewis, a Taiwan expert and law professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. "The KMT is far from sorting out its internal divisions, let alone articulating and rallying around a clear, unifying message."

The party has elected a younger chairman, put more younger people in core positions, started posting memes to social media, and even opened an e-commerce platform to reach out to younger voters, analysts said.

But when the youth league organized a team to march in Taiwan's annual LGBT pride parade, a backlash among KMT national committee members -- one called the parade "disgusting" -- nearly derailed participation.

Late last month, KMT tweeted a meme with Tsai's face on a picture of Chairman Mao Zedong and called for an "independent" National Communications Commission, which was investigating pro-China CTiTV News channel. This week, the commission rejected its license renewal over violations including spreading disinformation and biased reporting.

When met with criticism over likening the president to Mao, who was regarded by many as a dictator, KMT doubled down and said the DPP should "stop acting like dictators." Netizens pointed out Tsai was democratically elected while KMT's Chiang Kai-shek ran Taiwan as a dictatorship.

KMT spokesperson Chih-yung Ho told Nikkei Asia: "The real issue that Taiwan must deal with is governance rather than ideology," adding that "youthful energy is already changing the KMT."

"I would not write off the party just yet," said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The KMT is currently in a period of soul-searching and still has the potential to transform and reinvigorate the party."

Across the Strait, Beijing is worried about flagging KMT support and internal divisions over the 1992 Consensus, according to Glaser. "But I don't think they have given up on the KMT just yet. They have invested too much and don't have alternatives," she said.

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