by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Hung Hsiu-chu/Facebook
Who Is It That Still Thinks Hung is Still Viable as a Political Candidate?
IT WAS A few weeks ago while I visiting my parents in their home in upstate New York that I realized there were still people in the world who think of Hung Hsiu-Chu as not only a viable presidential candidate, but a sensible one. “Hung seems like a pretty reasonable candidate to me,” said my mother to me in all seriousness over dinner. I was taken aback.
Indeed, it may be the perpetual dilemma of many a descendent of KMT party supporters such as myself to have occasional political squabbles with their parents or relatives, usually over family dinners. However, what surprised me more than else was that anyone actually thought Hung was, in fact, not only still in the running as a serious candidate but actually a sensible one—not only where Taiwanese domestic policy is concerned, but regarding cross-strait relations. Thus, even as it has been reported that we be on the verge of seeing Hung replaced as a political candidate by Eric Chu, before we start speaking of Hung in the past tense, we might keep in mind that there is a spectrum of the Taiwanese public which has labored under the delusion that Hung is a viable and reasonable political candidate all this while.
There are, of course, individuals who are and always will be pan-blue to the very core of their beings, hence their diehard support of Hung irregardless of any circumstances. But in other cases, it is the domination of more traditional Taiwanese media by pan-blue or pro-China media leads to a monopoly on the information which certain sectors of the public receive. To break through this situation of so-called “Media Monopoly” a rich ecology of “new media” which operates independently, often with little funding and often operating through social media, has come to develop in Taiwan to provide alternative, less pan-blue or pro-China slanting news sources. But for some who are less savvy with Internet age news outlets, traditional forms of media continue to provide the only source of news.
As a result, a portion of the Taiwanese political center does not arrive at the conclusion that everyone else does—that Hung has continued to make splashes from time to time but has been more or less politically dead in the water for some time. We will see as to whether if any replacement of Hung by Chu, going against the party stipulations of the KMT, will lead to any broader awareness of the deep-set crisis of the KMT which we see at present. Even if Chu does not, in fact, replace Hung, Hung is still largely politically dead in the water.
Yet given that many international observers and commentators are shaping of global opinion but always look at Taiwan from abroad rather than from on the ground, there are also still individuals out there who remain convinced that a DPP presidency would put into power a presidential candidate bent on destabilizing cross-strait relations in the service of Taiwanese independence ideology at all costs. There are those influential political observers from abroad who have remained convinced Hung is the saner choice for Taiwan in spite of everything, simply because they have moved beyond looking at present DPP-KMT politics from the standpoint of the Chen Shui-Bian presidency—never mind that was eight years ago.
Funnily enough, where cross-strait relations are concerned, Hung had taken on a lot of the tropes of unpredictability traditionally associated with the DPP. It is Hung which would seem to be a unpredictable possible risk to the cross-strait stability this time around, given her apparent total lack of understanding of the complications of international diplomacy. If in the past the DPP was seen as guided by independence ideology above any rational consideration about cross-strait relations, it would seem that perhaps the KMT is now guided by unification ideology above all rational concerns.
After all, the KMT has stuck to the vaguely fictitious “1992 Consensus” which states that there is “One China with different interpretations” between the KMT and CCP, making cross-strait relations vaguely sound like some kind of hermeneutic exercise in literary interpretation. But in the past Hung has evidenced a lack of understanding of that many of the powers with a stake in cross-strait relations cling to the “1992 Consensus” as a guarantor of stability. In late June, Hung instead put forth her view of “One China, same interpretation” against KMT party platform and previously had seemed to have the notion that she would accomplish where all others had historically failed in the past in being able to negotiate a treaty with China. Hung was later forced to back down and, returning to the KMT party line, later came to accept and reiterate the importance of the 1992 Consensus.
