by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: 國民黨青年部/Facebook

GOING INTO 2018 local elections, what has become increasingly clear is that the KMT hopes to appeal to young people. The Tsai administration and DPP rode into power in 2016 presidential and legislative elections with the support of young people in the two years following the Sunflower Movement and the KMT is hoping to replicate this.

Zhong Pei-jun (right) appearing in a campaign ad with former president Ma Ying-Jeou, sporting a KMT hoodie. Photo credit: Zhong Pei-jun/Facebook

In truth, the KMT is not running a substantially large amount of youth candidates. For example, if we are to take the KMT’s 33 city council candidates in the traditional pan-Blue stronghold of Taipei as a representative sample, it has 12 candidates who are political newcomers. Although “young” is always a highly relative term, of these candidates, five can probably thought of as young people, these being Hsu Chiao-hsin (28), Geng Wei (27), Zhong Pei-jun (33), Lee Bo-yi (27), and Lin Guan-xun (31).

The most notable among these five youth candidates may be Lee Bo-yi, Geng Wei, and Hsu Chiao-shin. Lee Bo-yi and Geng Wei have come under fire in the past for being a second-generation politician highly dependent on the resources of relatives. Lee’s father Lee Hsin, a well-known KMT politician, was a former member of the National Assembly, Taipei City Council member, launched several unsuccessful bids for KMT chair and KMT central standing committee, and unexpectedly committed suicide last year, reportedly after bouts of illness and depression. Geng’s aunt Geng Gui-fang also served as Taipei city councilor. 

Hsu Chiao-hsin (center-right) posing with former president Ma Ying-Jeou of the KMT (center-left) in a campaign ad also showing off some of her campaign goods. Photo credit: Hsu Chiao-Hsin/Facebook

On the other hand, Hsu Chiao-hsin was one of the key leaders of the Grassroots Alliance, a youth group within the KMT that called for reform of the party in 2016, realizing that the KMT had lost the support of Taiwanese young people in the wake of the Sunflower Movement and 2016 elections—a call that young people from the opposite side of the political spectrum were not entirely lacking in sympathy for. It is rather surprising that the KMT would allow Hsu candidate this year, seeing as many KMT members accused members of the Grassroots Alliance of being turncoats infected by pan-Green ideology at that time. This perhaps reflects that the KMT does in fact hope to try and turn over a new leaf to attract young people, or is simply desperate to maintain what young leaders it still has within the party.

Other candidates who tried to secure KMT endorsement for city councilor have also tried to play up an image of being young people, even in cases when they may not have been so young. This was most infamous in the example of KMT candidate Wang Zhi-ya, who was mocked on the Internet for photoshopped campaign ads in which Wang’s appearance was heavily edited to appear younger, though this also obliquely points towards strong social pressure on female politicians to appear younger, something seen in as high-profile examples as former KMT chair Hung Hsiu-Chu, who normally wears a hairpiece to hide her thinning hairline.

Wang Zhi-ya (right), next to a heavily photoshopped campaign ad of hers. Photo credit: Wang Zhi-ya/Facebook

One generally observes that much advertising by the KMT during this campaign cycle has attempted to appeal to young people, pointing towards the KMT’s efforts in this regard. For one, that KMT candidates have taken to wearing t-shirts and sweaters with the party name and slogan “Lean In Together” in their campaign ads has been touted as emblematic of the youthful vitality of the party, with candidates of all ages wearing such t-shirts and sweaters. This is apparently with the view that college students frequently wear t-shirts and sweaters with the names of their university and various university symbols or slogans on them, which KMT sweaters are designed to imitate.

It is claimed by the KMT that these t-shirts and sweaters became popular for party members to wear such sweaters after former president and KMT chair Ma Ying-Jeou took to making public appearances wearing such sweaters, with these sweaters quickly being sold out online. This claim seems to indicate that the KMT wishes to generate the image of spontaneous, “viral”, Internet-based support much as Tsai Ing-wen or Third Force parties had going into 2016 elections. KMT Youth Corps members have also taken to wearing distinctive t-shirts and other KMT-branded goods are also currently on sale, such as KMT basketballs.

