The Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), long seen as a pro-Beijing force in the self-governed island of Taiwan, has recently been making attempts to repair its public image in preparation for the upcoming presidential elections.
Perceptions of communist-ruled mainland China, which sees Taiwan as a renegade province, have sunk even lower as Hong Kong simmers with unrest. Over the last few months, millions of residents in the former British colony have demonstrated against the erosion of their city’s autonomy and rule of law by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its agents.
In particular, the multiple large protests in Hong Kong to oppose a controversial extradition bill have caused ripples in Taiwan, where tens of thousands of people joined a rally to protest influence operations carried out locally by CCP-backed “red media.”
Taiwan is currently run by President Tsai Ing-wen, who belongs to the liberal, pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). She is seeking re-election in 2020.
On July 2, the KMT issued a statement of support for Hongkongers in their protests against the now-suspended extradition bill, which would have allowed anyone in the city to be sent to mainland China for trial under the CCP’s judicial system.
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“In the past few weeks Hongkongers have marched to the streets multiple times and peacefully exercised their basic rights to assembly and protest, we hope that Hongkongers could continue their fight rationally,” the statement read.
The statement also criticized the “one country, two systems” model in use between mainland China and Hong Kong, calling it an “utter failure.”
“We definitely will not support ‘one country, two systems,’ our stance [on this] is clear,” the statement said.
The KMT, which relocated to Taiwan in 1949 after losing control of mainland China to the communists, ran the island as an authoritarian state until implementing political reform in the 1980s. Taiwan is still formally known as the Republic of China; the communist mainland is governed as the People’s Republic of China.
But faced with decreasing domestic popularity in the years that followed, the KMT established closer ties with the mainland, primarily in exchange for business benefits from mainland China’s economic growth.
In 2014, during the presidency of pro-Beijing President Ma Ying-jeou, the Sunflower Movement broke out, and protesters occupied the Taiwan legislature. The KMT was voted out of office in 2016, and has attempted to capitalize on Tsai’s shortcomings in order to make a political comeback.
For example, Tsai’s government recently passed a law to allow same-sex marriages, despite over 70 percent of Taiwanese being opposed, creating impressions that the DPP has been ignoring popular demand in its governance.
However, the KMT’s reputation for being overly friendly with Beijing may be hard to shake. On June 9, following a demonstration by over 1 million Hongkongers, KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu told reporters that he “didn’t know” about the protest. Han’s response drew widespread criticism, with many suspecting that Han feigned ignorance out of fear for offending the CCP.
Han, who remained a minor politician until being elected mayor of the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung in 2018, has since defeated Foxconn founder Terry Gou to become the KMT’s 2020 presidential candidate.
In March, Han and other Kaohsiung officials visited Hong Kong and mainland China for agricultural talks, where he met with Wang Zhimin, head of China’s Hong Kong Liaison Office. The Office serves as the main state organ through which Beijing runs its Hong Kong policy.
Publically, Han has been in line with the July 2 KMT statement criticizing the results of the “one country, two systems.” On June 10, following his “didn’t know” reply the previous day, Han stated that he opposed applying the system to Taiwan, and would defend the Republic of China’s democracy and way of life.
Han said he would only accept “one country, two systems” in Taiwan “over my dead body,” echoing language used during the Sunflower movement.
New Bloom, a left-wing, pro-Taiwan independence blog, noted that Han’s statements may have angered Beijing, citing an editorial criticizing Han that appeared in the CCP-run Global Times.
The Global Times piece offered reserved support for Han, comparing him favorably to Tsai Ing-wen, but quoted a Beijing-based expert as saying that “the Chinese mainland … must have a clear understanding of the two-faced behavior of politicians in Taiwan, and treat them calmly and in a smart way.”