So we will see too, as to whether Taiwan’s distant observers have any realization of the crisis of the KMT pending any possible shake-up within the KMT in the near future. But whither Hung Hsiu-Chu, then? One wonders. Because if certainly one of the more colorful characters to make an appearance in Taiwanese politics in a long time, with her meteoric rise and fall, Hung also seems a figure vaguely emblematic of the times.
Hung Hsiu-Chu as a Figure Expressive of the Crisis of the KMT
PERHAPS IT IS that figures which are raised out of total obscurity to become public superstars overnight tend to be figures expressive of larger social trends. One thinks of the protagonists of the Sunflower Movement, for example, and the entrance of a new generation of Taiwanese youth onto the political scene that they marked through their elevation to the media spotlight. But if on the opposite end of the political spectrum, Hung Hsiu-Chu went from becoming a political nobody to being the KMT’s sole contender for presidential candidate then in fact becoming the KMT’s presidential candidate, it is because of the larger crisis of the KMT that she represents.
Though actually vice president of the Legislative Yuan since 2012, as largely a political nobody, few expected Hung Hsiu-Chu to become the KMT’s presidential candidate because it was always expected that a larger political heavyweight as Eric Chu or Wang Jinpyng would step in. Hung was, in fact, expected to know her role as bit player on the grand political stage and bow out herself. Nevertheless, whether through personal bravado or Hung’s tone deafness to political sensitivity or very likely a combination of the two this never happened.
There followed a long period of time in which there much talk of schemes to draft a political heavyweight into replacing Hung as the KMT’s presidential candidate which one still hears distant echoes of. But the reason why Wang or Chu did not step in is because of the deep rift which exists between President Ma Ying-Jeou’s “mainlander” faction of the KMT and president of the Legislative Yuan Wang Jinpyng’s “Taiwanese” faction, the latter of which has come under fire in the past for being too close to elements of the DPP and thus come under the censure of the former. Chu, who replaced Ma as party chairman of the KMT after Ma resigned following the defeat of the KMT in the past year’s nine-in-one elections, is part of Ma’s mainlander faction.
Yet if the KMT is now divided from within, Wang, Chu, or other heavyweights did not want to provoke internal ruptures by directly attempting to seek the position of presidential candidate for the KMT. Thus, Wang and Chu were hoping that the party would ask them to take the presidential candidacy and that they could make a big show of reluctantly taking on the role, so as to minimize the conflict which would result from either of them directly seeking presidential candidacy. Unfortunately, this was the miscalculation which allowed for the entrance of Hung of enter the political stage, her unexpected superstardom, and then for Hung to actually become the presidential candidate of the KMT. In this way, Hung’s presidential candidacy is very directly a result of the KMT’s internal divisions, which have been longstanding, but only accentuated after the defeat of the KMT in nine-in-one elections in such a manner as to have provoked widespread anxiety about the ability of the KMT to appeal to the Taiwanese voter electorate.
But if Hung herself hews to Ma’s mainlander faction, she also displays how certain sectors of the KMT are almost totally out of contact with the Taiwanese public. Hung has a long history of bias against benshengren Taiwanese, for example, scoffing at the pronunciation of Taiwanese or cutting funding for Taiwanese language programs as legislator. And after the largest social movement in Taiwan in close to 25 years took place last year, with 500,000 demonstrating on the streets of Taipei at the height of the Sunflower Movement, Hung seemed unable to grasp that this represented something fundamental in the shifting public consciousness of Taiwanese in the present. Rather, Hung lashed out against fascist “populism” and the machinations of the insidious DPP as manipulating the political actions of Taiwan’s current generation of youth.
If Hung continued to launch her appeals to “deep blue” KMT chauvinists, this would also seem to exemplify the echo chamber in which Hung, alongside many diehard KMT supporters would live. Hung, already out of touch with society and decidedly lacking in sensitivity to the changing political atmosphere of Taiwan, would seem to live in her own world in which she makes fanatical statements, receives approval from her circle of KMT diehards and concludes that this means support from the public. Never mind that Hung would seem to live utterly removed from the realities of Taiwanese society. But the echo chamber in which Hung lives, of course, negatively impacted her campaign as Hung made noise, the noise reverberated back in her echo chamber, and this prompted Hung to only make louder noise—that is, more radical statements which are well received by her deep blue supporters, but only to worsen Hung’s image in the mainstream public. A vicious circle for Hung, this would be.