The top ten mascots in the KMT’s mascot contest. The two-faced, yellow chicken on the top left has been particularly popular. Photo credit: 國民黨青年部/Facebook

With Ma Ying-Jeou taking a more active role in party affairs since last year, that may indicate that Ma is a major force behind efforts by the KMT to appeal to young people. Of the KMT’s current slate of youth candidates, Hsu Chiao-hsin is a Ma protege, for example, Hsu having in the past year been recruited to serve as a spokesperson for Ma’s office, despite that in the past some in the KMT accused her of betraying Ma’s legacy as president through the formation of the Grassroots Alliance in the past. Ma also appears in many of the campaign ads of KMT youth candidates. For one, Ma may be highly cognizant of the power of Taiwanese young people, having been in power when the Sunflower Movement broke out, and having faced down the movement as its primary antagonist. Current KMT chair Wu Den-yih was a former Ma loyalist, and Ma may still hold some sway over him.

Yet it is also to be noted that KMT attempts to appeal to young people have misfired in many cases. A recent example would a contest by the KMT for Internet users to vote for a new mascot for the party, which has been popularly scoffed at because of the odd design choices of some of the mascots. Apart from the mascot contest becoming an object of popular mockery, animations by KMT Taipei mayoral candidate Ting Shou-Chung have also been widely made fun of. It seems wholly possible that the KMT will mistake online mockery for these mascots and animations as indicating that these efforts have been successful in reaching out to a younger demographic, however. Likewise, it may be amusing to note that this is not actually the only controversy about mascots in Taiwanese politics to have occurred in the past few weeks. 

Animated ad promoting KMT Taipei mayoral candidate Ting Shou-chung. Photo credit: 我是叮叮/Facebook

With the mascot contest, the KMT seems to be attempting to imitate the frequent Internet-based contests held by the Tsai campaign and Third Force parties in 2016, as well as the Tsai campaign and Third Force parties’ grasp of highly self-ironic Internet-based humor. Such contests were held by the Tsai campaign and Third Force parties as a way of outreaching with voters, having voters vote on everything from who should be potential political candidates, to what policy platforms should be, or simply what songs and artwork people felt were symbolic of Taiwan. And campaigning was conducted with a tone of levity and fun which was appealing to young people who may have in the past felt politics to be serious, dry, and not at all what young people would be able to participate in a spirit of youthful fun.

Most disastrous of all, however, and highly undermining of efforts to generate a youthful image for the party, would be a campaign ad by current KMT party chair Wu Den-Yih and former legislator and Taoyuan mayoral candidate Apollo Chen which became the object of numerous photoshopped meme spin-offs. These spin-offs made fun of that Wu and Apollo wore their pants high up in a grandfatherly fashion in the ad, pointing to their age. Moreover, the ad was scoffed at because it was so badly composed as that the “X” marking where Wu and Chen should stand in the picture was not edited out—even when the KMT remains Taiwan’s richest political party and should easily have the resources or know-how to do this. This ad did little for the KMT’s attempt to seem like a party in touch with the times, much less a party which has appeal for the young, despite attempts by Chen to try and brush off the incident rather unconvincingly by stating that he appreciated the creativity of young people and sharing several variations on the meme in a Facebook post which was later deleted.

The original campaign ad featuring Wu and Chen (top-left) and subsequent meme spin-offs of the ad. Photo credit: Apollo Chen/Huang Kuo-Chang/蕭瑩燈/難攻大士 難攻大/Facebook

This example continues the trend of poor campaign advertising by the KMT at crucial moments in the past several years, including during 2016 presidential elections. Similarly, the fact the KMT’s attempts to reach out to young people are imitative of Tsai Ing-Wen’s 2016 campaign and Third Force parties continues a broader pattern of attempts by pan-Blue actors to mimic the actions of their pan-Green counterparts in the hopes that this brings them similar success, as observed in anti-pension reform demonstrations.

Indeed, in 2018 elections, it could be that the KMT does better than expected among Taiwanese young people. That will be impossible to fully determine until elections take place. Polling is showing an increase in political independents in Taiwan at present, which could benefit either political camp. However, although there has been some fluctuation in terms of identity trends, certainly there has been no restoration of any exclusively Chinese identity which would move Taiwanese to vote KMT. Nevertheless, at least based on the present evidence, the KMT certainly does not appear to be doing a very good job of appealing to young people, instead showing not only how geriatric the party is and how it remains out of touch with contemporary realities.

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