Hung’s series of increasingly out-of-touch statements during her early campaigning were probably a product of this echo chamber—which may more broadly be the echo chamber that Ma’s “mainlander” faction of the KMT is largely caught in. One thinks of Ma’s own actions after the Sunflower Movement, for example, in which Ma seemed to have learned little in regards to continuing to try and push for free trade agreements signed with China or also continued to express lack of comprehension as to why exactly Taiwan’s youth would rise up against the policies he tried to push for.
Yet if Hung’s doom had been sealed, the earliest signs were indications of a failure of nerve on her part which occurred on social media. Hung’s bizarre vow that she would take a break from campaign to spiritually rediscover herself on a late-night rant posted on Facebook indicated that Hung may had finally been discovering how much her campaign has run aground as a result of her lack of ability to moderate herself in public. Hung’s successes as a politician to date were achieved upon her unwillingness to back down and make way for others, even in the face of KMT heavyweights as Wang Jinpyng or Eric Chu. Through gutsiness alone had Hung Hsiu-Chu made her way from being a nobody to becoming KMT presidential candidate. And maybe it is that gutsiness can only go so far.
Who Is It That Ultimately Comes Out on Top in Elections?
IF THE TERRAIN of the election shifted in August, it is was through James Soong’s entrance into the presidential election as candidate of the People First Party. James Soong running for president is not exactly anything new, this being the fourth time he is running for president. But actually, that Soong manages to persist within Taiwanese politics represents something terribly deficient about Taiwanese political memory that Soong—the former head of the Government Information Office during martial law—would somehow reenter Taiwanese politics as though he were guiltless of past crimes of putting down political dissidents in the name of authoritarian politics. It is a testament to Soong’s skill as a politician that he would be able to reinvent himself and erase memory of past sins. Nonetheless, Soong’s inability to continue to capture broader public attention after an initial wave of momentum after his entrance into the race would seem to mark his insolvency as a candidate.
But if Eric Chu enters the race and replaces Hung, as is forecast by some as a foregone conclusion and still thought to be impossible by others, we might note that he is a an experienced politician, who is far more skilled at the art of manipulating public perception than Hung. Chu differs from Hung, whose inability to moderate herself has largely led to her downfall. After all, if this is the case, it would seem that after a long period of Chu’s waiting for the KMT to come to him and beg him to take the presidential candidacy would have unexpectedly paid off—if Chu’s initial strategy was aimed at allowing him to become the KMT’s presidential candidate without accentuating the KMT’s internal contradictions to a breaking point.
The race between the DPP and KMT for presidency will almost certainly be a tighter race if Chu serves as presidential candidate for the KMT. Though the verdict is still out on whether a stronger or weaker political KMT presidential candidate who would be defeated by the DPP’s Tsai would hasten the KMT’s disintegration, probably it is also true that the KMT’s ability to adjust to circumstances is not entirely broken if it can override internal procedures and historical precedent to replace Hung with Chu. We will see if that happens.
Of course, a Tsai victory is still probable so long as Tsai is able to keep to current strategy of seeming the only rational political choice, playing off of the KMT’s missteps in the past year, and avoiding the gaffes which entrapped Hung, among others. But even if Taiwan might ostensibly live in an age of democratic, post-authoritarian politics in which the people are able to decide their government for themselves, one suspects that regardless of the outcome of the election or who it is in competition—DPP or KMT alike—it will ultimately be the career politicians who are masters of manipulating public opinion will finish on top. Because if the fall of Hung Hsiu-Chu would mean that Taiwan’s presidential election will become more serious of a race, it also means the race will no longer be a joke—but a battle between experienced politicians trading off the artifice of public image in order to win.